Young students in Tonga

Women and girls are often seen as instruments for creating everything from economic development to a better climate. Guest columnist Julia Schalk thinks that we should stop putting all the world's problems on the shoulders of women and girls. Photo: Connor Ashleigh / AusAID (CC BY 2.0 License)

Guest chronicle

What are we going to do with women?

There is nothing women and girls, as collectives and individuals, should not be able to do. Do we want economic development? Invest in women, they distribute income more long-term (children's education). Reduced carbon emissions? Give women contraception so they give birth to fewer children (reduced population growth). Peace? Include women in peace negotiations. Fewer teenage pregnancies? Sex education for girls so they learn the right to say no! Reduced sexual violence? Same solution as for teenage pregnancies. Women's rights and increased gender equality will be instruments for another, more important development.

And I must admit that I have devoted myself to this form of instrumentalization. Usually in moments of despair. As long as women actually have access to those contraceptives, it is acceptable that they must save the climate crisis at the same time. Let the goal sanctify the means, does it matter which is which?

Decision makers in countries around the world have understood the power of women's potential for change. Expert Group on Development Aid (EBA) publishes a report these days on how the construction of many social security systems, with the support of aid, is aimed at women (read mothers). The probability is greater that the money is then used for the benefit of the household, for example the children's education and health.

Good, but the consequence will also be that the role of women as mothers and only mothers is cemented. Admittedly, some programs in Peru, Zambia and Bolivia, for example, result in women gaining more power in the specific domain for which the aid was intended. On the whole, however, it does not seem to affect the status or power of women in society at large.

Women are used as a means of solving poverty - but men? Since our system of thought seems to be built on the basis of clear contradictions, the consequence is that men and masculinity stand for irresponsibility and misuse of means. Our simplified idea of ​​what a woman and a man are comes true when we prioritize our investments according to it.

Could it have been done differently? Absolutely, say the authors of the EBA report. Social security systems can even be used to provide opportunities for women and men to become more than what social norms require of them. A first step is to understand how norms around gender, masculinity and femininity work. How will an increased income affect the power within the family and what consequences can it have? A minimum must be to prevent women and girls from being exposed to increased risks. How does a focus on the mothers in turn affect the fathers' relationship with the children? What would happen if the grant instead created incentives for increased involvement of men in unpaid work, such as caring for children?

Understanding power, norms and different contexts in which men and women operate is not a gender fluke. It is about knowing what we are doing, so as not to aggravate the situation. A gender analysis affects which problems and solutions are considered relevant.

When we put the problems of the world on the shoulders of women and girls, we ironically reduce their value as people with rights. Sure you should educate yourself little friend, but only if…

We also diminish men and boys by not believing in them. Sex education must also be aimed at boys, so that they can question norms about masculinity and sexuality and take responsibility for teenage pregnancies and sexual violence. Boys will not be boys.

So what are we going to do for the women? Nothing at all maybe. But people are welcome to be given the power to change their lives.

Read the report

EBA knowledge overview Applying a Men and Masculinities Lens to the Gendered Impacts of Social Safety Nets can be read in the Development Archive.

Read it!

This is a guest column. The writer is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

Do you also want to write a guest column for Development Magazine? Contact us at

Share this: