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Basic concepts

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AIM OF THIS SECTION: Some of the basic concepts of gender equality are presented here. You should aim to understand these concepts and use the exercises to help you examine your own attitude to gender equality issues.

Gender equality

Gender equality means that women and men have the same rights and opportunities in all areas of life. It also means that all people are free to develop their personal abilities and to make choices without limitations imposed by strict gender roles. In a society that respects gender equality, the differences in the behaviour, wishes and needs of women and men are appreciated, valued and supported on the basis of gender equality. 

Gender equality is one of the main aims of social policy in Finland. Gender equality does not mean a demand for identical similarity between men and women, but means that the differences between women and men do not lead to differences in status or how they are treated in society. For this reason Finnish gender equality thinking emphases that the mere provision of equal opportunities for men and women is not enough. The end result of all activities must also be fair and in accordance with the principle of gender equality. 

Since women have lower status than men all over the world, active measures are required to improve their position in order to achieve gender equality. All countries are also committed to this through the Beijing Platform for Action. To achieve gender equality it is necessary to act both at the grassroots level of everyday life and at the various levels of political decision-making.


Gender means the state of being male or female, and in a social context it refers to the social differences between men and women. Girls and boys learn these differences during their socialisation process in different ways in different cultures. The identities of women and men are formed differently because social surroundings impose different expectations on girls and boys from the moment they are born. Gender roles thus start to take shape already at a very early age. In Finland babies are dressed in pink baby clothes if they are girls, while boys are given light blue clothes. Girls are supposed to play with dolls and boys with computer war games. 

Gender in the social and cultural sense is thus learned, as opposed to the biological term sex. The attributes of gender in the social and cultural sense are also variable and differ between cultures and over time. 

Gender roles & gender system 

Gender roles are particular social behaviours associated with gender. They are expected behavioural models that have been learnt and they differ from one society or culture to another. Gender roles develop continuously and are thus products of particular times. 

Gender roles are essentially bound up with the divisions of labour in communities and societies. Such tasks can be divided into three areas of activity: 

Work connected with the family (“reproductive work”), for example household tasks, housekeeping and child-rearing, which is usually unpaid work.

Work connected with production (“productive work”), for example the production of goods and services, which is usually wage-paid or salaried work.

Community-related work, for example taking care of community services, activities and needs, which is usually unpaid work.

The inequality between men and women is often most clearly seen in the division of labour in different societies. In many communities women and girls traditionally take care of the work connected with the family and community activities while the men concentrate on work involving production. Nevertheless gender roles are changing and women in different parts of the world are moving over to paid work as well. Often, all the same, the women and girls engaged in production continue to look after reproductive and community work. They thus play threefold roles within their communities. In many countries, too, women who work for wages are employed in the informal sector of the economy where working hours and conditions are very poor.

The relation between gender roles and the division of labour is closely tied to individual cultures. Gender relations form a power system of economic, social and political structures. The cultural identity of every society is shaped by everyday practice, by, for example, traditions, rules of behaviour, ways of talking and dressing, and so on. These practices express the values and attitudes of each community as to how people should live together and what it means to be a woman or a man in the community. These values, respect accorded and ways of expressing gender that are connected with being a woman or a man form the gender system. In most societies the ruling gender system is a patriarchy – men have a higher status than women. 

Gender-related needs 

As a result of the gender roles of men and women their needs are also gender-bound. Development cooperation normally tries to have an impact on the actual conditions in which people live and thus to meet their needs, so it is important to understand the gender-relatedness of these needs. Gender-related needs can be divided into practical needs and strategic needs: 

Practical needs are the concrete, material needs that must be met in order to satisfy the basic needs of life. They can include, for example, the needs for nourishment, health care and shelter. Practical needs are met by concrete actions, such as providing services, education, credits, and so on. Practical needs are gender-related when their satisfaction is mainly the task of one particular gender. 

For example in many communities it is the women’s job to fetch water. In addition to their other work women may have to fetch water from far away and spend a lot of time on the journey. A development cooperation project can respond to this problem of a practical gender-related need by, for example, building wells closer to the community so that the women save time and energy. Building wells does not however in itself change the division of tasks between women and men in the communities and families.

Solving problems connected with practical gender-related needs does not change the power relations between women and men in a community. 


Strategic gender-related needs are connected with the status of women and men and the power structures within the community. Strategic gender-related needs include, for example, the right to own and inherit money and land, the right to the same wages for the same work, the right to make decisions about one’s own body, the right to develop oneself on one’s own terms, and so on. The satisfaction of such strategic needs requires structural and attitudinal changes in the community. 

The participation of women in the community’s political decision-making can, for example, be a strategic gender-related need. If women are able to take part in making decisions they can change their own status and have more control over their lives. A development cooperation project can support this strategic need in such ways as teaching women about issues concerning their own rights and the structure of political decision-making, and educating men, as well, in matters about women’s rights. 

Activities aimed at satisfying strategic gender-related needs lead to guided change of gender roles in the community and thereby to change in the whole gender-based system. In this way gender inequalities can also be reduced. Such changes require time to take effect but they are usually long-lasting and sustainable. 

It is important to deal with both practical and strategic needs. Enduring and sustainable results with regard to gender equality are achieved by responding to strategic needs, but in many cases a response to practical needs is the first essential step in the process of advancing to the goal of gender equality.  


Empowerment means increasing the resources and abilities of individuals or groups of people to influence and decide matters with regard to their own lives. Increasing people’s power to control their own lives is a process of change that is both internal and external. It enables groups that were previously in weaker positions (for example women or disabled people) to become better prepared and equipped to take part in making decisions that affect themselves and their communities. From the point of view of gender equality the main groups that need empowering are women and girls because their position in society is almost always weaker than that of men. 

An essential aspect of empowerment is that the members of the empowered group, for example the women of a community, must be conscious of their own worth and their ability to affect matters. All the other members of the community, too, must participate in the empowerment process so that the group of people to be empowered can in fact acquire the appropriate strengths. Empowerment is thus important not only as a goal but also as a process, because a great deal of learning and re-evaluation of gender roles is involved while it is happening. Empowerment, and particularly the empowerment of women, plays an essential part in reducing gender inequalities. Support for empowerment enables strategic gender-related needs to be satisfied. 

Gender mainstreaming 

Gender mainstreaming is a key method of reinforcing efforts to achieve gender equality. Gender mainstreaming means that attention is paid to the points of view, experiences and needs of both men and women in all activities and in all areas of the community. It means that the political, economic and social processes in the community are developed and evaluated in such ways that the parties and factors involved in different areas work to promote gender equality and reinforce the measures that eliminate observed inequalities. This helps to ensure that women and men benefit equally as a result of activities in different fields of society. Mainstreaming can affect the activities of organisations of all kinds, such as public administration, NGOs, development cooperation projects, and so on. With mainstreaming the promotion of gender equality is no longer a separate part of decision-making but becomes an integral part of all activities at all levels. 

Mainstreaming is also called a cross-cutting principle, highlighting its presence as a driver at all levels of activity. It must always be remembered that mainstreaming is not an end in itself but a means of achieving an end. The end to be achieved is gender equality. 


Ownership concerns the relationship between the development cooperation project itself and its beneficiaries and others with an interest in it. Ownership means that the people who are in some way affected by a development cooperation project (its beneficiaries and other stakeholder groups) take part in planning and implementing it in ways that are meaningful and significant for them, so that they commit themselves to realising the project and achieving its goals.

It is essential to have as high a degree of ownership as possible in development cooperation that promotes gender equality. If a project aims to meet strategic gender-related needs, and thereby to change the ruling gender system and raise the status of women and girls, structural and attitudinal changes are required. These changes can be achieved only when the parties who are affected by the project feel that they own the project. The women and men concerned must be able to influence the planning and implementation of a project in significant ways that they feel the project to be meaningful and necessary.

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