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To celebrate International Women's Day, Sabdiyo B Dido, SNV Global Coordinator for Gender, reflects on what gender inequality means and the path toward parity.

As a rural girl, growing up in remote parts of Africa, I always admired and envied the freedom that boys had over me. I remember asking God “Why was I not born a boy?” As a child, I did not understand that it is not God who grants or limits freedom, but rather it is my own society, as a consequence of the inequitable status assigned to boys and girls – ‘the gender effect’. Today, as a senior member of the leadership of SNV, I look back with pride at the strides I have made as an individual and as a woman, and I reflect on how gender inequality is gradually being pulled down.

The concept that binds

For a woman, ‘the gender effect’ is not just a lack of physical assets, it is psychological bondage. Women who have suffered the consequences of unequal status not only need access to opportunities they lack, they also need to de-construct their own mental models, so that they can appreciate their capacity, their self–worth and then assume a new position based on this new status. It takes time to overcome this mental model. It took me a long time, reinforced by lots of education, lots of affirmation, and consistent multicultural exposure.

What does it take to transform gender relations beyond the individual? It requires new thinking on gender, and new ways to address socio, economic and institutional barriers created by gender differential status. SNV believes that making opportunities equally available to women and men is the preliminary step in enhancing equity, and creating a level playing field is fundamental. But to do so both women and men must be involved and the advantages must be clear. SNV calls this new gender approach ‘Balancing Benefits’, and it is underpinned by the clear understanding that gender transformation is not, and never should be, a superficial intervention or a short term objective.

Men are our Equality Allies

It is not just women who are trapped by damaging gender norms and expectations. Men are also captives of similar socio and mental constructs, and interventions aimed only at working with women do not yield much, because the underlying socio and institutional gender constructs remain. For this reason men benefit from learning different ways of interacting with the women in their lives such as: learning to take joint decisions on the use of agricultural resources, how to share family incomes, understanding the value it brings to a family when a women learns new ways of farming, and the health imperative of a smoke free kitchen and access to sanitation facilities. SNV knows that men are important allies in gender transformation. In fact men are central to the changes sought to rid society of inequality.

Incentives for Change

In gender discourses, it is held that women’s status in society is largely a result of men assuming a powerful status. This is very evident for example in how resources are allocated in farming, who controls family income expenditure, and who has access to market information. Facilitating women’s access to training and market opportunities is an important part of addressing inequality, but ultimately ineffective unless the much greater task of overcoming differential power positions is achieved. Balancing Benefits specifically tackles this by challenging traditional power positions and carefully choreographing the power shift between men and women through negotiation- Household Dialogue. Encouraging men to cede some power to women must be sought in socially acceptable ways, otherwise there is a risk of being locked out of the entire discourse. This gender approach emphasises the incentives for change - those benefits for both women and men that will accrue from the socio transformation of gender.

Change is within our Grasp

As society develops, becomes more inter-connected and ‘value for money’ discussions take centre stage, evidence of success becomes ever more critical as the trigger for change. Through our work with Balancing Benefits we are seeing gender transformations taking place every day, for example with the 15,000 couples in Tanzania who are now successfully running their rice farms together.  From my own personal and professional experience I know that ‘the gender effect’ runs very deep and touches every facet of people’s lives.  But I am confident that true gender transformation and gender parity are within the grasp of this, and the next, generation of girls and boys!

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