Women in Zambia are severely disadvantaged in employment and education, work predominantly within the informal economy, and are low-skilled and economically disenfranchised.
This is not a new story. Women across the world continue to experience vast levels of gender disparity and are victims to seemingly endless cycles that reinforce the status quo. The development community has increasingly attempted to address the problem of inequality from a gender lens, emerging originally in 1970s and gaining further momentum at the Fourth UN Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995. In particular, the Women in Development and Gender and Development models adopted since the 1970s have collectively played a critical role in advancing gender-aware development in many ways including: economic empowerment, outlining new gender roles, ensuring women’s ownership rights, and addressing gaps in social services. The 1990s also popularized the use of the phrase “feminization of poverty” which has today come to denote the monetary deprivation of women. In spite of this, however, the term feminization of poverty has helped underline the point that poverty is, as Sylvia Chant describes, “a gendered experience”.
While this is all well and good, amplified focus upon women’s issues has fallen prey to a common criticism of gender-blind development: it has been too myopic. At some point along the line, “gender” became synonymous with “female”. More importantly, this notion remains largely unquestioned. As Chant points out, there is little empirical evidence to support the claim that women are on average poorer than their male counterparts in any systematic manner, yet since the 1990s there have been “categorical pronouncements that female-headed households [are] the ‘poorest of the poor.’” While it has been easy to draw a causal relationship between poverty and the status of women, an exclusive woman-centric development strategy brings up the question: what about the men?
The status of women is intrinsically linked to the economic empowerment of their male counterparts. Take the US recession as an example. More men than women lost their jobs, and domestic violence rates spiked during that same period. Importantly, this phenomenon has no geographic, social or cultural bounds, and is manifested time and again as an unintended consequence of a female empowerment strategy that leaves the men behind. Failing to address this reality within a development framework is a huge mistake.
My point is this: the structural causes of inequity are more often than not gender-blind. The goal of development should be to change the power relations that objectify and subjugate people, both men and women. Gender issues are sometimes women’s issues, but are often just people issues. While poverty is a gendered experience, it is above all else, an experience of powerlessness. Programs that attempt to be more gender-aware would do well by shifting away from strictly-defined Westernized versions of feminist ideology and by giving voice to a broader segment of the population and not merely to one faction of the powerless.