The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an exciting opportunity to see real progress on gender equality. From a narrow focus on education and maternal health under the Millennium Development Goals, targets related to gender equality are now included across a range of the goals, including: education and health, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities, and decent work. The new goal on gender equality itself highlights the previously less visible issue of unpaid care with a target calling for it to be recognised and valued. It is hidden issues such as these and the underlying gender norms that sustain gender inequality that need far more attention if positive and sustainable change is to be achieved.
Placing Gender at the Heart of Research
Since 2005, the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research has commissioned high quality social science research addressing the international development goal of reducing poverty amongst the poorest in the world. The recent Evidence Synthesis Research Award (ESRA) undertaken by Sarah Bradshaw, Brian Linneker, Charlotte Nussey and Erin Sanders-McDonagh from Middlesex University, explores how awards made by the Joint Fund have contributed to understandings of gender and poverty. The report recommends that future research should include gender as a central overarching question with studies focusing on how to measure all aspects of gendered well-being, and to better understand what initiatives work best to improve women’s position and situation in the household and community.
The report also highlights new evidence produced by the Joint Fund research around women’s experiences of poverty. For example, research by Williams focusing on self-improvement neighbourhood groups for women in India shows how, because the groups are based on a microfinance programme, the cost is too high for the ‘traditional poor’ to participate in.
A Focus on Care
Despite the Joint Fund not having a specific gender focus, 60% per cent of its awards included some level of gender analysis. Insights from the research touched upon some issues that are gaining increasing importance following their inclusion within the SDGs. For instance unpaid care, as mentioned above, once a side-lined topic but now starting to become more prominent within debates. Research by Noble and others under the Joint Fund on lone mothers receiving the Child Support Grant in South Africa underlined the need for unpaid care to be recognised and valued as work. Research participants expressed their pride in their role as caregiver. The Child Support Grant was found to be helpful for the women in contributing to the cost of raising children, yet the way it was administered was detrimental to the women’s dignity – with queues for applying, and negative attitudes directed towards lone mother applicants. Thus in not addressing less obvious issues like dignity, social protection schemes like the Child Support Grant become less effective in that they can deter women from applying. Public services and state support are essential for addressing the issue of unpaid care but they need to take a comprehensive view of the issue to succeed.
The Insidious Nature of Gossip
Awards also uncovered issues ‘new’ to development research such as gossip and shame that impact on wellbeing, and beneath which the issues of social norms lay. Research by Newell and others in South Asia, for instance, found that women suffering from the symptoms of TB were particularly likely to be gossiped about. The social consequences for unmarried women having TB were particularly negative, as this may decrease their marriage prospects due to concerns about their childbearing ability. Social norms that dictate that women cannot travel unaccompanied to the doctor also risk delaying their treatment.
Much of the new evidence from the Joint Fund research has the issue of restrictive social norms at its heart. These unwritten rules of society that govern women’s and men’s behaviour based on gender rules need to be tackled if long-lasting progress on gender equality is to be achieved. Social norms, in particular, restrict women’s and girls’ mobility. Research by Porter and others in South Africa revealed the restrictions girls face in accessing mobile phone technology due to mobility concerns. Whereas boys could roam freely to try to get a signal in areas with low coverage, girls were curbed due to fears of their vulnerability to sexual attack. The girls were also subjected to far greater parental surveillance than boys. Girls’ access to mobile phones, in their parents’ eyes, equated to connection to the outside world which meant sexual temptation.
Looking to the future and work on the SDGs, the report highlighted a number of areas that need further study. As well as unpaid and paid care work, these areas include: gendered mobility, transport and technology, the barriers to women’s entrepreneurship, the rise of the ‘new poor’ as crises such as forced migration affect an increasing number of countries, and the effectiveness of international policy to improve women’s well-being.
New knowledge on the gendered nature of poverty and wellbeing adds a crucial element in the understanding of the impact of poverty, and this analysis provides valuable insights in a number of key areas. This evidence is a synthesis from 122 research grants awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and UK Department for International Development (DFID) Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research since 2005.
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New knowledge on the gendered nature of poverty and wellbeing
Summary of the review and synthesis
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