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Easier said than done: Gender equality and women empowerment

This testimonial by Mariola Acosta is part of YPARD's showcase on young people and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls surely requires a certain level of investment and specific policy interventions that directly tackle the root causes of gender inequality. However, these investments and interventions will likely be fruitless if they don´t come alongside a willingness for change and a deep change of mindset from researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the general public.

My journey

Before my Master’s studies I had never given much thought to the consequences of gender in climate change adaptation and in agricultural development more generally. I had what one could call an ‘engineer mindset’ in which increasing productivity was the starting and ending goal of agricultural development efforts. I seldom thought about the relevance of considering who was producing that food, and more importantly, who was benefiting from this production. During my Master’s I came across several journal articles that addressed precisely these issues. The topic, back then completely foreign and new to me, sparked my interest. I suddenly realized the deep consequences of the socially ascribed gender roles, and understood that if we are to fully develop, all agricultural engineers should be thinking of these issues when designing technologies and development projects. Since then, I have had the privilege to work on gender issues in climate change and agricultural development in Colombia, Sri Lanka and East Africa.

Changing mindsets

Over the years, I have come to realize that gender is quite a controversial and a politicized concept. It is something that many policy-makers and practitioners make reference to and claim to always consider but it is, more often than not, touched upon in a very superficial way. If their programs or workshops include a certain number of women, organizers will frequently say “We are gender sensitive”. While including a quota system can be a useful way of getting women´s voices heard, it has proven insufficient to achieving gender equality in all aspects of society. For example, if we apply quota system for women but workshop participants still hold the believe that women can never have equal rights to men, then that quota system will likely not bring any systemic change.

It is precisely for this reason that I consider it paramount to examine how policy-makers and practitioners themselves understand issues of gender. Equally important is to see why, after many years of including gender issues in agricultural policies around the globe, key gender inequalities still persist. For example, in one study we recently conducted, we realized that while Ugandan agricultural and climate change policies have integrated gender issues quite well, when you examine the activities that are actually conducted at district level, there is a big mismatch. In the Ugandan districts that we analyzed, much of the gender budgets were spent on celebrating ‘International Women´s day’. This is a clear example of how the on-the-ground gender activities implemented by government and district officers do not align at all with the gender challenges that the policies had identified. To me, it comes back to the need of understanding better what these district officers understand by ‘doing gender’, what issues they prioritize, and why. It is only when we understand how other people perceive gender issues that we can really start identifying entry points for change.

What is the role of youth in achieving SDG5?

I have the strong belief that achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls can only be achieved through a profound change in mindset in society and through strong, enforced legislation that protects the rights and priorities of people of all genders. Sure enough, mindset change does not happen in one day, but it is time to stop turning a blind eye to inequalities and to stop engaging with gender issues in a very superficial way.

The role of young people in helping shift these perceptions is paramount. We can no longer employ tradition and culture as excuses for allowing basic inequalities between genders to occur and to keep perpetuating themselves. We need to acknowledge and cherish culture, but also acknowledge that culture is not a static entity and that it can, and must, evolve towards a more equal society.

Photo credit: 1 Mariola, 2 Elisabeth van de Grift