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Gender Bias: Roadblock to Sustainable Development

Text of a report by the WorldWatch Institute (written by Jodi L. Jacobson) that discusses the ways in which gender bias contributes the growth of poverty and population, particularly in subsistence economies.

by Jodi L. Jacobson

Gender Bias Causes Poverty, Population Growth

During the 1980s, per capita income dropped in at least 50 countries. A new Worldwatch study points to a surprising reason for the growing impoverishment of many developing nations: discrimination against women, reenforced by conventional strategies of economic development.

Such discrimination, especially in the subsistence economies of the Third World, is the single most important cause of population growth as well as a leading cause of poverty. Birthrates will decline voluntarily--and poverty rates drop--when and only when steps are taken to increase women's control over economic resources.

Women are the primary breadwinners in subsistence economies, which include 3 billion of the world's 5.5 billion people. Research shows that they work longer hours and devote a larger share of their earnings to supporting their families than men do.

Yet women's efforts to support their children are all too often stymied. Gender bias in subsistence economies ranges from wage discrimination, to exclusion from development programs, to legal barriers to owning land, to systemic violence against women. This discrimination exacerbates poverty by preventing hundreds of millions of women from obtaining the credit, education, training, health services, child care, and legal status needed to improve their prospects. As a result, not only do families remain poor, but the economies of many Third World nations lag far below their economic potential.

Moreover, gender bias keeps population growth rates high, because it denies women routes to economic security other than childbearing. Ironically, conventional population programs fail because they fail to combat the social barriers to women's economic advancement.

For example, rising female literacy rates are directly linked to declines in births. But girls and women are less likely to attend school than boys and men. While overall literacy rates rose between 1970 and 1985, the gender gap in literacy actually widened: The number of women unable to read rose by 54 million; illiterate males increased 4 million. Today, the gap continues to grow.

On the other hand, evidence consistently shows that investing in women is the most direct way to lift families out of poverty. Increasing women's productivity--giving them access to education, training, land ownership and credit--is by extension the most effective way to stem population growth voluntarily.

In subsistence economies, women farmers produce the lion's share of food consumed at home. In sub-Saharan Africa, women grow 80 percent of the food destined for their kitchen tables. Women's labor produces 70 to 80 percent of food crops grown on the Indian subcontinent, and 50 percent of the food domestically consumed in Latin America.

Yet conventional development strategies grant males disproportionate access to land, credit, and farm machinery; encourage men to plant cash crops for income--often on land on which women had formerly grown food--and deliver education and training primarily to boys and men. Development strategies typically exclude women except as targets for population "control." A 1982 study, for example, estimated that only 0.5 percent of all United Nations allocations to agriculture went to programs for rural women.

Few governments or international agencies invest in women farmers. Furthermore, many rural development strategies end up actually reducing women's access to land, credit, seeds, and labor-saving technologies.

For instance, in most rural areas of the Third World, the commonly-owned village lands which women farm are being shifted into the hands of governments and private landowners to promote cash crops. Since the sixties, the government of Malawi--like many others--has promoted the transfer of large tracts of commons to owners of private estates. At the same time it has been taxing domestic crops to subsidize credit, seeds, and fertilizers for cash crop growers. Women, who make up more than 70 percent of full-time subsistence farmers, have been most severely affected. The results are increasingly severe land pressure, stagnation in the country's basic food supply, and reductions in both economic growth and equity.

In addition to food production, women are responsible for gathering fuel and water. Yet tree planting campaigns and international investments to counter deforestation have all but ignored women: Out of 22 social forestry projects appraised by the World Bank from 1984 through 1987, only one mentioned women as a project beneficiary.

Men are more likely to earn cash income than women, but are less likely to spend their earnings on family maintenance--food, shelter, clothes, health care--and therefore less likely to pull their families out of poverty. Research in Mexico shows that women contribute 100 percent of their earnings to the family budget, while men contribute at most 75 percent of theirs, and often less.

Women effectively provide the largest share of the family's basic needs while the incomes of men often are siphoned off by the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, or other consumer products. Studies from throughout the developing world show that the mother's income or food production--and the degree of control she maintains over that income--determines the relative nutrition of children.

Unfortunately, over the last decade the status of women has actually declined--they have less control than ever before over their land, cash and other resources. As a result, all over the developing world, women find themselves working longer hours to make ends meet. The increased workload ensures that birth rates stay high since women depend on children--particularly girls--to lend a hand.

This is the population trap. Unless governments move quickly to combat gender bias in subsistence economies, rapid population growth will continue unabated. To date, however, far more emphasis has been put on curtailing women's fertility than on improving their health and productivity.

If women in subsistence economies are the major suppliers of food, fuel, and water for their families, and yet their access to productive resources is declining, then more people will suffer from hunger, malnutrition, illness, and loss of productivity.

Investing in women is the fastest way to simultaneously increase food security, reduce population growth and relieve pressure on the environment.

Worldwatch's Mission Statement

The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations.

By providing compelling, accessible, and fact-based analysis of critical global issues, Worldwatch informs people around the world about the complex interactions between people, nature, and economies. Worldwatch focuses on the underlying causes of and practical solutions to the world's problems, in order to inspire people to demand new policies, investment patterns and lifestyle choices.

Worldwatch Institute
1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036-1904
Phone: 202.452.1999
Fax: 202.296.7365
Contributors : Jodi L. Jacobson
Last modified 2005-02-11 11:25 PM

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