Gender is a dynamic concept, which looks at the interrelationship between men and women in the context of their society and roles in that society. Gender roles are defined as the social and cultural traits that different societies assign to males and females. Such gender roles are the patterns of behaviour, rights and obligations defined by a society as appropriate for each sex. A gender perspective is a way of looking at situations and issues taking into account the respective roles and contributions of men and women in society.
In practically all cultures, women have a lower status than men. The differences between women and men in terms of enjoyment of rights, responsibilities, decision-making and access to food and other resources needs to be understood if efforts to improve health and nutrition are to succeed. It is recognized that a gender analysis of such inequalities and their consequences can result in more effective approaches to health, nutrition, water and sanitation promotion, disease prevention, health care and services, and research.
Women's economic, educational and health status is fundamental to human survival. Women are the main conduits for health knowledge, the main providers of health care and the primary carers of children. The consequences of woman's ill-health for her family and society are often severely underestimated. This is in part because women are statistically “invisible” in data and, as a result, priority-setting approaches can easily ignore women, in particular poor women and female children. It is increasingly recognized that development policies, including health policies, may fail or have very different outcomes than planned if gender is not considered.
Because women have so many roles in society, most of which are “hidden” from standard economic analysis, it is argued that women are often the “shock absorbers” for the neo-liberal economic policies most usually associated with globalization. For example, it is well known that when school fees or health fees are raised as part of efforts to reduce public spending, women and girls are the first to stop receiving education or health services. In addition, the movement from hospital-based to community care is placing an increasing burden on women, who traditionally care for the ill.
There is a debate about whether globalization has a different impact on men and women. It is argued, for example, that 90% of jobs created by FDI in export processing zones are given to women. This may then mean that women are lifted out of absolute poverty, or it may mean that wages and conditions are poorer than those otherwise offered to men.
It is also argued that the health consequences of globalization are more likely to affect poor women than poor men. For example:
- Pregnant women account for many of the deaths from malaria.
- TB is more prevalent among poor women than men as they have worse nutrition and are more likely to be confined to the home and less likely to receive treatment during their illness.
- HIV/AIDS is increasingly affecting women: of the 4.2 million new HIV infections that occurred in 2002, 2 million or 48% were in women and over time the incidence of HIV infections is rising faster for women than men. Women also bear the further burden of caring for sick relatives and have far less opportunity to control their own sexual health, making them more vulnerable to HIV infection.
Traditionally trade policies have been considered to be “gender neutral” However, evidence is emerging that women economic globalization (including trade expansion) has a worse economic impact for women than for men. The effect of globalization on women is magnified as a result of existing patterns of inequality between women and men, including:
- Distribution of the labour force by sector. In most countries, women and men are distributed differently across manufacturing sectors, between the formal and informal sectors, and within agriculture. The uneven impact of globalization by sector therefore has gender-based effects, including increased female employment in labour-intensive manufacturing and increased male unemployment in formerly protected industrial sectors.
- Areas of comparative advantage. For many developing countries, an area of comparative advantage is low-wage, labour-intensive employment, such as garment manufacturing (in which women predominate in the workforce). An export strategy based on low-wage female labour may increase the proportion of women in the labour force but may also increase the overall wage gap between women and men and decrease the prospects for closing this gap.
- Distribution of productive assets. The ability to benefit from new opportunities is related to access to productive assets - including education, skills, property, credit - to which women traditionally have less access than men.
- Distribution of unpaid household labour between women and men. Women continue to carry out a larger share of the work necessary to maintain families than men do. This necessary but unpaid work is generally not considered in trade policy debates.