close this bookTheoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development
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View the documentForeword
View the documentPreface
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentChapter 1:Why Theory?
View the documentChapter 2:Why Gender? Why Development?
View the documentChapter 3:Feminism and Development: Theoretical Perspectives
View the documentChapter 4:Feminist Theory and Development: Implications for Policy, Research, and Action
View the documentChapter 5:Alternative Approaches to Women and Development
View the documentChapter 6:The Women's Movement and Its Role in Development
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Chapter 2:Why Gender? Why Development?

Chapter 2

Why Gender? Why Development? Rhoda Reddock


This chapter introduces the concepts of gender and development and the factors that gave rise to their emergence. It also provides an explanation of the precolonial experience of so-called Third World people, especially with respect to gender relations and the experiences of women and men in social, political, and economic life. The discussion challenges simplistic characterizations and generalizations of precolonial societies and points to their rich diversity and difference.

This chapter provides a framework for considering alternative ways of perceiving human social and cultural development and organizing social, economic, and political life. It also provides information that challenges traditional monolithic assumptions about women and the sexual division of labour.


The objectives of this chapter are the following:

    To explore the evolution of the concepts of gender and development and to critically examine their underlying assumptions;

    To recognize the diversity of human experience and the alternative measures of value and standards for the assessment of progress and human achievement; and

    To provide a general historical understanding of the lives of Third World people before the institutionalization of development.


Why development?

In ordinary usage, development (a noun derived from the verb develop) implies movement from one level to another, usually with some increase in size, number, or quality of some sort. In the Penguin English Dictionary, the verb develop means “to unfold, bring out latent powers of; expand; strengthen; spread; grow; evolve; become more mature; show by degrees; explain more fully; elaborate; exploit the potentialities (of a site) by building, mining, etc.” (Penguin 1977).

For our purposes, these meanings of development apply to human societies. The usage of the word in this context was popularized in the post-World War II period to describe the process through which countries and societies outside North America and Europe (many of them former colonial territories) were to be transformed into modern, developed nations from what their colonizers saw as backward, primitive, underdeveloped societies (see Box 1).

Box 1


Colonialism refers in general to the extension of the power of a state through the acquisition, usually by conquest, of other territories; the subjugation of the inhabitants to a rule imposed by force; and the financial and economic exploitation of the inhabitants to the advantage of the colonial power.

Characteristic of this form was the maintenance of a sharp and fundamental distinction (often expressed in law as well as in fact) between the ruling nation and the subordinate (colonial) populations. This led to entrenched forms of racism. In the modern period, that is, since 1492, colonial powers initially included the Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Later, other European states also became involved, such as the Belgians and Germans. In the 20th century, the United States, too, became a colonial power.

It is necessary to differentiate between settler colonialism and nonsettler colonialism. In the case of the United Kingdom, for example, special status of dominion (or protectorate) was given to settler colonies, such as Australia, Canada, the Irish Free States, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia, and the Union of South Africa, which had large communities of European migrants. They were usually self-governing territories of the British empire. Protectorate was used to refer to territories governed by a colonial power although not formally annexed by it.

In these areas also, including the United States, internal colonialism is often used to describe the relationship between the settlers and the native or indigenous people and minorities. Although other forms of domination and hegemony have existed in human history, this chapter concentrates on the specific form of European colonization and colonial domination that has taken place since the 16th century.

Source: Fontana (1988)

Which were these societies?

These areas comprised most of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Pacific region, and South and Central America. Today, this grouping includes former colonial, largely but not totally tropical, countries, peopled mainly by non-Europeans. It is usually referred to as the Third World, underdeveloped countries, developing countries, and, more recently, the South or the economic South.

Although it would be helpful to have one term to designate all of these countries, none of the above terms is really adequate. All are based on assumptions that we should be aware of when we use them. They are an improvement, however, on the terms first used in development writing, such as backward or economically backward countries.

It is important to note that before European colonial domination, many societies had already felt the impact of other dominating forces. For example, in North Africa the spread of the Islamic influence wrought great changes in the lifestyle of the native people — so much so that, now, some people hardly have any memory of a pre-Islamic past. In India, the spread of Hinduism over the continent had a similar, although more varied, impact. In some instances, the colonizers entered countries already controlled by well-established, stratified, patriarchal structures and introduced yet another controlling force into women’s lives.

In this chapter, I briefly explore each of these concepts and the contexts within which they arose.

Underdeveloped-developing countries

The concept of underdeveloped-developing countries emerged as part of the work of early development economists in the 1950s, who theorized very simplistically about the stages of development that societies had to pass through to become “developed,” or “modern.” These concepts sought to encompass all of the countries and areas to which I referred earlier, ignoring the vast differences among them. In addition, the history of Western industrialized countries was used as a broad model for the process through which all societies were to pass.

These development economists coined the following triad:

Underdeveloped » Developing » Developed

Around the 1960s, with nationalist sentiments becoming vocal, the term less developed was added, as it was considered less pejorative than underdeveloped. This approach is sometimes critically referred to as developmentalism.

Not much later, a school of mainly sociologists and political scientists emerged. They were eventually referred to as modernization theorists because they described this process as one of becoming modern. They, too, developed a triad:

Traditional » Transitional » Modern

In the words of Shyama Charan Dube,

Modernity may be understood as the common behaviourial system historically associated with the urban, industrial, literate, and participant societies of Western Europe and North America. The system is characterised by a rational and scientific world view, growth and ever-increasing application of science and technology, together with continuous adaptation of the institutions of society to the imperatives of the new world view and the emerging technological ethos.

 — Dube (1988, p. 17)

One of the main features common to these two approaches is that they equated development (or modernity) with industrialization. Industrialization and its companion, urbanization (the emergence of towns and cities), were considered the only ways for backward societies to become modern, or developed. Progress and advancement were also seen in this light.

There was little appreciation of the social, cultural, economic, or political attributes of non-Western societies. Indeed, these approaches accepted to a large degree the colonial feeling of superiority over indigenous peoples, many of whom were decimated, robbed of their land, or confined to reservations or territories (for example, in Australia, Canada, and the United States), or marginalized and forced to flee into the mountains (for example, in parts of Asia and most of South and Central America) (see Box 2).

Box 2

Staying alive

Thus are economies based on indigenous technologies viewed as “backward” and “unproductive.” Poverty, as the denial of basic needs, is not necessarily associated with the existence of traditional technologies, and its removal is not necessarily an outcome of the growth of modern ones. On the contrary, the destruction of ecologically sound traditional technologies, often created and used by women, along with the destruction of their material base is generally believed to be responsible for the “feminisation” of poverty in societies which have had to bear the costs of resource destruction.

— Shiva (1988, p. 12)


Exercise 1

Indigenous technologies

    What does the author mean by “indigenous technologies”?
    Give examples of indigenous technologies used in your society today by



These approaches also had little to say about women. Women were largely linked to the traditional and backward aspects of these societies and most resistant to change. Because the theorists used traditional in such a general sense, with little recourse to history or social anthropology, they little realized the diversity in women and men’s relations, in modes of domestic and family organization, or in social, economic, and political life.

Third World

“Third World” is the English translation of le tiers monde, developed in France in the 1950s. It emerged with the heightened anticolonial consciousness that arose with the coming of the new nation-states in Africa and Asia. This was also a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union – Eastern Europe was dividing the world along ideological and geopolitical lines.

In this context, the newly independent states of Africa and Asia (including Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria), as well as Yugoslavia, met in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955. They adopted the position of nonalignment with either camp, arguing the need for a third, alternative world grouping. The term Third World was adopted by many of these countries to differentiate themselves from the First World (the North Atlantic capitalist world, or the world of advanced market economies) and the Second World (the centrally planned economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union). The Third World consisted of all other nations — usually in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and South and Central America, including the centrally planned economies in these areas.

One of the main criticisms of the concept of the Third World has been that it suggests a hierarchy of nations. Some people argue that to accept third place is to accept a lower status in the world order. The people who coined the phrase probably never considered this but simply saw Third World as an alternative to the two main options their countries were being pushed to accept, options that, as history would show, they would eventually agree to.


North–South became a popular term around 1980, after the publication of the report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, popularly known as the Brandt Commission because it was led by the late Willy Brandt, former Chancellor of West Germany (see Brandt 1980). According to one source,

The expression was selected by the Commission to emphasize the economic divide between the North (rich nations) and the South (poor nations) and to highlight the presumed desirability of a North–South dialogue grounded in a common concern for global problems and freed from the complications of East–West political interests.

— Hulme (1990, p. 8)

This division, like many associated with relations of power, is geographically incorrect. Some countries in the South are neither low income nor not former colonial countries; likewise, some economies and conditions of life in the North, such as can be found in Eastern and Southern Europe, have little in common with the leading industrialized capitalist economies of the North. For some, this terminology reflects global restructuring and the changes taking place in the global economy. Economic South was a term coined to further delineate this grouping in economic and political terms, rather than in purely geographic ones.

Development today

The heyday of developmentalism — in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s — fostered some strong beliefs, such as

    That state or government should play the central determining role in introducing development policies and strategies that could lead to improved standards of living and conditions of life; and

    That international investment, loans, and aid can redirect economies away from their traditional bases — usually in agriculture — toward industry and manufacture.

Today, although much of this sentiment has changed, much has remained the same. The dominant thinking in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been that the state has a leading, but only facilitating, role in the economy. Development is now seen as the responsibility of private companies and, increasingly, private nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In addition, the market is seen as the main arbiter of decision-making.

This approach is based on the renewed influence of liberal economic thinking (now called neoliberal economics), which has affected international economic policy and development thinking. All this has taken place within the context of a Third World debt crisis, within which economic restructuring and structural-adjustment policies are advocated as mechanisms for generating income to repay debt. Such thinking has become reality through the conditions on the stabilization and structural-adjustment loans offered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) to countries facing balance-of-payments difficulties.

The IMF and the World Bank were established in 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the United States. At this meeting, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States set up a system to facilitate the reconstruction of Western Europe after World War II. The main purpose of the new organizations was to provide a basis for monetary and currency stability for increased trade and expansion of these economies. This was to be accomplished by providing financial support during periods of balance-of-payments difficulties, that is, when imports exceeded exports. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was later added, and, according to Dennis Pantin, each of these institutions would play a complementary role in the management of a world economy that did not restrict the movement of goods, services, and money (Pantin 1989).

Since the emergence of the new nation-states in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific in the 1950s and 1960s, the Bretton Woods Agreement has widened in scope. As a result of the current trend in monetarist, or neoliberal, economics, the role of this agreement has expanded. The IMF provides short-term stabilization assistance to countries with balance-of-payments difficulties, on condition that they implement certain fiscal and monetary policies. The World Bank, on the other hand, is more concerned with long-term adjustment through restructuring of host economies along fixed lines. Its policies can be summarized as follows (Blackden 1993):

    Stabilization or reduction of budget or balance-of-payments deficits, reduction of budget deficits or freezes in public-sector employment, cutbacks in public-sector investment, removal of public-sector subsidies (usually away from the agriculture and social sector to the private commercial sector), and tax reform;

    Promotion of the private sector through contracting of public services, sale of state enterprises, and deregulation;

    Market liberalization and price reforms, in which the local market is opened to greater foreign and domestic competition; exchange-rate liberalization, usually devaluations or floatation of local currency to encourage exports; and removal of price controls and supports to local industry; and

    Rationalization of public-sector institutions, including civil-service (public-sector) reform, privatization of state enterprises, and reform of the social sector to make it cost-effective.

Aspects of these neoliberal policies have also been implemented since the 1980s in Northern countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and, more recently, in continental Europe. Additionally, many governments have implemented economic-adjustment programs without being involved in an IMF or World Bank program.

In the Third World, these programs have been severely criticized for the following reasons:

    They are not tailored to the particular needs of individual economies;

    They contribute to major declines in standards of living, including nutritional levels, educational standards, employment rates, and access to social-support systems;

    They shift more of the responsibility for health care, education, and care of the sick and elderly to women already burdened by unpaid work;

    They increase social ills, such as violent crime, drug abuse, and violence against women; and

    They result in increased levels of migration (legal and illegal) from the South to the North.

Sustainable development

In many parts of the North and South, women’s organizations and NGOs are involved in developing sustainable and economically feasible alternatives to these neoliberal policies of structural adjustment.

The term sustainable development came into popular use after the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Brundtland Report and the Brundtland Commission, respectively. The report was largely a response to the growing international environmental and ecological lobby. It defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, p. 43). According to Donald Brooks (1990), the paradigm, or worldview, emerging around this concept recognized the need to ensure and facilitate the following:

    Integration of conservation and development;

    Maintenance of ecological integrity;

    Satisfaction of basic human needs (see Chapter 3);

    Achievement of equity and social justice; and

    Provision of social self-determination and cultural diversity.

This comprehensive approach does not reflect all approaches to sustainable development. Some economists, for example, speak of “sustainable growth.” Critics agree, however, that economic growth (that is, continuous increase in the quantity of economic production) cannot be sustained indefinitely, given the renewable and nonrenewable resources of the planet. Nevertheless, a more equitable distribution of existing resources could lead to improvements in the quality of life.

Feminist activists have been central to the movement against environmental degradation and for sustainability right from the movement’s inception. They have also often gone beyond the narrower definitions of the issues to include the struggle for peace and the struggle against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Whereas most of the discussions on sustainable development have taken place within the context of mainstream development economics, feminist activists have for the most part seen sustainable development as part of a larger alternative model of development or societal transformation.

Kamla Bhasin [1993] identified the following components of sustainable development:

    It must be in harmony with nature (if nature is to sustain us, we must sustain nature);

    It must be people centred and oriented (people have to be seen as the subjects, not the objects, of development);

    It must be women centred (recognizing the responsibility that women have always assumed for catering to the basic needs of society);

    It must cater to the needs of the majority (consumption levels of the rich and industrialized world must be reduced);

    There must be decentralization of decision-making and control over resources within countries and internationally;

    Democracy must become more participatory and direct, unleashing the latent energies of the people; and

    At every level, sustainable development must promote the politics of peace, nonviolence, and respect for life.

In short, sustainable development for many feminists from the South and North implies a new kind of political, economic, social, and cultural system and a new value orientation.

The women’s challenge to modernization and development


The seeds of the women-and-development concept (a broad-based term that includes a number of approaches to women’s development; see below) were planted during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, 50 countries were freed from colonialism, and the women who had participated in independence movements acted on their convictions that they must join with men in building these new nations. For example, at the beginning of the 1960s, women of East African countries, led by Margaret Kenyatta, met at seminars to adopt strategies aimed at reaching their goals. This was at a time when the revived feminist movement in the North had not yet found a distinct voice and The Feminine Mystique (Friedan 1963), the book that some credit with signaling the revival of feminism and launching the women’s liberation movement in Northern countries, had not yet been written.

Before that time, in 1947, just 2 years after the formation of the United Nations, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was established to monitor United Nations activities on behalf of women. To a large extent, however, its efforts were limited within the legalistic context of human rights. By the 1950s and 1960s, women of these newly independent countries began taking their delegations to the United Nations (though in small numbers) and were able to challenge the legalistic agenda of CSW by raising development-oriented issues.

By 1970, when the United Nations General Assembly reviewed the results of the First Development Decade of the 1960s, three factors that would eventually converge to foster the various approaches to women’s development had become evident:

    It was found that the industrialization strategies of the 1960s had been ineffective and had, in fact, worsened the lives of the poor and the women in Third World countries. The Second Development Decade was therefore designed to address this and “bring about sustainable” improvement in the well-being of individuals and bestow benefits on all.

    Evidence was brought forward in Ester Boserup’s (1970) now classic Women’s Role in Economic Development. Boserup, an agricultural economist, used research data from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America to highlight women’s central positions in the economic life of these societies, and she described the disruptive effects of colonialism and modernization on the sexual division of labour through the introduction of the international market economy. Among other things, this process drew men away from production based on family labour and gave them near-exclusive access to economic and other resources. Boserup concluded that the economic survival and development of the Third World would depend heavily on efforts to reverse this trend and to more fully integrate women into the development process.

    The feminist movement reemerged in Western countries around 1968, alongside other social movements for civil rights. Although the movement’s energies were, for the most part, directed internally, some Western women used their position to pressure their government’s foreign-aid offices to ensure that grants to recipient countries supported women as well as men.

The central point of the original women-and-development approach was that both women and men must be lifted from poverty and both women and men must contribute to and benefit from development efforts. Margaret Snyder and Mary Tadesse, in their book, African Women and Development: A History, defined women and development as follows:

“Women and Development” is an inclusive term used throughout this book to signify a concept and a movement whose long-range goal is the well-being of society — the community of men, women and children. Its formulation is based on the following suppositions:

    “Development,” in accordance with the International Development Strategy for the Second Development Decade, means “to bring about sustained improvement in the well-being of the individual and to bestow benefits on all.”

    Because women comprise more than half of the human resources and are central to the economic as well as the social well-being of societies, development goals cannot be fully reached without their participation.

    Women and development is thus a holistic concept wherein the goal of one cannot be achieved without the success of the other.

    Women, therefore, must have “both the legal right and access to existing means for the improvement of oneself and of society.”

 — Snyder and Tadesse (1995, p. 6)

International Women’s Year was declared by the United Nations in 1975, and the celebration of this at the First International Women’s Conference in Mexico City marked the globalization of the movement. This unique intergovernmental conference and the nongovernmental International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC), a networking and communications institution, brought together women from nearly all countries of the world under the theme Equality, Development and Peace and extended its work during the United Nations Decade for Women, 1976–85. This sparked the creation of institutions and networks worldwide as “women and development” became an area of specialization in the development field.

The United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women (later called the United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the International Training and Research Centre for Women were soon established within the United Nations system. IWTC and the Women’s World Bank, a loan-guaranteeing organization, came into existence as NGOs. At the national level, “national machineries” — commissions on women, women’s desks, and women’s bureaus — were soon established in most countries. New women’s organizations and networks sprang up at the community and national levels. These contributed to the institutionalization of women and development as an internationally recognized set of concepts and did much to generalize knowledge and consciousness about women’s issues internationally.

Exercise 2

National machineries for women

Visit the national machinery for women’s affairs in your country. It may be a women’s desk, a women’s bureau, or a ministry of women’s affairs. Write a short history of its emergence and analyze its interpretation of the term women and development.


Why gender?

The concern with gender emerged as feminist theorists sought to understand the complexities of women’s subordination. The word gender came into mainly academic use some 15 years after the reemergence of late-20th-century feminism, which has, unlike its earlier manifestations, made a significant dent in male-dominated (androcentric) scholarship (at least, I like to think so).

Feminist scholars argued that the Western academic tradition, of which most universities and colleges in the world are part, has systematically ignored the experiences of women in its fields of learning, concepts, theories, and research methods. Additionally, although claiming to be scientific, it has really embodied mythical assumptions about women’s and men’s capabilities, the sexual division of labour in early human history, and, as a result, women’s place in today’s society. These assumptions were extended to non-Western societies, with the result that Western assumptions and values influenced relations between the sexes and between groups within each sex, relations that ranged from egalitarian to highly patriarchal and stratified.

The word gender, like development, had a specific usage before feminist theorists extended its meaning. One of the earliest uses of gender in feminist theory can be traced to the 1976 University of Sussex Workshop on the Subordination of Women and the school of thought that emerged from this workshop. Scholars such as Olivia Harris, Maureen Mackintosh, Felicity Odlum, Ann Whitehead, and Kate Young argued that women, like men, are biological beings but that women’s subordination was socially constructed and not biologically determined. They argued further that to conceptually differentiate between these two realities, it is necessary to identify “sex” as the biological differentiation between male and female, and “gender” as the differentiation between masculinity and femininity as constructed through socialization and education, among other factors. What is biological is fixed and unchangeable, but what is social is subject to change and should be the focus of attention for feminist theorists.

In its more recent use, as you will see in Chapter 3, gender has come to be used, like class and ethnicityor race, to designate an analytical social category, one that interacts with other social factors in influencing life experiences of groups and individuals (see Box 3).

Box 3

The social relations of gender

Firstly, what is gender? It is somewhat ironic that the term “gender,” which was first coined by psychologists and then used by feminists to get away from the biologistic referent of the word sex, is now virtually synonymous with the latter word. Yet by using gender we are using a shorthand term which encodes a very crucial point: that our basic social identities as men and women are socially constructed rather than based on fixed biological characteristics. In this sense we can talk about societies in which there are more than two genders (and in the anthropological record there are several such societies), as well as the historical differences in masculinity (femininity) in a given society.

— Young (1988, p. 98)


Since that time this concept has gained widespread acceptance in a range of groups and often for different reasons. Some of these reasons are as follows:

    The need to include men in our analysis:

    Those who worried that women’s studies scholarship focused too narrowly and separately on women used the term … to introduce a relational notion into our analytic vocabulary.

    — Scott (1989, p. 16) 

    To gain academic acceptance:

    In its simplest recent usage, “gender” is a synonym for “women.” Any number of books and articles whose subject is women’s history have in the past few years substituted “gender” for “women” in their titles. In some cases this usage … is about political acceptability in the field. In these instances, the use of “gender” is meant to denote scholarly seriousness of a work, for “gender” has a more neutral and objective sound than does “women.”

    — Scott (1989, p. 16)

Recently, the phrase “women in development” (WID) is also being replaced in some circles by “gender and development” (GAD) or “gender concerns in development” (GCID) The details of these approaches will be dealt with in more explicitly in Chapter 3.

Today, however, two types of critiques have emerged in relation to the concept of gender. One of these comes from a movement perspective. As noted by Joan W. Scott, gender has become a useful and almost inescapable concept in women’s studies and feminist theory (Scott 1989). Many people in the women’s movement fear, however, that this is leading to a situation in which women are once more invisible. They note that the fields of WID, GAD, GCID, feminist theory, and women’s studies all owe their origins to the women’s movement and the struggles of women in the streets, towns, villages, and academies. Yet, today, with the growing acceptance of academic women’s studies and gender specialists, the concern with the day-to-day problems and struggles of women and the movement is being marginalized and, indeed, no longer even acknowledged.

The other critique comes from a theoretical perspective. It is now being found that

    The divisions between male and female are not as fixed and clear cut as once thought — the male–female dichotomy is seen as being just as problematic as other dichotomies in Western thought; and

    It is not so simple to extricate what


Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development

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