Gender & Development

Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • identify and describe gender inequalities apparent in the developing world
  • outline and assess sociological explanations of the role of women in the Third World


Gender inequalities in the developing world
Women make up 50% of the world’s population yet they generally occupy subordinate positions compared with men. For example, women only own 1% of the world’s property. In the LDCs women do 50–60% of all agricultural work and 50% of animal husbandry. They are the main providers of food as well as primarily responsible for children and housekeeping. In LDCs three out of five women are illiterate.

Moreover, women tend to lack reproductive rights in LDCs – they do not exercise power over decisions to have children, when to have them, how many to have, whether to use contraception or access to abortion. All these decisions are controlled by men. This has two major implications for women in LDCs. It ties them firmly to household responsibilities by denying them economic independence. It also has a negative effect upon health. In the LDCs women do not live as long as men. They are more likely than Western women to die in childbirth.

Modernisation theory and gender
Modernisation theory sees women’s oppression in the LDCs as caused by patriarchal cultural factors. For example, the extended family and tribal system which are common in some LDCs stress the importance of ascription rather than achievement. Men are viewed as having natural authority and are therefore seen as the head of the household.

Modernisation theory argues that such pressures result in high population which hinders development. Their solution is the introduction of meritocratic education systems to replace ascription. It is argued that women should be given educational opportunities whilst Rostow argued that MNC investment in the LDCs should aim at providing employment primarily for women. Moreover modernisation theory encourages health education and specifically family planning to reduce population growth and to improve both womens’ life expectancy and their independence from men.

Feminist explanations of gender inequality
However, feminists working from a dependency theory position are critical of these ideas.

  • First, feminists point out that a great deal of gender inequality in the LDCs is the product of colonialism. When the colonial powers conquered these territories they brought with them and imposed Western values about males and females, especially the idea that males should be breadwinners and females should be primarily mothers and housewives.
  • Second, Deere and Van Allen argue that female labour has been exploited by MNCs because women are seen to be cheap, willing to work long hoursand suited to monotonous unskilled work. MNCs see women as ‘pliable and docile’ and know that they will put up with lower wages because they are used to occupying a subordinate position in those societies.
  • Third, Leonard criticises official aid because it is not gender-neutral. Western aid experts often arrive in LDCs with Western patriarchal prejudices. For example, science and technology is regarded as men’s work and consequently men are the main recipients of aid programmes in this field.

However, dependency theory has also been criticised for implying that socialism is the answer to women’s problems in the LDCs. Ellwood points out that in the old USSR ‘women could fly into space but they still had to do the ironing when they got home again’. Foster-Carter suggests that we should acknowledge that women’s oppression is a global fact because although Western women are better off than LDC women they still remain subordinate to men and Western societies are still predominately patriarchal.