Insights and Analysis

The Stubborn Persistence of Gender Inequality

April 1, 2015

By George Varughese, Bernardo Michael, and Sumina Karki

Despite the swelling mantra of women’s empowerment, and the proliferation of gender-sensitive approaches in aid program descriptions, the snail-like advancement of women in developing countries continues to indict our best efforts. Microfinance programs, reserved seats for women in parliament, and a raft of developmental activities focused on women have become part of the fabric of poverty alleviation and democratic governance programs, but there has been a frustrating lack of durable progress using current approaches.

Men sit down inside Durbah Square in Bhaktapur while watching a traditional dance. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The number of programs working with men on issues related to women’s empowerment is increasing. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

In South Asia, women’s representation in parliament ranges from a high of 30 percent in Nepal to a low of under six percent in Sri Lanka. But the current, supposedly high representation of women in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) does not equate to substantive participation in decision-making. Women politicians have frequently complained that the numbers are mere tokenism and that their opinions are largely discounted. For example, the CA actually changed the existing constitutional citizenship provision to make it more regressive, in effect denying women the right to pass on citizenship to their children, at precisely the time when the CA had the highest representation of women, and despite heavy opposition from women parliamentarians.

Programs that push for a specific percentage of female participation overlook a deeper, structural cause of the feminization of poverty and the underrepresentation of women in public life. Reserving seats puts more women in elected bodies, but it does not always address the more profound barriers to women accessing and using power.

Development professionals have been paying more attention to how men figure in all of this. The number of programs working with men on issues related to women’s empowerment is increasing. In Nepal, gender training was limited to women until the late 1990s. Now, most development organizations and programs, and even their government counterparts, “mainstream” gender training to both men and women. The Asia Foundation provides similar training programs targeting male and female politicians, bureaucrats, police, and community mediators. A favorite is the training for men addressing violence against women (VAW). On March 23, 2015, there was a rally of Nepali men in Kathmandu to show solidarity against VAW.

Thus, an attempt is being made to acknowledge the male factor, and a related term, “masculinity,” is now becoming part of the vocabulary of development. “Masculine” and “feminine” are socially constructed, porous categories, and the advantages men enjoy over women emerge from roles, stereotypes, and attitudes foisted upon both through the process of socialization. Over millennia, this process has created an all-encompassing order among men and women that overtly or subliminally affects every decision and deliberation of the individual, the community, and the nation-state. Acknowledging the need to change this order is an initial small step toward the elusive goal of equality within the human community.

Indeed, the voices of men are critical: men who are sensitive to the power and privilege they have enjoyed should question their complicity in the creation and perpetuation of a male-dominated world. For far too long, men have enjoyed advantages over women in education systems, workplaces, the media, politics, and religious discourse. These advantages are rarely acknowledged by men. More significantly, the inequitable access to resources and power is entrenched in our upbringing and socialization. The taken-for-granted privileges that have allowed men to subordinate women are inculcated at a very early age in the family, at school, and in almost every dimension of daily life.

Current gender constructs do not give men the opportunity to look beyond their pre-defined roles as “providers” to address the growing aspiration among many to lead more creative and nurturing lives. Merely raising men’s awareness of gender issues cannot dismantle these deeply instilled values and instinctive actions. Gender sensitivity training, readings in feminist theory, or the pursuit of equity and inclusion are necessary but insufficient for bringing about institutional and personal transformation. Men must confront their privilege head-on rather than succumb to defensiveness, guilt, or silence, and this will come at a cost, entailing shock, grief, and loss, as men embark on the journey of giving up long-enjoyed privileges in order to recover themselves.

If men’s voices are critical, even more so are men’s choices and actions. This could begin with something as simple as committing to send daughters to school, or considering feminine needs when constructing places of residence, study, work, and worship. Or it could be something quite difficult, such as surrendering the desire to control women or adjudicate what constitutes a family’s and a community’s sense of honor.

The costs in all these decisions range from financial and social to cultural and political. But we have to begin at the beginning with socialization, and the change has to be manifested perceptibly in how a community progresses. What if programs in all these years of development aid had focused on developing capacities in men that would help them to change their choices and actions? Would Nepal’s much-hyped and long-awaited peace dividend have had a better chance, for example? Would the morally bankrupt and politically hypocritical issue of citizenship have been consigned to the dustbin of an ignorant past? Would we have elected representatives in the countries of South Asia who were more concerned with the public interest than populist enthusiasms? Would we have a constitution of, by, and for the people of Nepal?

Clearly, we need fresh thinking on strategies and interventions that strengthen men’s will to change – not to cater to political correctness, nor even because we need our fellow humans to be our equals, but because we need this change to understand how male privilege prevents us from being whole human beings, and to then begin the long journey to a meaningful, shared existence. Until we do, equality and justice, especially for women, will remain captive to narrowly defined concepts of development and social well-being.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Nepal, Bernardo Michael is a professor of history at Messiah College, and Sumina Karki is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Nepal office. They can be reached through [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

1 Comment

  1. Very well written article.

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