A quick gender fact check

Many commonly held truths about gender are not based on scientific fact.
Many commonly held truths about gender are not based on scientific fact.

We think we know three truths about gender in development, says Dr. Seema Aror Jonsson, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Scientists: women are the poorest of the poor; women are more prone to die in natural disasters; women are more environmentally conscious.  But have we been deceived?

People love to include statistics on the gaps between men and women in agriculture – usually framing women as vulnerable and neglected.  But arguably the only positive thing that has come from this trend is that people are starting to include gender in important discussions on land rights, climate change adaptation, etc.  It has also confirmed our ability to count men and women, but not to analyze relationships.

So how did we come to accept these as three truths as the truth? Dr. Jonsson systematically breaks down these truths during a session at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) session on linking gender knowledge with gender action.  The GLF is taking place this 16-17 November in Warsaw, Poland.

It turns out that none of these ‘truths’ are actually substantiated by research, a fact that may make many people involved in the gender field happy. We’re all probably sick of hearing how women are “vulnerable.”

A commonly quoted statistic saying that 70% of the 1.3 billion people living below the poverty line are women, is demographically impossible to be true.  When Dr. Jonsson dug to the root of this statistic, she found that no scientific study had shown that this assertion held.  So we can no longer assume that women make up the majority of people living below the poverty line.

Women are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men, also a statistic that lacks data but has been quoted extensively since it was first said at a conference years ago, finds Dr. Jonsson.  What is hidden behind this statistic is not that the impact of disasters are felt differently between men and women, but that they are felt differently between caste and class, exacerbating existing inequalities, says Dr. Jonsson.

And the third truth: women are more environmentally conscious.  This is a statement that seems so subjective to location, class, society, or relationship as to be void of any descriptive or analytical value. 

So where does that leave us now?

It’s time to start understanding what the real issues are, instead of disguising them by statistics that, when talked about at global scales, can be difficult to substantiate.   The real issue is about relationships between men and women.   And it’s not just about men and women in poverty.  As Dr. Jonsson aptly points out – “it’s much easier for us to make gender an issue of poverty than to view issues of gender as one that spreads across caste and class.”

What we should really be talking about is equity.

We still have a long way to go in understanding relationships. But by recognizing that, by nature, the relationships between men and women are contextually and geographically specific will be an important start.

Blog by Abby Waldorf (IWMI), a social reporter at GLF 2013.

Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)