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Challenging misassumptions behind policymaking: “Being gender aware promotes gender equality”


Graphic of three women with two quotes in bubbles: "Our programme is gender aware!" and "We are targeting women"

In the run up to International Women’s Day 2022, we asked members of our team and Development Pathways collaborators to take a gender-based assumption behind decisionmaking in social policy and to challenge it.

In this edition Maxine Molyneux, Professor of Sociology at University College London, debunks the notion that “Being gender aware promotes gender equality”

Gender awareness and gender sensitivity are fuzzy concepts – their meanings are unclear, and yet they are commonly used to signal a virtuous conformity with progressive values, implying  commitments to gender equality. Some cash transfer programmes claim to be gender aware in targeting women as recipients of the transfer, and in recognising their value as mothers, uniquely placed to meet the needs of their children. Yet being ‘gender aware’ in this sense can too easily mean ‘making use of women’ to fulfil project goals while at the same time bypassing their needs.

Most cash transfer programmes are focused on mothers, both as recipients of the cash and as primary carers of children.  Some aim to promote good childcare practices and provide training sessions to mothers in infant and child health. In Latin America the cash transfers received are conditional on ensuring that children regularly attend school and health clinics, with often burdensome and time consuming verification requirements which assume that women have no other work to do. Here ‘gender aware’ programming decisions turn out to be doing little more than reinforcing unequal gender norms and responsibilities that often act to the detriment of women and children. 

A more comprehensive definition of gender awareness would recognise that gender implies a set of social relations in which both men and women are involved, and which are governed by norms that tend to situate men in positions of power and advantage over women and children. Rather than associating  childcare exclusively with mothers and sidelining men from active parenting, why not include men in training sessions about child nutrition and health, as well as in discussions of gender based violence? This would help to make fathers better parents and better partners. 

To advance equality goals, more transformative approaches are required to challenge the gendered divisions of labour and power in the domestic sphere, rather than reinforcing unequal gender norms, including those to do with gender divisions of care. 

Professor Maxine Molyneux is a long-term collaborator of Development Pathways in the fields of gender and social protection.

The responsibility for the opinions expressed in this article rests solely with its author, and publication does not constitute an endorsement by the organisations to which they are affiliated.