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Women, Development, and Gender Inequality

Abstract and Keywords

Women have a lengthy history of fighting their oppression as women and the inequalities associated with this to claim their place on the world stage, in their countries, and within their families. This article focuses on women’s struggles to be recognized as having legitimate concerns about development initiatives at all levels of society and valuable contributions to make to social development. Crucial to their endeavors were: (1) upholding gender equality and insisting that women be included in all deliberations about sustainable development and (2) seeing that their daily life needs, including their human rights, be treated with respect and dignity and their right to and need for education, health, housing, and all other public goods are realized. The role of the United Nations in these endeavors is also considered. Its policies on gender and development, on poverty alleviation strategies—including the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals—are discussed and critiqued. Women’s rights are human rights, but their realization remains a challenge for policymakers and practitioners everywhere. Social workers have a vital role to play in advocating for gender equality and mobilizing women to take action in support of their right to social justice. Our struggle for equality has a long and courageous history.

Keywords: gender relations, equality, inequality, women, development, oppression, social exclusion, social inclusion, sustainability, citizenship, Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development Goals, gender-responsive budgets


Socially configured gender inequalities that have disadvantaged and oppressed women have an ancient, complex, and persistent history (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). Women’s struggles for emancipation, equality, and empowerment have been particularly evident throughout the postwar period when second-wave feminism grew in strength and offered women a vision of a better, more egalitarian world (Anzaldua, 1990). Women’s resistance was expressed in local, national, and international settings and highlighted the diverse and varied approaches whereby women claimed equal status to men. Moreover, this resistance was complicated with different approaches prevailing at different points in time and in different countries. Their responses can be characterized as accommodationist—reformist and transformational (Dominelli, 2012a). These involved individual women and groups of women engaging in collective action, including the women’s movement.

The accommodationist form of resistance occurs primarily within the private sphere of everyday life practices, e.g., refusing to do what a man asks but not challenging his rightful place within a patriarchal framework that accords him power and supremacy. The other two forms of resistance occur largely in the public sphere and attempt to reduce women’s marginalization and social exclusion from activities conducted in the public domain. Reformist approaches aim primarily to open up public spaces to women much in the same way as these are available to men. These have focused on participation in the paid labor force on equal terms as men, e.g., equal pay for equal work, and political representation in the governance structures men have created, e.g., being elected to government and heading socio-economic institutions. Liberal feminists have been very active within this framework. The transformational approaches have sought to create different forms of social relations that were more collaborative and inclusive rather than competitive and exclusive. Some have sought structural changes alongside personal ones. Those following transformational approaches have argued that women could create different kinds of public spaces that responded to their needs and vision. Among those pursuing this line of action have been radical feminists, queer feminists, transfeminists, Marxist/socialist feminists, postmodern feminists, black feminists, feminists of color, and feminists from the global South.

Despite their different approaches, both reformist and transformational forms of resistance were focused on critiquing patriarchal power (the socially sanctioned right of men to exercise power over women), equality, strengthening women’s access to social resources including property, increasing women’s participation in decision-making from the household to the body politic, and ensuring that women’s lives were improved. This also included common struggles over women’s reproductive rights, sexuality, bodily integrity, and men’s violence (emotion, sexual, and physical) against women, particularly in intimate relationships. Commonalities between these approaches included paying the price for attempting to challenge existing social relations, even within patriarchy’s own social structures, e.g., the imprisonment of suffragettes in England. These initiatives have also suggested that the boundaries between these different forms of resistance are blurred, and all have made important contributions to improving the position of women in their particular locations. Within these major trends, there were also women who sought to change men’s ways of perceiving themselves as men and argued for feminist approaches to working with men and for enhancing the rights of children to be included as active participants in their own lives (Orme, Dominelli, & Mullender, 2000). Many of these feminist insights were also picked up and argued for by men who supported women’s liberation (Wild, 1999).

Gender oppression, along with other forms of oppression, is socially constructed and consequently can be changed. This is an empowering message because traditional patriarchal discourses argue that men and women are biologically different, and as these differences are rooted in men and women’s genes, they are immutable (see Bly, 1990). There is an extensive critique of these essentializing approaches to gender relations that is familiar to those writing from a postmodernist perspective (Anzaldua, 1990). Gender perspectives have tried to include the concerns of men who want to move away from social relations that oppress and disadvantage women and toward gender equality. However, gender-neutral language has tended to become a way of disguising the impact of unequal social relations on women (Walmsley, Strega, Brown, Dominelli, & Callahan, 2005). The gender relations field of study is huge, so I will limit this wider coverage to its impact on women’s organizing internationally in the field of development. Nonetheless, women’s struggles for equality now comprise a global social movement (Feree & Tripp, 2006), albeit a loose, differentiated, and fragmented one because women face different challenges, depending on their location and identities. For example, many women in the global South still lack access to clean water, sanitation, food, education, and decent housing, especially in urban areas. Others want an end to neo-colonial practices that oppress them and their countries. Thus, supporting developments in women’s situations across borders becomes a sensitive and nuanced matter that requires linkages among women as full and equal partners who support and respond to each other’s differences and self-defined needs with respect, understanding, and dignity. At the same time, sharing their common interests and finding out and discussing those elements that unite them is equally important (Nussbaum & Glover, 1995).

This article explores post–World War II initiatives that promoted women’s liberation with a particular emphasis on development. These endeavors sought recognition of women’s diversity as a social group; work as socially productive and significant; bodily integrity and reproductive rights; entitlement to engagement in the public arena ranging from political representation to parity in the labor market; owning property, especially land in their own right; and caring and housework as activities to be shared equally between men and women. Women’s ambitious agenda for egalitarian relations between the genders has had patchy outcomes, and inequalities between men and women have enduring characteristics. Although there have been many gains particularly in opening up labor market opportunities to women, much remains for future realization including the payment of equal pay for equal work (Tinker, 1990). Thus, women are deemed to comprise 70% of poor people today, and the gains already achieved to improve women’s lives are unevenly distributed geographically, socially, politically, and economically.

Defining Development

Development is a contested and amorphous concept that lacks a comprehensive, holistic, and inclusive approach. Development in this article explores current dominant conceptualizations that express it as models of industrialization that promote economic growth while disregarding much else (Kohli, 2004) and is associated with modernity and the industrial development and urbanization that it encompasses. While it is change-oriented, this is a limited definition of development, because it is primarily about socio-economic development, and excludes women’s emotional and intellectual development and the rich fulfilment of their lives so that they can flourish and prosper in all parts of their lives, not only those connected with raising children, caring for dependent relatives, and working to meet family needs for nutrition, survival, and existence.

Recently, the term became embedded in neoliberal discourses that I would argue have increased the burden on women to become largely responsible for family well-being with little thought for their own development as women, having leisure time for themselves, or becoming educated for the sake of an education that follows their interests. Even the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have highlighted women’s poverty, health, and education have done so primarily to ensure that women were better equipped to fulfill their domestic duties and obligations. Sarah Chant (2008) calls this the “feminisation of responsibility and/or obligation.” In the global South, this has meant focusing on agriculture, poverty alleviation, and using various technologies to achieve economic growth. While this is an important objective because it eases harsh realities for many women, development workers should also be aware that there is more to being an active, thriving woman than being able to meet the needs of everyone else while denying one’s own. Additionally, this approach is locking some women into unsustainable forms of development that ignore their own traditional, indigenous knowledge and skills, as Vandana Shiva (2005) has argued.

The exclusion of women from development discourses, both through the use of gender-neutral language and socially sanctioned exclusion because social norms treat women’s contributions to public life as invisible, has undervalued women’s inputs into social, community, and family well-being and facilitated this restricted focus on development if considered from an inclusive and comprehensive perspective. However, highlighting gender as a development issue exposes the social construction of the downgrading of women’s roles in socio-economic development issues and their contributions in subsidizing labor for socio-economic and political development. Gender awareness, especially its feminist iterations, subjects oppressive social relations to social action and change to redress gender inequalities at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels.

Social development is a crucial part of the process of achieving gender equality. Midgley (1995, p. 13) defines social development as “a process of planned social change designed to promote the well-being of the population as a whole within the context of a dynamic multifaceted development process.” Women’s involvement in social action to change their position in society has endeavored to introduce gender parity as an integral ingredient in development processes. However, this thread to development discourses is often hidden, and women’s voices muted as women continue to be marginalized in public life in most countries.

Women’s Exclusion from Development Discourses Becomes an International Issue

Boserup’s (1970) seminal work linked equity and social justice to economic development, demonstrating that dominant discourses ignored power relations between men and women and affirmed stereotypical views of women as passive carers within the family (extended or otherwise). Boserup and other feminists revealed that women did from 50% to 80% of agricultural work, but were excluded from other forms of production. For example, the 1971 census in India indicated that women composed 48.2% of the country’s population but were active in only 13% of its economic activities. Women were not allowed to participate in many types of employment, and 94% of women workers were engaged in unorganized sectors such as agriculture, agro-forestry, fishery, and handicrafts. By 2011, 75% of the agricultural workforce was made up of women who worked mainly in small family-based farms and still undertook virtually the entirety of caring work within their families.

At the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in 1946, a delegation of 19 women insisted that it create a Commission for Women. This was formed as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) under the auspices of ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) in 1947. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) agreed upon by UN member states in 1948 allegedly applied to everyone. Although the UDHR in general, and Articles 22 to 27, which covered basic needs and the right to education, health care, and social services, generally bypassed women, Article 25 referred to widowhood, which specifically affected women who had lost their husbands. The remainder of Article 25 refers to “the well-being of himself and his family . . . and other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (underscoring mine to emphasize the orientation toward men). In seeking to redress women’s situation, the UN became a prime target for feminist action aimed at changing institutions and challenging development discourses that ignored women’s contributions and perspectives. The UN responded to women’s agitation by declaring 1975 as the International Year for Women and holding the first World Conference for Women in 1975 in Mexico City, Mexico. Additionally, the Commission on the Status of Women formulated the World Plan of Action, established the International Decade for Women that ran from 1976 to 1985, and proclaimed March 8 as International Women’s Day in recognition of women’s achievements globally. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was ratified in 1979 by 177 countries. The United States refused to ratify this. But CEDAW represented the first human rights treaty to focus on women and turned the UN into an advocate of women’s rights and involvement in development (Feree & Tripp, 2006).

The Second World Conference for Women was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1980. This and the previous one had seen acrimonious exchanges between women from the global South and the global North, as women from the South demanded that their specific interests and concerns be acknowledged by women from the North who were assuming that “sisterhood was universal” by denying them their voices. Women from the global North had dominated the proceedings and programs of work in both conferences, and this was considered unacceptable. The ensuing dialogues among women from both the global South and global North enabled an environment more conducive to achieving social justice and building solidarity to be created. These attempts bore fruit in Nairobi, Kenya, which became the site for the Third World Conference for Women in 1985. Here, women’s concerns to support each other in recognizing local perceptions of issues and achieving local goals for improvement in the position women were acknowledged. Additionally, women agreed to focus on monitoring progress in improving women’s positions. New networks were created to promote women’s commitments to diverse agendas in seeking common ground, e.g., Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS). These acknowledged the significant roles women in the global South played in achieving their own goals and their capacities in organizing and mobilizing to meet their needs. The term “women’s empowerment” took off in these networks (Sen & Grown, 1987).

Women used the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna to link women’s rights to human rights, especially in the field of violence against women. More inclusive ways of responding to women’s needs surfaced in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Women’s right to control their own bodies, determine their own sexuality, and affirm bodily integrity were reformulated as women’s reproductive rights and important in sustaining economic development and slowing down population growth.

The Fourth World Conference for Women took place in Beijing, China. The Beijing Conference in 1995 set the initial agenda for the mainstreaming of gender, emphasized women’s rights as human rights, linked them to sustainable development, and set equality for women as a universal goal. The Beijing Platform for Action that emanated from this conference attempted to establish a grassroots-based universalism that could accompany the specificities of women’s experiences and the differentiated responses that would be needed for effective responses to their needs. This universalism has, however, been rejected by religious fundamentalists in different religions as they insist on retaining patriarchal privileges (Feree & Tripp, 2006). Nonetheless, women were developing their own ideas for dealing with the complications of acknowledging their differences without losing sight of their common struggles for equality. Mohanty (2003) articulated the “feminist solidarity model” to indicate how women in the global North could contribute to achieving this goal without denying women in the global South their voice and agency.

UN Mainstreaming Endeavors

Following the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council) formulated some guidelines for gender mainstreaming in the ECOSOC conclusions 1997/2. In these, ECOSOC defines gender mainstreaming as:

the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.

ECOSOC’s resolution 2001/41 recommended that the implementation of ECOSOC’s conclusions 1997/2 be reviewed within five years and that gender perspectives be taken into account in all its work, including that occurring within its functional commissions. The UN has subsequently incorporated gender mainstreaming in all its activities ranging from peace to education. However, its view that both men and women can shape realities in their lives equally seems somewhat naive because it ignores the asymmetrical power relations that exist between men and women. Mainstreaming became an important part of the MDGs, which were agreed upon in 2000. These aimed to eradicate poverty, promote education and health, and, through MDG3, to empower women. The realization of women’s equality, nonetheless, left much to be achieved, with a key barrier being the technocratic approach to its realization (Moser & Moser, 2005). Yet Davids, Van Driel, and Parren (2014) argue that gender mainstreaming retains its radical potential if power relations can be transformed. Additionally, 20 years after Beijing, much of the Platform for Action remains to be realized and has given rise to various groups that have united in the Beijing+20 initiative under the auspices of UNWomen.

Social Work Involvement in UN Activities

Social workers have been involved in struggles for gender equality and social development as activists, practitioners, educators, and researchers (Dominelli, 2012b). Here I focus on the activities of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and then those of one of its sister organizations, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) below. IASSW and IFSW are the main international organizations for social work, the former being concerned about education and research and the latter about practice globally. IASSW had been involved in UN activities since 1947, when it first gained “special consultative status” with that organization, and has retained it ever since as a platform through which to engage with the UN and its associated organizations, especially ECOSOC. Although IASSW was there at the inception of the UN and the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), its key postwar contributions came later. IFSW was reformed after the Second World War, although like IASSW, it was initially formed in 1928 in Paris, France, and gained consultative status in the UN much later than IASSW.

The Beijing Women’s Conference Forum for Civil Society Organisations was held in Huairou. Outside Beijing where the main conference was held, Huairou was the location where civil society organizations conducted their deliberations, and its engagement there provided a high point in IASSW’s involvement in women’s affairs at the UN. In 1984, women activists formed the Women’s Caucus to challenge IASSW’s failure to deal with issues of concern to women, despite the preponderance of women in social work education and in IASSW’s membership. Joan Gilroy from Dalhousie University in Canada became its first chair. Lena Dominelli, also a founder member, then at Warwick University in the United Kingdom, became its second chair in 1986. Under her leadership, a survey to assess women’s position in social work education globally was launched, which found that women in the global South were more likely to become heads of social work departments than was the case in the global North, where men dominated the leadership ranks.

The Women’s Caucus went from strength to strength, and in 1988 it presented the then-president, Ralph Garber from Toronto University in Canada, with a list of 15 demands for changes in its organizational structures. This included providing a seat with voting rights on the IASSW Board for the Women’s Caucus to represent the interests of IASSW’s women members. Janice Wood Wetzel became the third chair of the Women’s Caucus and initiated a name change from the Women’s Caucus to the Women’s Interest Group. Lena Dominelli was elected vice president and pursued the agenda of raising women’s profiles in IASSW activities. One of these actions was to work with Janice Wood Wetzel, then IASSW’s main representative in New York, to ensure IASSW representation at the 1995 Beijing Conference. Janice presented a paper on women and mental health at Huairou; Joan Orme gave a paper jointly authored with Lena Dominelli and Audrey Mullender on working with violent men from a feminist perspective. The Women’s Interest Group also led the demands for IASSW to adopt the Beijing Platform of Action as its policy and advocate for women globally. Janice Wood Wetzel continued to represent IASSW at follow-up events to the Beijing Conference until 2014.

Pressure for change in IASSW’s organizational structures eventually resulted in Lena Dominelli being nominated for the presidency of IASSW in 1996. She stood successfully against David Cox of Australia and ended a 30-year period in which men governed IASSW proceedings. Unfortunately, she inherited an organization that was in dire financial straits, but under her leadership, she restored IASSW to financial health, leaving sizable reserves in the bank at the end of her presidency in 2004, and initiated links with the sister organizations of IFSW and the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW). (ICSW, founded in 1928 to address issues of social development policy, engages with governments on a regular basis and is a holder of general consultative status at the UN.) All three sister organizations subscribe to the UN Charter and its protocols and conventions. Under Dominelli’s presidency, IASSW worked with Imelda Dodd, then president of IFSW to create the global definition of social work, the global standards document, and the global ethics document, which continue to exist. Concerns with gender equality and women’s human rights (alongside other marginalized groups) featured strongly in all these. Dominelli also ensured that women’s concerns and voices were raised at the Conference on Xenophobia in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2000 and at the Madrid Summit on Older People in 2002.

IFSW adopted a “strategy document” on women following the 1985 Conference in Nairobi to urge all social workers to take seriously women’s issues and advocate on their behalf. Convincing governments who had not endorsed the CEDAW to do so was one of the main planks for social work activity mentioned in this. In 1995, the IFSW delegation to Beijing presented a paper on older women. Later, IFSW included the MDGs and the UN’s commitment to mainstreaming gender in its policy statement. IASSW, IFSW, and ICSW have a jointly agreed the Global Agenda which includes human rights and gender equality as a platform for strengthening the voice of social work and social development internationally by lobbying the UN and its associated bodies and have been working together on this project since 2010.

Shifting Development Discourses: WID, WAD, and GAD

Three movements were formed to have an impact upon the role of women in development discourses in the latter half of the 20th century: Women in Development (WID), Women and Development (WAD), and Gender and Development (GAD). Each of these sought to develop specific perspectives on women’s contributions to development processes. However, there are overlaps between them, and they have sometimes co-existed alongside each other.

Women in Development (WID)

The formation of WID in the 1970s questioned the view that development had the same impact on men and women. It was strongly influenced by Boserup’s (1970) work, which highlighted the exclusion of women from most industrial sectors and the undervaluing of their contributions to agricultural work. WID focused primarily on integrating women in the development process and sought equal opportunities and education for women, as advocated by liberal feminists from the global North. In 1980, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) created a special division within its structures for WID. Its activities upheld the view that women could be both agents and beneficiaries in development processes. WID’s approach was critiqued by women from the global South as excluding their interests, which were more closely linked to basic survival and health. WID also featured the importance of women in productive activities, particularly agriculture, and adopted the Harvard Analytical Framework (HAF) to explore their positions. James Austin led the formation of the HAF and worked with three women involved in WID—Catherine Overholt, Mary Anderson, and Kathleen Cloud—to develop a framework of analysis that would include women in development projects and argue that such projects would become more efficient if they included both men and women in the allocation of resources and as project contributors. This gave rise to the “efficiency approach” to development.

WID has been criticized on a number of fronts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Report of 1985 declared that supporting women’s interests in development required more than a concern with welfare needs such as birth control, pregnancy, and nutrition. Others were concerned that the root causes of the oppression of women were ignored by WID.

Women and Development (WAD)

WAD arose out of the First World Conference for Women and rejected the dominant portrayal of women as passive beings as suggested in WID deliberations. Instead, WAD highlighted the patriarchal nature of modernity and the capitalist industrial development it promoted. WAD also sought to create women-only spaces so that women could escape men’s dominance and develop their own strengths within them. Additionally, it accepted the many arguments of theorists of underdevelopment, which held that countries in the then Third World, now global South, were deliberately underdeveloped for the benefit of wealthy First World countries, now the global North. These decried the global North for fostering dependency relationships with the global South because this approach disadvantaged poor countries while amassing wealth for rich countries. Additionally, key modernization theorists assumed that this part of the world would follow the same path to development or modernization as those countries that had industrialized earlier and strongly advocated for capitalist industrialization as the path to modernity (Matunhu, 2011). Moreover, they held that investment, technology transfers, and integration into the global world market would produce “trickle-down” effects that would enable countries to rise out of poverty. Poorer countries often provided primary commodities that provided the base from which richer countries could accumulate wealth (Prebisch, 2009; Singer & Chen, 1998), and this model of development was considered as inimical to the interests of countries in the global South (Gunder Frank, 1969; Matunhu, 2011). Moreover, modernist discourses ignored women as contributors to development.

WAD failed to acknowledge the marginalization of women in dominant development discourses, especially those associated with modernity. Furthermore, their small-scale projects were unable to challenge successfully heterodox economics and the development paths associated with it. Also, WAD did not effectively handle the diversity found among women themselves or address the intersectionality of social divisions such as age, class, and ethnicity that interact with gender. WAD also lacked the capacity to recognize women’s production of social and cultural capital.

Gender and Development (GAD)

The GAD approach attempted to address the weaknesses of both WAD and WID by using gender as socially constructed, not biological, categories to analyze and expose the essentialized discourses that prevailed at the time. GAD’s emphasis on the socially constructed nature of relationships between men and women revealed the ways in which women were systematically subordinated and oppressed through social activities that both defined and were defined by gender relations. Moreover, women’s oppression was buttressed by social policies, cultural norms—especially those linked to gendered identities, social hierarchies, and social institutions. The GAD approach also highlighted the ways in which roles, responsibilities, and expectations affect both men and women and their interactions. And it sought to subvert traditional arguments by arguing that men and women could perform these roles interchangeably were it not for the discrimination that women experienced. GAD’s goal aimed to achieve equality, equity, and empowerment for women (Moser & Levy, 1986).

Moser’s Framework for Gender and Development sought to highlight productive, reproductive and community-management activities that are relevant for men, women, boys, and girls. Nonetheless, this Framework fails to acknowledge the interactive processes through which men and women negotiate their relationships with one another to reach compromises, knowing that if these did not succeed, their endeavors would end in conflict. Also, the performance of particular tasks does not necessarily carry the same implications for women. For example, a woman giving care in the home may be doing the same care work as a paid employee employed in a caring establishment, but one gets pay and recognition (even if insufficient) for her work, the other does not. Additionally, by focusing on the differences between men and women, GAD failed to acknowledge the similarities and shared interests they have.

GAD also contributed to the adoption of gender-neutral language following on from the view that men and women as a gender could easily be exchanged in most roles. This coincided with others, e.g., Collier (1988), arguing against gender-neutral approaches to development and for gender-specific policies to alleviate poverty. This view prevailed under the MDGs, which focused on many aspects of women’s lives, primarily on health and education with women as beneficiaries. In 1995, the Beijing Conference on Women suggested gender-responsive budgeting and argued for the involvement of women in financial budgeting and management, because they remained excluded from these activities within development processes and projects. According to the UN, gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) involves the government setting aside funds to plan and implement initiatives that will advance gender equality and lead to the realization of women’s rights. GRB aims to create enabling policies that will build women’s capabilities and the monitoring mechanisms that can be used to hold governments accountable for their (in)action. GRB recognizes the gender-differentiated impact of government policies regarding incomes, domestic resources, and development assistance, whether internally or externally derived, which can be used as instruments for promoting gender equality.

Gender and neoliberalism has provided another shift in development discourses. These have paid attention to gender issues and in many respects acknowledge gender and development discourses. For example, one of the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Bank (WB), began to consider gender and development in 1977. It appointed its first Women in Development Adviser and mandated women’s issues as an item to be considered in all its programs. By 1994, the WB had produced a policy paper on gender and development. This considered the constraints encountered in achieving gender equality. In 2007, the World Bank articulated its first three-year Gender Action Plan (GAP), which lasted from 2007 to 2010. This was followed by the Three Year Road Map for Gender Mainstreaming, which ran from 2010 to 2013. However, it was not until 2012 that its yearly World Development Report focused on gender equality and development.

Financial inclusion has been promoted through various initiatives that the WB has supported, including microfinance schemes that enable women to become business entrepreneurs. However, feminists have critiqued microcredit schemes for making women responsible for raising families out of poverty, thereby ignoring men’s responsibilities in family well-being and income-generation activities and their failure to lift many women out of poverty, even though they might have succeeded in enabling women and their families to survive through women’s hard labor (Burkett & Sheehan, 2009). Suspicion of the real motivations of the Bretton Woods Institutions regarding women led Elaine Zuckerman to found Gender Action to monitor the IMF and WB in 2002. In 2015, the WB decided to review its gender and development strategy under the leadership of Caren Grown, and at the time of this writing it is consulting with civil organizations. Although the strategy has not yet been produced, women in Brazil have already raised concerns that its approach is superficial.

Poverty-Alleviation Strategies—MDGs and SDGs Include Gender Equality

The MDGs of 2000 focused on women’s issues linked to education, health, and employment but ignored many aspects of women’s lives (Chant, 2012). The WB argued that the projects linked to the MDGs were no more than “smart economics.” Yet the aims of eradicating poverty and eliminating illiteracy among women as set out in the MDGs are unlikely to be realized. Thus, “smart economic” initiatives are often seen as exploiting women for their utilitarian value without transforming women’s lives. Chant (2008) terms this the “feminisation of responsibility” that consumes women’s time, energy, and other resources, without their gaining anything that enhances their well-being holistically. She also adds that the MDGs consider only women who have productive capacity, thus excluding girls and older women who are not able to undertake formal employment. Moreover, the MDGs individualize women who face structural and socially condoned oppression as a gender.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), replaced the MDGs in 2015, became part of the post-2015 development deliberations which build on the RIO+20 outcome document, The Future We Want. The SDGs were considered by the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015 and will run until 2030. Rio+20 builds on the Agenda 21 principles for sustainable development devised after the 1992 Earth Summit or conference on the environment and development that took place in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The SDGs aim for an inclusive, transparent, and universal approach to sustainable development. The SDGs’ aspirations for a safe global context in which all human beings can thrive is a major challenge to realize given the unprecedented numbers of armed conflicts and “natural” disasters occurring throughout the world. The SDGs will apply to all countries but carry different responsibilities so that rich countries become responsible for making technology and funds available for those with less of these. They will also be nationally focused and targeted to make them more easily achievable. The SDGs include men, women, and children in their scope, and, in a further bid to achieve sustainability, the SDGs seek to achieve a harmonious relationship with nature. However, of the 16 SDGs, only Goal 5 makes specific reference to gender by requiring all nations to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Like the MDGs, SDGs will be difficult to enforce. Although there are monitoring requirements, a government who cannot or will not make the necessary resources available will not face any sanctions other than the opprobrium of others. Social workers can play important roles in monitoring progress, advocating with and for women in policy for evaluating progress in the realization of SDGs and mobilizing women’s groups for transformative changes in their circumstances.

Ecofeminism has tied economic development with environmental degradation and the undermining of women’s lives. Vandana Shiva, a widely acknowledged ecofeminist in India, has sought to understand and theorize the development of underdevelopment and subordination of the interests of women, especially those involved in agriculture, and the global South generally by multinationals in the global North. She has also sought to protect the agricultural heritage of landless and small peasant farmers including their seed stores (Shiva, 2005).

This view has gained increasing support among those arguing for forms of sustainable development that replace the integration of neoliberal forms of socio-economic industrialization, the ruthless exploitation of the earth’s resources, including its flora, fauna, physical environment, and inhabitants, and mass urbanization (hyper-urbanization) with renewable energy–based forms of development that are inclusive and place people as the custodians of the biosphere and physical environment so that the planet will survive for use by future generations (Dominelli, 2012a). Thus, in using an intersectional gendered lens to critique neo-liberal industrial development and mass urbanization as the means to preserve the earth, sustainable development from this feminist perspective today goes beyond the World Commission on the Environment and Development Report or Brundtland Commission Report’s (1987) definition of sustainability as a means of ensuring “the growth of human progress through development without bankrupting the resources of future generations.”


Gender equality remains a goal for humanity to achieve. Despite the considerable effort that has gone into its realization in the past half century, much more remains to be done, and women remain at the bottom of most indices involving income, wealth, ownership of land, participation in governance structures in political and financial institutions, and leisure time, while being at their apex with regard to household chores and care of families/kin and neighbors. However, women’s scholarship and research as well as their daily life practices reveal that women have contributed much to the world all human beings inhabit, whether this is formally acknowledged or not. While women have far to go to claim our places in a thriving, egalitarian, and ecologically responsible world, the 2014 World Survey reminds us how to assess and benchmark our progress toward gender equality. This is to consider whether development initiatives promote women’s capabilities; women’s enjoyment of rights; sharing of unpaid work among men and women; and women’s equal participation as actors, leaders, and decision-makers in a world that they too create.

Further Reading

Bradshaw, S., Catellino, J., & Diop, B. (2013). Women’s role in economic development: Overcoming the constraints. Background research paper submitted to the High Level of Panel Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. New York: United Nations.Find this resource:

    Buckingham, S., & Kulcur, R. (2009). Gendered geographies of environmental injustice. Antipode, 41(4), 659–683.Find this resource:

      Dominelli, L. (2005). Community development across borders. International Social Work, 48(6), 702–713.Find this resource:

        Dominelli, L. (2006). Women and community action. Bristol, U.K.: Policy Press.Find this resource:

          Dominelli, L. (2013). Mind the gap: Built infrastructures, sustainable caring relations and resilient communities in extreme weather events. Australian Social Work, 66(2), 204–217.Find this resource:

            Midgley, J. (2013). Social development: Theory and practice. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

              Murayama, M. (Ed.). (2006). Gender and development: The Japanese experience in comparative perspective. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                Orme, J., Dominelli, L., & Mullender, A. (2000). Working with violent men from a feminist social work perspective. International Social Work, 43(1), 89–105.Find this resource:

                  Pelling, M. (Ed.). (2003). Natural disasters and development in a globalizing world. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                    Reichert, E. (1998). Women’s rights are human rights: Platform for action. International Social Work, 41(3), 371–384.Find this resource:

                      World Bank. (2012). World development report 2012: Gender equality and development. Washington, DC: World Bank.Find this resource:

                        World Bank. (2013). Inclusion matters: The foundation for shared prosperity. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank.Find this resource:


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                                                                                      Singer, H. W., & Chen, J. R. (1998). Development economics and policy: The conference volume to celebrate the 85th birthday of Professor Sir Hans Singer. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

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                                                                                            Walmsley, C., Strega, S., Brown, L., Dominelli, L., & Callahan, M. (2005). More than a playmate, less than a co-parent: Fathers in the Canadian BSW curriculum. Canadian Social Work Review/Revue canadienne de service social, 26(1), 73–96.Find this resource:

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