UN Agency Opposes Helping Women Solve Practical Problems

Author: Dale O'Leary

UN Agency Opposes Helping Women Solve Practical Problems

by Dale O'Leary

The promoters of the UN's recent conference on women stressed that the conference would focus attention on the myriad problems facing women around the world. However, INSTRAW, the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, one of the two UN agencies dedicated specifically to the advancement of women, circulated a booklet -Gender Concepts in Development Planning: Basic Approach - at the same conference which spelled out why they oppose helping women find practical solutions for their problems. The following quote from the section "Women's Condition and Women's Position" explains their reasoning:

Most development work dealing with women focuses on women's condition, emphasizing such immediate needs as access to credit, basic services, housing and attention to their responsibilities as mothers... Exclusive attention to improvements in women's condition can reinforce patterns that perpetuate inequalities....may perversely worsen the position of women. ...

Women's practical needs are generally derived from existing gender roles assigned to them by traditional patterns of division of labour.., Strategic interests, in contrast, challenge existing gender roles and stereotypes, based on the premise that women are in a subordinate position to men as the consequence of social and institutional discrimination against them. ... satisfying practical needs alone reproduces divisions of labour and power that maintain the status quo.

Strategic gender interests seek such objectives as political equality between women and men, elimination of institutionalized forms of discrimination against women, abolition of the sexual division of labour, freedom of reproductive choice, and prevention of violence against women.

The debate during the UN conference made it clear how the objectives outlined above would be attained:

"Political equality between women and men" would be achieved by mandatory statistical quotas on elective and appointed offices.

"Elimination of institutionalized forms of discrimination against women" would require repeal of all laws which offer special protections to women because of their motherhood or family responsibilities.

"Abolition of the sexual division of labour" would require making it impossible for women to choose mothering as their primary vocation.

"Freedom of reproductive choice" requires legalizing abortion.

"Prevention of violence against women" entails indoctrinating young women with heavy doses of male bashing and feminist fear-mongering, while at the same time denying the effects of sexual stimulation, immodesty and alcohol consumption.

In order to understand the INSTRAW booklet and the mentality behind the entire Beijing Conference, which called for "mainstreaming the gender perspective" in every program in the public and private sector, it is necessary to understand what is meant by "gender roles". The booklet offers the following definitions of "gender", "gender perspective" and "gender roles":

What is Gender: Gender is a concept that refers to a system of roles and relationships between women and men that are determined not by biology but by the social, political and economic context.

One's biological sex is a natural given, gender is constructed. In the words of Naila Kabeer, gender can be seen as the "...Process by which individuals who are born into biological categories of male or female become the social categories of women and men through the acquisition of locally defined attributes of masculinity and femininity. To adopt a gender perspective is "...to distinguish between what is natural and biological and what is socially and culturally constructed, and in the process to renegotiate the boundaries between the natural - and hence relatively inflexible - and the social and relatively transformable."

Just as women and men have different biological sex, they have also been assigned by society - often arbitrarily so - different roles based on their sex. These are known as gender roles - ways of being and interacting as women and men that are shaped by history, ideology, culture, religion, and economic development. Gender roles are learned.

Schools play a formative role, as do the media and other institutions close to home that transmit values, role models, and stereotypes.

There is nothing wrong per se with trying to discover which parts of our sexual identity are natural and which are created by society and culture. The problem is that the promoters of the gender perspective are not interested in a real examination of the relationship between nature and culture. If they were, they would discover that the relationship is far more complex than their definitions admit. In fact, it is almost impossible to separate nature from culture. The promoters of the gender perspective believe, contrary to the evidence, that everything most people consider natural, including masculinity, femininity, motherhood, fatherhood, and heterosexuality, is nothing more than artificial socially constructed gender roles.

For example, consider the question of fashion. The INSTRAW booklet states: "factors as fleeting as fashion and as pervasive as unequal power relations determine the particularities of gender attributes in any given culture." Fashion, however, is not totally arbitrary nor unrelated to natural "sexual" differences. Men and women respond to sexual stimuli in very different ways There is ample evidence that men are excited by visual images, particularly of certain parts of women's bodies. These male reactions are physical and natural. Women's clothing can either display or conceal these parts of women's bodies. Thus, the cultural decisions regarding fashion are directly related to the biological reality of sexual stimulation. While each culture creates different social fashion codes, the decisions are rooted in a recognition of the natural differences.


According to the INSTRAW booklet:

Gender analysis is the systematic examination of the roles, relations and processes, focusing on imbalances in power, wealth and workload between women and men in all societies. Applied to the development process, gender analysis looks at how programmes and policies have a different impact on men and women.

Development programmes and policies should treat both men and women fairly. However, gender analysis is not a neutral process of analyzing the relationships between men and women, but the imposition of a particular value system on every aspect of culture:

The process of gender construction in the world today is not simply a "process of gender differentiation, producing two 'separate but equal' gender roles for women and men" Rather it is a process of the subordination of women as a gender."

Gender analysts make the value judgment that work outside the home is more valuable and important. They are not, however, interested in changing that valuation, where and if it exists, so that the work of women as mothers and homemakers is valued equally. Indeed they are opposed to societal respect for the vocation of motherhood:

While both women and men become parents, women are largely defined by society in terms of their role as mothers, often overriding consideration of their needs as individuals.

Gender ideologues believe that motherhood is not an equal vocation, but constitutes the "subordination of women as a gender". They say they are for giving women a choice.

What matters is not so much who does what but rather who defines the roles of the other and whether both women and men have a choice.

However, one of the central tenets of the gender ideology is that men have forced women into the "role" of mother. The gender ideologues believe that no woman would voluntarily choose motherhood over a career. They insist that women have been culturally conditioned through stereotypes to want to be mothers. According to them, a woman wants to be a mother because someone gave her a doll when she was little or complemented her neatness, or read her a story where women were mothers or showed her a picture of women baking cookies. If all this cultural conditioning were eliminated, they argue, then women would no longer want to be mothers. The promoters of this gender ideology admit that only women bear children and that there are clear anatomical differences between men and women, but they refuse to admit that there are any human instincts The INSTRAW booklet states, contrary to the experience of all societies and the majority of the world's women:

..."nothing in the fact that women bear children implies that they exclusively should care for them throughout childhood. Still less does it imply that women should also feed and care for adults, nurse the sick..."

There is ample evidence that most women, although not every woman who bears a child, feel a need to be immediately present to their children and responsible for their children's care. Men simply do not feel this in the same way. Such an instinct would be beneficial, if not essential, to the survival of the human species.


The gender perspective sounds very pro-woman:

... gender sensitive describes an approach that considers factors rooted in the division of labour and power between women and men and uses information like income and influence to reveal who benefits from development initiatives and who does not.

But does a woman have more influence when her income pays for child care, work expenses, and higher taxes, or when her husband makes enough money to allow her to remain at home and care for her children? The gender ideologues would answer that the income is essential to women's autonomy. but many women consider not having to work, particularly when their children are small, as the true autonomy.

What is interesting is that when women are given the choice, they choose motherhood, as has been demonstrated by the Danish family leave policy - much to the consternation of the gender ideologues. A remarkably frank article in the magazine, Women in Denmark, distributed at the Beijing Conference by the Danish government, explains the situation:

We have in fact achieved what we wanted...work away from home, equal pay, a fair distribution of jobs between men and women, free abortion, childcare institutions and maternity leave for men... the Danish woman has nevertheless suffered from increasing dissatisfaction. for there is also a list of negatives reflecting the price she has paid for her proud equality. Suicide, sickness, divorce, stress. and then the bad conscience which is something of a national syndrome. Bad conscience toward the children who have had their childhood institutionalized. Bad conscience toward a husband who is not sufficiently wanted...

The sad thing is that this woman has had to bear her frustrations alone... But the fact that she has not been alone at all, but has shared her thoughts and feelings with tens of thousands of others was revealed when parental leave was introduced in 1994. Now parents could have assigned to them a whole year's parental leave per child under nine years of age. The facility was available to both fathers and mothers, but it was the mothers who streamed home in their thousands. Midwives, nurses, journalists, lawyers, doctors, seamstresses and teachers - they all abandoned what they had in the way of career options and professional sense of responsibility to go home and devote themselves to their other-wise so disparaged maternal duties ... Women have clearly passed on the message that they have had enough...They can make their mark in the media and in society. But they don't want to.

The promoters of the gender ideology are not pleased with Danish women's choices. Ritt Bjerregaard, European Union Commissioner for the Environment condemns her fellow Danish women for giving up their careers:

I can really not understand that young women dare to give up the independence implicit in being able to provide for themselves. But perhaps they only dare because they have never known what it means to be both financially and emotionally dependent on a husbands.. So it can sometimes irritate me when a woman of promise choose to withdraw from active politics in order to spend her time at home with the family. Of course, it's up to the individual, but this general apolitical trend gives me cause for concern.

Gender analysis denies the solidarity of men and women in the family. Dividing up the benefits of every programs between men and women implies that the interests of men and women are separate and antagonistic. Who benefits when the father/husband gets a raise or an increase in benefits, the man or his wife who is able to quit her job and stay home with the children?


The following statement is typical of the gender ideologues distorted arguments:

The popular perception of women as the "weaker sex" contradicts evidence that women perform many of the same arduous tasks as men.

Women are the "weaker sex". Women are as a group physically weaker than men. This has been demonstrated again and again by physical testing. One has only to look at the records in the Olympics, where male and female athletics are given all the training and support necessary to reach their maximum potential. In every area where strength or speed can be measured men outperform women. One might ask why the gender ideologues aren't outraged that in some societies women are forced to perform arduous tasks for which they are physically unsuited and which cause their health to deteriorate.

The fact that women are weaker than men also effects the question of violence against women. Gender ideologues consider violence against women to be a major problem, yet in all cultures men are more likely to be victims of violence than women, more likely to be murdered, assaulted in fights, and injured in various conflicts. Why is society rightly more outraged by violence against women than by violence against men? Why don't the gender ideologues conclude from this that men are considered less valuable or second class citizens or that women are considered more valuable and thus deserving of greater protection by society?

The term "weaker sex" reflects a chivalrous attitude toward women, which recognized women's need for protection from male violence, male abuse, and the need for protection during pregnancy and childbearing and was used to remind men that it was unmanly and contrary to their dignity to treat women in the same rough way they treated other men. To pretend that women are the physical equals of men or that women do not need special protection during pregnancy and when they are caring for small children will not increase respect for women to the contrary, it will make it more difficult for women.

Various societies responded to the physical differences by creating codes of conduct designed to protect women. It is true that some of these protections place restrictions on women, but those who insisted that these protections be removed should not be surprised that women are suffering as a result

Gender analysis fails to look behind the superficial. Consider the following quote from the INSTRAW booklet:

While the division of labour between women and men changes within cultures and over time (in itself a convincing argument that the division is not "natural" but determined by society), ...

When gender ideologues talk about the division of labour between men and women they are referring primarily to the fact that women accept the task of primary parent. This in turn means that women are not available for work which takes them away from home for long periods. These patterns of division of labour are universal, what changes is the situation. For example, if the cattle are pastured on open prairies, men become cowboys. If the cows are in barn next to the house, the woman may be in charge of feeding and milking them. If the shop is beneath the residence, the woman may be actively involved in the business, if the selling and buying requires travel and long periods away from home, the work is more likely to be done by men. Women are more likely to have a voice in local government than national. The division of labour does reflect natural differences.

Gender analysis is unencumbered by the facts and sees bias everywhere. Consider the following quote from the section "Family Planning and Population Policy":

Gender bias is apparent in the nearly exclusive focus on women's contraceptive use, ignoring men's reproductive role. This has negative repercussions on the development and promotion of male contraceptive methods.

Condoms are generally considered to be a male contraceptive and are certainly widely promoted. It is nature not the "gender bias" of contraceptive manufacturers that has caused the focus on development of new female contraception. It is simply easier to prevent that production of one egg per month, prevent the sperm from reaching the egg or prevent implantation of the fertilized egg, than to prevent a male from producing millions of sperm.

Gender feminists talk a great deal about power, but it is clear that they don't understand power. They confuse authority, power, and force. They lump abuses of power (tyranny) with legitimate exercises of authority.

Male exercise of authority is so ubiquitous that it is accepted by many women and men as "natural". But although it is often enforced by physical strength, authority per se is not a biological attribute. It is a learned behaviour, a privilege, a reward, earned or arbitrary, granted and taken away. Men are socialized to exercise it; women are socialized to defer to it.

Gender feminists talk about empowering women while at them same deprecating hierarchy, obedience and authority which are the key to the exercise of power. It may be that one of the major differences between the sexes is that men have an instinctive understanding of the nature of power and authority which women lack or that men and women perceive power and authority differently. More research needs to be done on sex differences in the areas of authority and power. Unfortunately the gender feminist's fundamental anti-rational approach precludes any serious research into sex differences.


The gender perspective and gender ideology are being promoted at every level of society and around the world, but no where more so than at the UN. For example, UNESCO and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women have put out a Manifesto: Toward a Gender-inclusive Culture through Education. The World Bank has a booklet Toward Gender Equality. The World Health Organization is promoting the gender perspective in all its programs. Next year's UN Conference of Human Settlements, Habitat II, will promote "gendered cities" and insist that all programs be viewed "through gender-sensitive eyes".

Yet at the recent Beijing Conference the promoters of the gender perspective successfully fought off any real discussion of the merits of the gender perspective and refused to define gender. They intend to apply their gender ideology everywhere and have no intention of allowing discussion or dissent.

Sex differences effect every aspect of human behaviour. Men and women have different cell biology, physical attributes, reproductive equipment and futures, hormones, instincts, and experiences, all of which effect their decisions and choices. Culture and society respond to all these sex differences, and integrate them so completely that it is impossible to look at any aspect of human behaviour and say: "This is totally biologically determined" or "This is completely culturally constructed."

Cultures and societies can and have discriminated against women and denied their rights. Cultures and societies can and should be changed so that they respond more positively to the real differences between men and women. Unfortunately the gender ideology will never and can never accomplish this goal. If it is allowed to dominate the public policy dialogue, the condition and the position of women will deteriorate.