Mother and daughters eke a living from street food stall outside their house in Fajara, The Gambia. Support for small businesses and women's access to decent work should form part of the post-2015 agenda. Photo by: Sylvia Chant / LSE.


By Sylvia Chant, Gwendolyn Beetham - 22 October 2014

In 1975, the United Nations held the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City. Planned to coincide with the U.N.’s International Women’s Year, the gathering triggered an explosion in research on gender around the globe, with poverty featuring prominently.

Four decades later, the task set out for us as the editors of the recently published four volume Routledge major works collection "Gender, Poverty and Development" was no small one, and it came at a timely moment. As we get closer to the 2015 deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, development practitioners, policymakers and researchers worldwide have been debating the successes and failures of the poverty reduction framework set out in the MDGs.

For gender advocates, one of the main critiques of the MDGs was that gender was not fully integrated throughout each of the eight goals, and that, as a result, the focus on these goals caused gender to remain heavily circumscribed in poverty reduction policy and programming.

How can we do better this time around? Researchers and advocates such as the Post-2015 Women’s Coalition have already begun offering suggestions. Following these important contributions, we want to share some of the key lessons learned. It is our hope that the insights gleaned from 40 years of research and policy analysis will lead to a post-2015 agenda that befits the complex task at hand.

1. Take household relationships seriously.

One of the most significant early contributions of gender and development research was that the household was not a “blank box” in which all members were treated equally. However, acknowledging the different ways that intra-domestic gender relationships affect personal as well as household well-being still remains ignored by many policymakers and program designers. For example, greater income inputs on the part of women may not translate into higher shares of decision-making over expenditure, or individual consumption, nor may it spare them from lack of reproductive and sexual rights, or gender-based violence, which are frequent corollaries of poverty. Tackling the multidimensionality of poverty as it relates to gender is vital in future initiatives.

2. Recognize unpaid care work.

Another of gender and development’s significant early contributions was to point out that much of the work that women do in the household is not captured by traditional economics, as it does not result in a monetary contribution to the market. Further, the fact that women tend to do the majority of this work worldwide, means that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing opportunities such as education and work in the formal economy: They simply do not have the time. Although time use surveys and other ways to measure these contributions have expanded in recent years, it is unclear whether and how the information being gathered by these surveys is being implemented into significant policy reforms. As Elaine Zuckerman, president of Gender Action, reports in her review of a discussion note recently published  by the International Monetary Fund that claims as 34 percent of global GDP may be undercounted due to neglect of women’s unpaid contributions to economic welfare, such data has made it into rhetoric and to some “compassionate solutions” such as family benefits and child support schemes. But how will measures to address existing injustices pan out in a climate of austerity and global inequality?

3. Mainstreaming is needed, but so are targeted programs for women.

Unlike the MGDs, gender must be mainstreamed throughout the post-2015 agenda goals. There should be gender-specific targets for each of goals, with clear and comprehensive directives for these targets. However, we still need programs that address the ways in which women specifically experience poverty. Research on gender mainstreaming has found that sometimes, when gender is everywhere, it is actually nowhere. Ensuring both that gender-sensitive indicators are in place and continuing to develop programs that focus on women’s poverty experiences per se, whether as household heads or as members of male-headed households, will go a long way to address this common shortcoming.

4. Targeting women should not mean increasing women’s burden.

Programs that speak directly to women’s experiences in poverty reduction interventions, policy and program designers should be careful not to allow new initiatives to increase women’s unpaid labor or to pile pressure on them to shoulder the psychological and practical burdens of dealing with poverty. A direct result of the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and 1990s was a significant increase in women’s domestic and caregiving duties, as states were forced to cut back on services under the direction of the World Bank, the IMF and bilateral loan agreements. In the wake of the latest global recession, austerity measures have again increased women’s care burden as women are forced to pick up slack for the state or watch their families sink deeper into poverty, leading to what professor Sylvia Chant has referred to as a “feminization of responsibility and/or obligation.” Attention to this issue is critical if women are to be able to access their full rights and opportunities — and where attention to time use surveys may come in handy.

5. The bigger picture? Structural problems need structural solutions.

As with race and class inequality, gender inequality is a structural problem and, as such, structural solutions are needed. To use a well-worn analogy, poverty reduction programs and policies that target women, but not the structural root of their oppression, only provide a sticking plaster solution. As the Center for Women’s Global Leadership has noted in post-2015 agenda conversations, this was also one of the primary shortcomings of the MDGs. It is our hope that the post-2015 agenda will not be so short-sighted, and that the Sustainable Development Goals will not only ensure the inclusion of targets pertaining to key issues such as unpaid labor, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, assets, and access to decent work, but will also specify and identify strategies to remove structural barriers to their fulfilment.