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Addressing Rural Gender Issues: A Framework for Leadership and Mobilisation

4. Recognising a Gender Issue
If we are to understand where gender issues are important in a rural development programme, we first need to be able to recognize and analyse a gender issue. There is a pervasive misconception that gender issues in development are merely a matter of understanding the gender division of labour, and the gender division in social location and access to resources, so that a new development programme can properly 'fit' into the existing society, without upsetting the existing social order.

This is a very conservative and inadequate perspective. It is inadequate because the existing 'pattern of gender relations' includes much injustice and discrimination which stand in the way of programme success. For instance gender gaps and discrimination in access to land cannot be accepted as a given, but needs to be tackled if problems of poverty and starvation are to be overcome.

Furthermore, a rural development programme must not focus narrowly on technical objectives such as food production, but must also tackle wider social and political issues. Discrimination against women, even if not interfering with efficient food production, remains unacceptable. Development is also about social justice, and therefore rural development programmes must follow principles of human rights. More specifically, in the area of gender, development programmes must follow the principles of equal rights for women as enshrined in UN Conventions, as well as in the development agency's own gender policy.

With this situation in mind, it is useful to categorize gender problems according to their level of severity, so that we can be very clear about how we recognise a gender issue. Here it is suggested that the following list is useful:

Levels of Severity of Gender Problems

General Development Needs
Women's Special Needs
Gender Concerns
Gender Inequality
Gender Issues

General Development Needs are here defined as those needs which affect women and men equally, so there is no sex or gender difference. This is the zero level for seriousness of gender problems. It is often claimed that such matters as the need for roads, transport, or water are general development needs. But given the severe gender differentiation and division of social and economic roles in most societies, it is doubtful whether any needs, with the possible exception of the need for air, can properly be put in the category of a general development need. Nonetheless, it may be said that some needs are more general than others, where gender differentiation and discrimination are less severe. For example, perhaps roads are more of a general need, by comparison with land. In Africa, access to land is an area where women have a much greater need, being the majority amongst farmers and food producers, but at the same time this is an area where women are severely discriminated against.

Women' Special Needs are here defined as those needs that arise from biological or sex differences. Of course these may be serious problems in the general sense, but they are not in themselves gender problems. Obvious examples are the need for maternity hospitals, ante-natal care facilities, and so on. But most childcare facilities are not in this category, because women's childcare responsibilities arise mostly from the gender division of labour rather than biologically given roles. (Of course gender problems may arise out of women's special needs, for instance where male control of the government budget leads to lack of funding for maternity hospitals).

Gender Concerns are those needs which arise because of the gender division of economic and social roles. Therefore examples of women's gender concerns arise from their more domestic location and their concern with child care and food production and preparation. Typically, too, women are more dependent on the natural environment, and with gathering of food and medicines from natural vegetation or forests. For this reason, too, women and men have a very different perspective on development problems, as well as a different identification of problems that need to be addressed. A development programme may adjust to gender concerns. But gender issues need to be addressed.

Gender Inequality is a more severe type of gender problem, because here the gender concern is also overlaid with gender inequality, typically because women have less access to facilities, opportunities and resources. Because of this inequality in present systems of allocation, women have a greater need. Gender equality is here defined as a gender concern which also brings with it inequality in allocations and opportunities.

A Gender Issue arises when people recognise that a particular instance of inequality is wrong, unacceptable and unjust. This realisation is more likely where the gender gap is large, and where women are aware of their democratic and human rights. (It needs hardly be said that in the very patriarchal states of Africa, most gender injustice is perpetrated against women, rather than the other way round.). Of course, from a purely moral standpoint, it might be said that gender inequality is always unjust, and therefore an issue. But at the same time, it is difficult in political practice to make an issue of gender inequality if there is not a wide perception that this inequality is unjust.

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