Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Re: Think Piece
Written By: Besmira Selimi
Edited By: Eric Frasco
Two years ago I joined a postgraduate Development Studies program. Excited, I began reading theories of development and exploring development policy and practice. Realizing at the end of the program that I had only scratched the surface of an expanding discourse, I set out on my journey back home to Serbia, a country with many social and economic issues that had led me to join the program in the first place. In the meantime, taking the advice of a dear friend, I put on my anthropologist hat and analyzed gender and development issues within my own community.
Living in a rural area, one of the most common social practices of the community is evening gatherings. These are either divided between men and women or mixed, making it easy for me to participate in each.
Mixed gatherings take the form of both women and men socializing in a single area. The first noticeable aspect of this practice is the seating arrangement. Men are seated at what is considered the main part of the room, and commonly take the most space, while women sit at the rear part of the room. Both women and men are similar in terms of educational attainments, with the majority having secondary education and a minority university education. Conversations on the side of men revolve around local and national politics, technology, sport, and occasionally religion. On the women’s side, conversations are of different nature, centered mostly around cooking, child-rearing, and gossip.
Female-only gatherings often take the form of tea parties. Seating arrangements play an important role in signaling social hierarchy, as more distinguished guests are given precedence in the selection of the place they can sit. While all participants are female, the majority of them are housewives and educated to secondary level, and a small percentage having a university degree. The conversation revolves around housework, child rearing, gossip, and largely, subtle talk about their husbands’ and children’s accomplishments. Noticeably, there is a scarcity of topics related to science, politics, or simply put; discussion topics which seem reserved for men.
Women and development is a prominent area of both academic and practical focus, with many questions continuing to be debated. For example, what can women do for development or what can development do for women? How can we empower women to take a more active role in decision-making processes in personal and public institutions?
These questions touch upon an important aspect of development and are especially relevant when addressing at least several Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 4, 5, 8, and 10. A large part of the gender discourse in development is related to women’s empowerment. The concept of women’s empowerment is a process that entails a range of elements such as access to choice, voice and agency, and resources and participation. These provide women with the ability to make strategic life choices, as Kabeer (1999) shows.
Education is considered a dominant force in driving women’s empowerment. The percentage of women in developing countries attending school compared to that of men is still significantly lower. Investing in education has long term benefits, such as higher chances for formal paid employment and income security, increased awareness of legal rights, and participation in the decision-making processes in private and public institutions.
As such, a large part of development aid towards these countries is focused on improving access to education for women. But what is the relationship between education and women’s empowerment in developing countries where education attainment among women is already high?
In Serbia, female literacy and education rates are relatively high. While secondary education is not obligatory, the majority of children, male and female, attend. Statistics also show that female students consistently do better in school examinations. Despite these statistics, a UN study. found that female labor force participation - particularly in rural areas is much lower compared to men’s. Similarly, women’s participation in political life and the government is noticeably low.
So, while the gender gap in education is relatively narrow in Serbia, a year of engaging in these social gatherings brought two patterns of gender (in)equality to light. Namely, beneath the thin veneer of the official belief of gender equality in public rhetoric, patriarchal behavioral patterns remain and are even reinforced institutionally, especially in rural areas. This translates to a wheels within wheels machinery that perpetuates gender inequalities present in people’s lifestyle and systems of thought.
The outer wheels of this machinery were exposed in mixed gatherings, whereas the inner wheels in the only-female gatherings. In the former, with conversations that are complete separate and substantially different, and with merely occasional interjections from each side, only minimal mixing and exchange of ideas or knowledge could be observed. It appears that men deliberately, because of their customary beliefs and practice, dismiss the notion that women of any age or education level can contribute anything substantial to the topics in which they are interested. Moreover, this patriarchal tradition seems to be carried on to younger generations whenever older men give precedence to the opinions of young boys in matters of science, technology, or politics while shunning those of young or older women, maintaining a covert discrimination towards women.
In the latter, the wheel is turned by conversations that are related strictly to housewifery, and any attempt by some women to steer the conversation into the realm of the social, political or technological is dismissed with silence or negligence. But what makes these conversations persist? It appears that the belief that women are less able than and less equal to men is ingrained in women themselves due to overt discriminatory attitude of men, and is sustained whenever women act accordingly to those beliefs.
As it should be realized by now, measuring women’s empowerment is a complex task; it is dependent on many factors ranging from cultural norms, beliefs, politics, location, to power relations. If one goal of education is to empower women by raising their awareness of the existence of alternatives, by giving them a chance to raise their concerns, by partaking in the processes that directly affect their welfare, and by increasing their financial independence, in a Serbian rural context this becomes a little doubtful.
While education is indeed an important route to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, persistent gender roles within households and patriarchal division of responsibilities and interests greatly offset education’s ability to meet its development expectations.
Seemingly, equal access to education as a starting point for empowerment is critical, but it is not sufficient. More emphasis ought to be put on improving the quality of education on all levels, reforming the curriculum, providing more extra-curricular activities that address gender issues, and offering financial help for disadvantaged women to finish university degrees and provide incentives to take up STEM subjects. Only when gender is addressed at level can long-established norms and discrimination against women be addressed.
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