Blog: Sustainable development demands gender inclusivity

Solidaridad has established a gender task force to ensure that inclusivity remains an effective component of its global sustainability programmes. For Women’s History Month this March, Solidaridad Executive Director Nico Roozen shared his thoughts on why women are crucial for a sustainable future and what challenges they face. Read more in his blog below.

  • The business case for gender; an innovation of the rights-based approach.
  • Being a farmer is not preferred by girls and women.
  • Education, a professional career and cultural changes are decisive.
  • Postponing motherhood to safeguard the future of Africa and the world.

It’s been a long-time practice of Solidaridad to define aspects of sustainable and inclusive economic development in terms of a business case. Is this also applicable for the issue of gender inclusivity?

Indeed, it is. We don’t look at gender from just the perspective of a rights-based approach anymore, which is the more traditional way of addressing gender-related inequality and inclusion. Simply proclaiming entirely legitimate and fully justified rights for girls and women isn’t necessarily a recipe for success in and of itself. Setting an ideal is much different than making it a reality.

A so-called incentive- or opportunity-based approach could add a new dimension to help overcome the deadlock of polarisation and division often brought about by current approaches. A strategy based firmly on shared interests, and aimed at facing common challenges, could unite men and women from both conservative and progressive orientations.

Benefits of an opportunity-based approach

Equal opportunities lead to better results. In this respect, at least three aspects are relevant. By choosing for inclusive development, society can tap into the unused potential of women by offering fair chances. Moreover diversity – gender diversity – gives better results, better decision making and better cooperation. All told, women are also generally better at giving the benefits of their work back to their communities and families.

Only values create value

Talking about a gender-business case is interesting and an attractive way of looking at this issue from a new angle. But in my experience, more will be required. We need more than special interests alone to drive this agenda. Value-driven passion and dedication are needed to make real change possible. And the amazing thing is that values will create value.

The excuses are endless. In some societies, real progress has been made in achieving gender equality. Some say, no more action is needed. In most places, however, there are still serious social and economic challenges. Cultural and religious barriers are difficult to overcome and often lead to disputes.

What women endure

Unfortunately, the world is still not a safe place for women and girls. The challenges for girls begin before they are even born. In many single-child families, boys are preferred over girls. In some countries millions of abortions – or even worse – have disturbed the birth ratio between boys and girls. This is perhaps the least discussed violation of human rights of our time.

In addition, genital mutilation has destroyed the quality of life of probably 125 million girls. Sex slavery and prostitution have become big business with a turnover of 210 billion dollars. If society would make this investment in the education of children, the world would look much different.

In conflict and war zones, the position of girls and women is the most vulnerable. This broader context has an impact in the communities in which Solidaridad is working – in the rural areas, the mining communities and in the garment factories.

Moreover, there are serious issues in relation to Solidaridad’s field of expertise – sustainable production. Women still face limitations in the workforce just because they are women. Research has shown there are gender-based yield gaps. Women, meanwhile, provide the majority of labour on African farms, but on average, their yields are as much as 13 to 25 percent lower, according to a report of the World Bank published last year. In general, women work more than men do, while they earn less and own less. Work is often not a safe place and working conditions are not adapted to their needs as women. Imbalanced power relations between men and women easily lead to abuse.

Certification tends to fail

With regards to fair sustainability certification schemes, we have to conclude – in spite of inspiring good practices – that gender strategies have not been entirely effective. Gender clauses in certification schemes did not bring the change that was envisioned. Gender-related criteria in codes of conduct have proven to be hard to audit in all the sectors in which Solidaridad works: in agriculture, mining and the textile sectors. Persistent problems remain:

  • sexual intimidation and abuses on the work place
  • heavy, physically demanding work for women
  • long working hours without adequate compensation
  • no career perspectives for women as entrepreneurs or contracted workers

Climbing the income ladder

For the role of women in agriculture, it’s not sufficient to focus only on improving working conditions for women farmers. A more fundamental question has to be answered. Do women want to be farmers? We’ve learned from the sons of farmers that most of them prefer not to become a farmer. But we’ve never asked the daughters. They would probably give the same answer, and mothers would often agree because it’s hard labour. The next generation wants to become a nurse or a teacher, or even a doctor or a professor or – you can't be ambitious enough – why not the first female president of the country. Climbing the income ladder is a crucial factor in the emancipation process. Women are actually overrepresented in the lower segments of the income ladder.


The looming question is: what effect will the modernization of the agricultural sector have on the position of women in agriculture? Modernization will highly depend on a conscious career choice based on consideration of alternatives, on entrepreneurial farming, mechanization, spacial planning creating a viable farm size, market-oriented cultivations plans, etc. Are there women with the ambition to take a role in this modernization process? A female farmer may want to drive a tractor, but repair one?

The experience in different parts of the world is that the post-modern generation of farmers encompass less than 1% of female-owned farms.

Cultural change above all

The long-term perspective for daughters of the farmers seems to be found outside agriculture. Modernization will most likely take about four generations over a period of a hundred years. Practically speaking, the short-term objective for the generation of today will be to improve the conditions for women on the farm by offering better chances. But outflow from the agriculture sector should become a real option for future generations by offering education for girls and the creation of alternative jobs for them with better perspectives.

We know from earlier experiences that the emancipation of women is closely linked to access to education and jobs. Earning one’s own income creates an independent role for women in society and is a precondition for tearing down the social, cultural and religious barriers to equality. Cultural change is the biggest challenge in this process. Religions have to go through a process of ‘modern enlightenment’ and cultural values and patterns have to be reinterpreted from the perspective of equality between men and women. Courageous women who break through these barriers deserve all our support.

Africa’s future: postponing motherhood

Furthermore, gender inclusivity has a high relevance for the issue of rapid population growth. Education and professional career options for girls encourages them to postpone the responsibilities of motherhood in order to increase their earning potential for their future families.

My mother was a child in a family of eight children; I am one out of four. I have three children and my children will have only two children. Four generations were needed to bring the reproduction rate to a level suitable for a modern society like the Netherlands. China took a drastic approach and has achieved sustainable reproduction rates in one generation due the its one-child policy.

Democracies, however, are incapable of agreeing on these types of mandatory measures. In this century, we will see Africa become a linking pin in the world. With estimates indicating Africa as a whole will grow from a current population of 1 billion to a future population of 3.6 billion by the end of this century, Africa will see rapid growth in its poorest areas. As long as women are valued mainly for the number of children they give birth to, this growth curve can not be reversed.

Only when cultures appreciate the added value of an educated woman and her successful integration in society, can we adequately address the huge demographic challenge Africa will be facing in the coming years.

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse (14-03-2017).