New economic paradigms in the gender agenda

Since the birth of Keynesian thought that looks at economics as a means of wealth creation and wealth distribution by the so called “rational economic man”, the  “homo-economicus”, conventional conceptual frameworks and statistics used to design macro-economic policy have been and continue to be gender-blind.
Women are the biggest percentage of the labour force. (File photo)
Women are the biggest percentage of the labour force. (File photo)

Since the birth of Keynesian thought that looks at economics as a means of wealth creation and wealth distribution by the so called “rational economic man”, the  “homo-economicus”, conventional conceptual frameworks and statistics used to design macro-economic policy have been and continue to be gender-blind.

Contextually, gender is defined as the socially constructed roles and relations between men and women in society. It’s the major spring board on the basis of which societal stratification and discrimination is exercised especially in male supremacist settings.

More of women’s work than of men’s work is not counted by national economic statistics because a great deal of it is not market oriented. Realistically, this kind of unpaid work behind the curtains is a subsidy of the sort to the productive and paid economy. This includes non-market subsistence production done by women, unpaid care work for family and friends and voluntary community work.

Mainstream economic theory fails to recognize that women’s contribution to the economy is significant but systematically underestimated; there is an unpaid care economy in which women do most of the work of maintaining the labour force and keeping the social fabric in good order, maintaining social cohesion, civic responsibility and good neighbourliness.

As a result, there have been all sorts of exploitation mounted to females by the masculine society- exploiting silent or inexistent legal and institutional loopholes that assume a unitary society where men and women are on the same footing.

Society is either not aware of the inherent inequality and inequity, cemented by cultural norms and believes or it’s adamant to accept reality. This exploitation has been seen in employment guided by gender division of labor, where some jobs are perceived to be unfit for females and reserved for men especially in typical patriarchies.

This has been done on assumption that females should take up simple tasks that “don’t burden them” or that meet little skills, after all they are to be catered for by their male counterparts either husbands or male relatives. This creates the dependency syndrome and has had far reaching implications on savings and investment and consequently retards economic growth. 

Conventional economic thought follows the so called “trickle down theory” where a family unit is presumably headed by a male bread winner who earns his income, goes back home and shares equally with the rest of the dependants, wife and children inclusive. What about female headed families and irresponsible male heads?

The theory falls short of the fact that gender relations in our society are characterized by unequal domestic power sharing and so is unequal decision making and taking in a family unit.

Societal gender norms in that respect assign unequal entitlements and responsibilities to men and women - for example, women are expected to take on caring or domestic duties and remain close to home, while men may be expected to be the main breadwinner, working outside the home, with greater freedom to move around in public places.

Despite all that, women are supposed to balance between reproductive, productive and care work in house holds. Talk of “a child is sick”, breast feeding, supervising household activities and still compete with men equally at work. Ridiculously, their maternity leave is being reduced carelessly, unfortunately with their own connivance.

The trickle down theory is too simplistic as it assumes poverty caused by scarcity and forgets poverty caused by denied access or restricted entitlements. It has come under intense criticism from gender activists and feminist economists as well as other liberal reformists.

They insist that such arrangements are a mirror image of segregation and subordination of women by their male counterparts and should come to an end since it has implications for women’s capacity to benefit from global development process.

Quoting the words of former UN secretary General Kofi Anan, “gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” Being a cross cutting issue, addressing gender based inequalities is a stepping stone to achieving all the global Millennium Development Goals.

Despite the fact that many governments have ratified international gender instruments however, such as CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), gender inequality persists. This has implications for women’s capacity to benefit from global reforms and opportunities in trade and business management.

What I should put to light is that most of the efforts in place only address women inclusion in decision making and economic uplifting but still some of these women are themselves gender blind. They will end up making irrational decisions some times against their own interests, “shooting their own legs”. It’s logical that awareness should precede or come alongside empowerment if the gender agenda is to succeed.

Unfortunately most of the countries make their economic policies guided by orthodox economic theory with(in) visible masculine interests that assume a unitary and enlightened society where resources flow easily to all the recipients without bounded access, cultural barriers and information asymmetry between males and females and hijacking of information by the “elite capture”.

In my culture, where I grew up, a woman was not and perhaps is still not supposed to own property and other assets like land and animals. Whenever, the head of the family dies, the little inheritance a woman gets is entrusted with their male benefactors-be it husbands or brothers, however young they could be—a ridiculous theory of delegated entitlement.

The Government of Rwanda has tried to empower females in terms of guaranteeing legal rights to inheritance and access to land and other forms of productive power—with promising results. What remains to be done is mass awareness especially on the side of men to fully subscribe to the gender agenda and accept the fact that females are equal human beings whose rights should not be trampled over.

The 1995 UN Human Development Report, states that “an estimated $16 trillion in global output is currently ‘invisible,’ of which $11 trillion is estimated to be produced by women.” However, it’s not reflected in the national or global statistics.

What then needs to be done? Having identified key victims of gender inequality, the world needs to embrace practical not political women empowerment that aims at political accountability. If its equal access to education, we need to go a head and ensure equal completion, equal employment, and equal opportunities that aid trade and equal time burden in terms of share of domestic tasks—that are not attached to biological sex differences.

The drive for women economic empowerment should ensure that women have equal access to inputs and technology, access to support services, access to land, including secure land tenure, enjoyment of their legal rights as citizens equal to men, access to finances, markets and rural infrastructure, equal inheritance rights, access to productive employment, literacy and business or entrepreneur and vocational skills. There should equally be gender relations and societal networks that support and enable both women and men in actualizing their full potential

Above all, we need to create awareness such that females in general are aware of their rights and their obligations. We should teach young females what is good for them but avoid being submissive to whatever they present as their interests, lest we fall victims of misguided decision making that becomes detrimental to their own livelihood.

The author is a graduate student of Gender Aware Economics at Makerere University, Uganda.


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