Before investigating gender and related issues, it is important to understand what exactly gender is. The World Health Organization explains the concept and context as such, “[gender] refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed … While most people are born either male or female, they are taught appropriate norms and behaviours – including how they should interact with others of the same or opposite sex within households, communities and work places. When individuals or groups do not “fit” established gender norms they often face stigma, discriminatory practices or social exclusion.”

Gender and sex are different; a person may have the anatomy of a male (sex) while identifying as a female (gender) and therefore may identify as a transgender person. It is critical to recognize that gender is socially constructed, meaning that it exists because society has made it so. At birth children are assigned a gender that matches their sex, leading to pink dresses and dolls for girls and blue pants and trucks for boys. This might sound like a stereotype, but these seemingly small social pressures have a profound impact on our lives as we grow up. Gender inequality exists because society is dominated by these constructs, affecting the jobs we choose, the laws and policies we make, and the people we elect, ie: our access to economic opportunities, social control and political influence.

The suffragettes and feminist movements through the mid- and late-1900’s were behind great achievements for women’s rights, such as the right to vote, improved divorce laws and improved access to education and employment. However, in Canada, compared to men, women continue to earn less on the hour for their work, do 20% more domestic work (cooking, cleaning, etc.) and are more likely to experience intimate partner violence and assault. Additionally, feminist gains made in the past benefit wealthy women more than marginalized women; despite many people arguing that gender parity exists in the Global North, First Nations women, immigrant women, women of colour, women with disabilities, single mothers and women in poverty do not enjoy the same number or quality of rights and freedoms as wealthier women.

Sometimes because of stereotypes Westerners consider people living in the Global South – especially in African, Middle Eastern or Asian countries – to have “backwards” views on womens’ rights. Remembering that gender is a social construct and varies from culture to culture, we need to respect that not all countries will have the same attitudes at we do in the Global North.  However, development agencies do work to improve the lives of women in the Global South through education, skills training, access to health care and reproductive services and more.  It is well understood in development work that when women are empowered their communities are in general healthier, safer and have more economic success.  We can uphold basic human rights and the rights of women within any cultural context.

Related Issues and Topics Include:
  • Education;
  • Reproductive choice and birth control;
  • Access to work and equal pay;
  • Political representation;
  • Gender-based violence, violence against sexual minorities;
  • Access to healthcare, legal assistance, housing, and other services;
  • Transgender rights;
  • LGBTTQ* rights;
  • Women and transgender people in sport;
  • Intersectionality of gender and ability, race or ethnicity;
  • Gender equity and gender equality

(Information from Manitoba Education, Grade 12: Global Issues)

See all posts related to Gender Politics.