Development, Gender and Conflict

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

August 2004

Millennium Goal 3

Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

Unequal Treatment

Women face unequal treatment all around the world. But asymmetry is often greatest in developing countries. In many cases, the uneven treatment is perpetuated by unequal access to formal education. When girls spend fewer years in school than boys (as they often do), they have fewer chances to succeed as a professional.


Guaranteed schooling for girls is a fundamental step toward gender equality. When considering measures for improving gender equality, one should note that data from developing countries is hard to interpret and compare. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), data on girls' school enrollment can be deceptive. In many developing countries, figures on schooling refer only to girls' enrollment and do not include dropouts. In other countries, dropouts are included. [1] Either way, girls' enrollment and retention in school is a visible and measurable problem. Therefore, it can be directly addressed by appropriate public policies. There are, however, other issues affecting gender equality that are more difficult to address. 

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are one such "hidden" problem. According to the World Bank, educational books in Brazil reinforce segregation and gender stereotypes (2002). These books usually portray men as businessmen, active in public life and exercising decision-making power. Women, on the other hand, are usually pictured doing housework or being subservient to men. Even though this problem is well known by teachers and other professionals in the educational sector, nothing has been done about it. This is probably due, at least in part, to the sexist culture prevalent in Brazil. In contrast, the same problem was recognized in Argentina, where the problem was tackled and educational books were subject to evaluation and change.

Teenage Pregnancy

Gender disparities have other sources outside school walls. According to Rita de Cassia da Silva, director of a primary school in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, it is common that girls stop attending classes when they are around 15 years old because they get pregnant. Often, they have multiple children by different men, none of whom have the resources to help them raise the babies. This is often not due to lack of information about sex or contraceptives, but rather the culture and the predominant family structure. According to Ms. da Silva:

Girls begin their sexual life really soon around 14 or 15 when they just get their first period and then they became pregnant. There is great promiscuity. Houses, many times, are really small and the mothers usually have more than one partner. Therefore, one sees everything that happens and this is the example one gets at home: mothers with more than one partner and fathers that have had their children with one, two, three different women.

These mothers, then, serve as role models for their daughters.

Unstructured Families

This family model has other negative consequences.  The father figure is often absent from the homes so effective relationships are not developed, authority is not appropriately established and the notion of right and wrong is not taught. The end result is an unstructured family. This forces the education system to try to fill in the gaps. 

This problem can also be partly attributed to growing poverty. Many families in developing countries have become poorer as a result of "structural adjustment measures" imposed on developing countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Poor mothers have had to work more to make up the difference, which prevents them from caring for their children properly.  As a result, the children stay in school as long as possible to have day care and free meals. Often, these services are valued more highly by the family than the education itself.  Consequently, while gender disparity in basic education is recognized by all as an important issue, teachers face so many problems that they attribute higher priority to other issues. As Ms. da Silva reported:

"So, besides being a "restaurant," we (the teachers) are a bunch of baby sitters that teach children not only to read and write, but we also educate them: "Did you take shower? Did you change your underpants?" This responsibility is now ours and we can't run away from it. If there is not a great structural change, we will have to keep on playing this mother role forever."

Interlinked Conflicts and Processes

Conflict researchers typically separate out different kinds of conflict: school conflicts, family conflicts, gender conflicts, development conflicts, etc. While this may be useful for clarity and academic inquiry, it may have negative side effects for those working in the practical end of the conflict resolution field where all these types of conflicts intersect. This becomes especially clear in developing countries, because those societies are undergoing change in so many domains. So development issues have to do with public policies issues, which mix with a variety of sources of social conflict.

Gender conflicts are typically a crosscutting theme. They require action at various levels and in different domains, from structural change to family dynamics. In an ideal situation, disparities should be addressed on various fronts simultaneously. When such unified action is not possible, priorities should be defined through careful analysis.

What is astonishing is that the 2003 UNDP report on this goal has recognized that the issue of gender inequality is not taken into account in the other Millennium Development Goals. Only those goals that relate to women specifically, such as maternal health and HIV/AIDS, consider gender issues. Until this dimension is factored into all issues, progress will be hampered.

[1] United Nations Development Program (2003) Human Development Report 2003: Millenium Development Goals: A Compact Among Nations to End Human Poverty, New York Oxford University Press. To see repors on the UN Millenium Development Goals from 1990-2013, visit:

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Development, Gender and Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>.

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