Gender and Development: basic concepts

Papuan women participants at community workshop, Bintuni, 2012 (DTE)

DTE 99-100, October 2014

Gender is a complex variable that is a part of social, cultural, economic and political contexts. It is also relevant for the work of civil society movements. Gender refers to socially constructed differences between men and women, whereas Sex refers to biological differences between men and women. Being socially constructed, gender differences vary depending on age, marital status, religion, ethnicity, culture, race, class/caste and so on. Sexual differences vary little across these variables.

Development analysts have recognized now for several decades the need to ensure that gender is examined and integrated into development projects.  In integrating gender into development, practitioners are responding to the priority needs of women and men, and being aware of what benefits or adverse effects could impact either.

Why is Gender Relevant for Development?

In taking account of gender, development practitioners and social movement activists are looking at disparities that exist in male and female rights, responsibilities, access to and control over resources, and voice at household, community and national levels. Men and women often have different priorities, constraints and preferences with respect to development and can contribute to, and be affected differently by, development projects and campaigning interventions. To enhance effectiveness, these considerations must be addressed in all program and campaign design and interventions. If such considerations are not addressed thoughtfully and adequately, these interventions can lead not only to inefficient and unsustainable results, but may also exacerbate existing inequities. Understanding gender issues can enable projects to take account of these and build in capacity to deal with inequitable impacts and to ensure sustainability.

When we talk about Gender Equality, we are referring to a combination of legal equality and equal opportunities including opportunities to speak out. More often, this is about making better opportunities in all of these areas for women. 

Women’s rights are protected by many international instruments and laws. The best known is probably the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1979) – a UN Treaty  adopted by the General Assembly  in 1979 and signed initially by 64 states in July the following year.  An optional protocol was later developed setting out a mechanism by which states would be held accountable to the treaty. There have been subsequent international declarations and pledges which have been used as bench marks to measure progress in relation to specific women’s issues. These include the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), and the Millennium Development Goals (2001) which include gender considerations in almost half of the clauses. The MDGs have been mutually reinforcing; progress toward one goal affects progress toward the others. But, the third goal addresses gender equality specifically. The successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), due to be adopted in 2015 as part of a broad Sustainable Development Agenda, include achieving ‘gender equality and empower all women and girls’ as the proposed Goal 5.

Historical trends in integrating gender into development

An early approach involved targeting women by project design and interventions which focused on women as a separate group. This was commonly referred to as WID (Women in Development). Critics of this approach pointed out that this did not address men, and a later model usually referred to as GAD (Gender and Development)  concentrated more on project design and interventions that were  focused on a development process that transforms gender relations. This aimed to enable women to participate on an equal basis with men in determining their common future. The Gender Equality approach is therefore about men and women and is thus a more comprehensive approach to analysis and design of development interventions because it takes into account the situation and needs of both men and women. It aims to involve both women and men in addressing their development problems, to reform institutions to establish equal rights and opportunities, and to foster economic development which strengthens equal participation.  Such an approach aims to redress persistent disparities in access to resources and the ability to speak out.


It has also been recognised by specialists and activists in this field that the behaviour of men needs to be addressed in the context of gender work. Unless men challenge themselves as to the ways in which their own behaviour, attitudes and upbringing perpetuates gender inequality, gender injustice and gender violence,[1] nothing will change. For more than two decades now, a growing number of programmes addressing these issues have been developed in various parts of the world and the learning shared and adapted to new contexts.  Among the most well known have been the programmes of Puntos de Encuentro and Cantera in Nicaragua, and its programmes on male behaviour change.  Another example, Stepping Stones, a small group intervention using participatory learning to help improve sexual health, began in Uganda but was adapted for different countries across sub Saharan Africa including Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as for the Philippines. Its community training package “aims to encourage communities to question and rectify the gender inequalities that contribute to HIV/AIDS, gender based violence and other issues”  and again focussed on behaviour change.[2]

Gender and social movements

Throughout the globe people are organising both to challenge and end gender injustice in all areas of our social, economic, political, and cultural lives. To be successful, however, these struggles need to include and prioritise gender equality within their own organisational structures as well as being part of the analysis and methodology for change. This is a deeply political issue at a variety of levels.  Although social movements are trying to address this, activists still come up against strong resistance to changing gendered politics and practices even within the contexts of movements and allied organisations. Nevertheless, when it comes to making an impact on transforming gender power relations, social movements are crucial.

Integrating gender perspectives into social movements and activism is not just about 'including' women or 'thinking about' men and gender minorities. It means considering what a gendered politics provides in terms of alternative ways of being, seeing and doing that in themselves serve to transform patriarchal power relations. Women's rights and gender justice issues have been approached  in a variety of ways by different social movements, but some common parameters can be outlined which facilitate a supportive environment for gender-just movement building.  For example, affirming the importance of tackling gender inequality and patriarchal power as an integral component of justice and naming this as an explicit priority; engaging positively in internal reflection and action on women's rights and gender justice, providing support for women’s leadership and participation in all aspects of social movements, tackling gender based violence and harassment. Ensuring equal role/rank distribution in organisational structures, making sure participation is equal, taking account of caring for family members, taking account of the fact that women may be targeted in retaliation by those in society who feel threatened by gender justice as a change to traditional roles.

[1] See the Bridge Gender and Social movements website and this paper for a comprehensive overview:

[2] Evaluations have shown improved self reported behaviours and attitudes related to gender based violence. See Bott, S. Morrison, A. and Ellsberg, M. (2005) Preventing and responding to gender-based violence in middle and low income countries. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3618