Gender and Development

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Evolution of Gendered Development

Historically, the development of the so-called Third World has been tied to modernization theory. Modernization theory argues that industrialization leads to economic development. The growth of the economy creates political stability which in turn benefits all sectors of the population. Modernization theory takes for granted that, “urbanization- often accompanied by increased industrialization, literacy, and exposure to the mass media-would offer women greater occupational and educational opportunities, thereby enhancing their status." Evidence used to argue that economic development does indeed help women in developing nations shows that though short term results of industrialization are detrimental to women, in the long term as wealth flows through all sectors of society, everyone profits.

Prior to 1970, it was believed that development affected men and women in the same way, no gendered perspective existed for development studies. It was later realized that economic development did not eradicate poverty nor did it reach all demographics, especially women. The 1970’s saw a transformation in development theory that sought to incorporate women into existing development paradigms. The issue was not perceived to be a theoretical one, but rather a practical one; simply including women would alleviate their subordination.

Ester Boserup’s analysis of development in, “Women’s Role in Economic Development,” was a watershed moment for gendered development. Boserup attacked the focus on economic development that had dominated development theory. She argued that the benefits gained by economic development do not reach women. Oppressive social hierarchies and the lack of women working in the formal economy are two factors that prevent economic growth in developing nations from reaching women. For example, women produce 60-80% of food in developing nations. Since agricultural production occurs in rural areas, and industrialization focuses on urban areas, women benefit little.

Contemporary gendered development theory focuses not only on the economic constraints women face, but the social constraints as well. This approach takes a holistic approach to the development of women and recognizes the full spectrum of oppressive structures that subordinate women: It favors the elimination of legal, customary, and labor market constraints on women’s mobility and economic participation while realizing that these constraints are rooted in long-standing gender ideologies and asymmetrical gender relations. this approach recognizes the not only the public sphere but the private as well, and how both spheres are sources of oppression.

The operationalization of this most recent theory on gendered development can be seen in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). These goals were created at the UN Summit in 2000 with the intention of achieving all eight MDGs by 2015. The MDGs do not mention economic development but rather things such as maternal health, universal primary education and promoting gender equality. The MDGs give international credence to the assertion that for the Third World to become developed, social as well as economic problems must be addressed.

Measuring Development

Applying these principles and goals to the practical development of these nations serves as the greatest challenge. Further, once the policies and programs are applied to the nations, there must be a mechanism in order to determine the progress of the respective countries and how they compare globally. The United Nations Development Program constructed an index, in 1990, which would measure this advancement—the Human Development Index (HDI). Three indicia are used for this measurement: health, education and living standards. There are several components within these three categories. However, it was found that the HDI neglected the discrepancy that clearly existed between the status of men and women. Therefore, the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) was created in 1995; it uses the same indicia of basic capabilities but accounts for the inequality between men and women. An additional measurement, Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), is used to couple the GDI. This is a measure of agency, and evaluates the level of progress women have achieved in the political and economic spheres. The GDI was meant to be read with the HDI. Since it was an adjustment to the latter, it noted the gender disparities of the basic indicia of the HDI.

The Gender Inequality Index (GII) was formulated in 2010 in order to address the problems with the GDI and GEM. One of them was income, which caused great disparity with nations varying in their relative standards of living and the income they provide for the women in relation to men. Therefore, income was eliminated as an indicator in the GII.

The GII combines the elements of the GDI and GEM. It focuses on three dimensions, with 5 indicators: (1) labor market: labor force participation; (2) empowerment: educational attainment, parliamentary representation; (3) reproductive health: adolescent fertility, maternal mortality. These dimensions focus upon the human development of a nation and how gender plays an integral role in that dynamic. It gives light to the issues of gender inequity and provides potential policy measures and corresponding advocacy efforts.


Kathleen Staudt, in her analysis of gender development, identified four goals that should be considered the ultimate objectives. They include: (1) Growth with Equity, (2) Rural and Agricultural Change, (3) Basic Human Needs and (4) Poverty Reduction. These overall goals can be used as normative measurements in the human and societal development in the nations.

Though, the most significant development agenda that currently exists are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs deal with non-economic issues, and rather focus upon human development:

1- End Poverty and Hunger

2- Universal Primary Education

3- Gender Equality

4- Child Health

5- Maternal Health

6- Combat HIV/AIDS

7- Environmental Sustainability

8- Global Partnership

For development to be effective, progress must be made in all areas. “For the greatest impact, it is important to invest across all of the MDGs. Thus, multisectoral approaches and coordination among various implementing agencies are critical.”

Also, the focus on women is apparent with two of the goals explicitly mentioning women, and all of them indirectly involving women. The United Nations’ Development Programme notes that, “Gender equality and women’s empowerment have large multiplier effects on other MDGs. This is perhaps one of the most important linkages across the MDGs. The country-level evidence indicates that women and girls do not have equal access to goods, services and productive assets.” The MDGs represent the progress that has been made in regards to the development of women. Whereas development was solely an economic initiative, the MDGs emphasize social issues the underdeveloped world is facing. Most importantly, the importance of women to development seems to have been realized by the international community.


Momsen, Janet Henshall. 1991. “Women and Development in the Third World.” New York: Routledge Publishing.

Handelman, Howard. 2011. “The Challenge of Third World Development.” 6th Ed. United States: Pearson Education.

Staudt, Kathleen. 2008. “Gendering Development.” In Politics, Gender, and Concepts: Theory and Methodology. Ed. Gary Goertz and Amy G. Mazur. London: Cambridge University Press.

What Will it Take to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals?

Gender Inequality Index (GII)

Understanding the Data

Measuring Key Disparities in Human Development: The Gender Inequality Index

See Also

Women and African Economic Development
Social Institutions and Gender Index 2014 Edition

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