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Gender Equality vs. Gender Equity

Gender is defined as distinct from sex in that it refers to the social and cultural constructs which, while based on the biological sex of a person, defines his or her roles in society; thus gender-based violence is taken to mean the violence which is inflicted on a person because of their biological sex. In a parallel sense, a society in which there was no discrimination against anyone based on his or her sex could be said to have achieved gender equality, and more generally, gender equality could be defined as full equality between the sexes.

A more rights-based definition of gender equality can be developed with reference to two of the fundamental international instruments in this regard: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that all humans are born free and equal, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women refers to this declaration in its second paragraph, while repeating the terms “equal rights of men and women” and “equality of rights of men and women” at least four times in the first five paragraphs, reaching the “full equality of men and women” in the final opening paragraphs before Article 1. CEDAW goes on to enumerate the “same rights” and the “same opportunities” which must be available to all men and women in various fields of human activity, including but not limited to education, marital legislation, and labour. Thus, the concept of gender equality may be taken to primarily refer to the full equality of men and women to enjoy the complete range of political, economic, civil, social and cultural rights, with no one being denied access to these rights, or deprived of them, because of their sex.

However, to achieve such full equality in a meaningful and real sense, equality under the law is simply not sufficient, though vitally necessary. The historically inferior position of women, the all-too-often unfavorable cultural and traditional context and the social roles must be taken into account: “Formal or de jure equality, which involves simply “adding women” to the existing paradigms is an inadequate response to women’s inequality. Realizing women’s substantive or de facto equality involves addressing the institutionalized nature of women’s disadvantage and changing the cultural, traditional and religious beliefs that typecast women as inferior to men. It also means recognizing that notions of masculinity and femininity are interdependent…”

Although not explicitly using the term gender, the concept is clear in the phrase notions of masculinity and femininity`, and the message seems to be that as development practitioners, we should recognize the “gendered” stereotypes which prevent the achievement of full equality between the sexes, and attempt to redress them. Various development institutions have built on this concept to develop their own `working definitions` of the term gender equality, as part of the global ` gender mainstreaming` initiatives which have been taking place since the 1990s. For example, AusAID defines gender equality asthe equal valuing of the roles of women and men.

It works to overcome the barriers of stereotypes and prejudices so that both sexes are able to equally contribute to and benefit from economic, social, cultural and political developments within society. When women and men have relative equality, economies grow faster and there is less corruption. Men and women are physically different but it is the social, economic, political and legal interpretation of these differences that lead to inequality between them.

While CIDA offers a more prosaic approach:

Equality between women and men or gender equality—promoting the equal participation of women and men in making decisions; supporting women and girls so that they can fully exercise their rights; and reducing the gap between women’s and men’s access to and control of resources and the benefits of development—is still out of reach for most women worldwide.

It is interesting how CIDA emphasizes the rights-based approach, while the AusAID definition highlights the “barriers of stereotypes and prejudice“ as the main cause of inequality. Another noteworthy comment in the CIDA definition is the mention of “access to and control of resources“ and `reducing the gap“ which will be returned to in the discussion of gender equity.

And finally, the UN Millennium Taskforce on MDG3 Gender Equality offers a highly technical definition for this concept, identifying three main domains` as an operational framework: capabilities, which refers to basic human abilities as measured by education, health, and nutrition; access to resources and opportunities, (both political and economic, such as equal rights on land and property) and finally and of great interest but outside the scope of this essay, the issue of security and the vulnerability of women and girls to violence.

The inclusion of this domain in the definition of gender equality is justified by explaining that such vulnerability significantly reduces the abilities of individuals and households to realize their full potential in other spheres.  All these definitions, while varying in wording and complexity, are based on the equality of sexes in the political, economic, social and cultural domain, and thus ultimately have their roots in the rights-based worldview outlined at the beginning of this essay, while directly or indirectly hinting at the conflictual implications of equality in regards to the various barriers of gender stereotypes.

WHO defines gender equity as “fairness and justice in the distribution of benefits and responsibilities between women and men”, and indeed the term gender equity seems often juxtaposed to social justice.  In general, one receives the impression that while gender equality is used to refer to the overarching canopy of equal rights and opportunities, together with corresponding lack of gender discrimination in all spheres of human activity, gender equity has a more narrow application and strongly economic or rather, material connotations.

In other words, gender equity appears to be one of the many building blocks on the path to achieve gender equality. For example, in Equality for Women published by the World Bank, equity is used primarily to refer to numeric indicators of equality as crystallized by the Gender Equity Index (GEI) which covers indicators across the fields of education (social dimension), income and share of the job market (economic dimension), and share of members of parliament and high-paid jobs (political dimension).


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