Girls as tools: one problem with gender in development

[In honor of all the gender thinking everyone has been doing this month (last night’s Vagina Monologues success, International Women’s day on March 8th) I have three posts on gender and development. Each is about one thing I don’t like in the way development tackles gender, but please don’t think I hate everything about the gender in development agenda – I don’t. And please don’t think I’m any kind of gender expert – I’m not, so please improve my opinions!]

Part 1: Girls as tools: aka “women for development” rather than “development for women”

Invest in girls and they will lift their families out of poverty!

I have two problems with this (and Aid Watch has some more):

  1. I know it sounds too obvious, but shouldn’t we invest in girls because they’re people? Doesn’t everyone, whether they are destined to reshape their community or not, deserve education and opportunity? I mean if we discovered that boys provided a greater rate of return would it be ok to abandon girls’ education?
  2. These campaigns are too quick to use the fact that women will spend more on their children (for example) without questioning why that’s true. (more on this in a second)

Similarly, consider the argument that more microcredit/cash transfers/etc should go into women’s hands because from there they are more likely to be spent on the children. It’s not that I think the statistics (women spend n% more on their children) aren’t true. I might even agree that using this fact is a good idea at least for certain projects or at least in the short term. But I think it’s a mistake to just use this fact uncritically. We should really think hard about the reasons this statistic is true: why are women more inclined to spend extra income on their children?

Banerjee and Duflo argue in their book Poor Economics that it’s exactly women’s traditional family-centered role that makes them such “useful” development tools:

“It is now, for example, widely recognized that public support programs that put money in the hands of women… may be much more effective in directing resources toward children… … At least one of us is inclined to interpret this evidence as saying that men are just a lot more selfish than women. But it may also be that this is where the norms and social expectations…kick in. Perhaps women are expected to do things for the family when they get some windfall of cash and men are not. …. Paradoxically, it may be precisely because of women’s traditional role in the family that public policy can get some mileage by empowering them.”

By uncritically using traditional expectations of women in this way, are we asking women to become the financial centers of the household as well as the domestic centers, while asking nothing of (and offering nothing to) men? Are we in fact reinforcing those expectations, or even capitalizing on them in the name of development?

(Coming tomorrow and the next day: essentialization, and men in development)

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About marisa burton

graduate student, masters of development studies, IHEID, geneva
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One Response to Girls as tools: one problem with gender in development

  1. Ab says:

    very interesting post, and one I would be very interested in seeing developed further.

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