A man of no importance

Are men being left out of the development equation?

Over at Global Dashboard, Mark Weston reviews a new book on men, masculinity and development:

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.

When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive…….   but many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive

This is a difficult subject to discuss – one needs to be critical about the interaction between economic and social forces without sounding like an apologist for the worst aspects of masculinity [Disclaimer: I am male]. A particularly shrill example is David Willletts’s numbskull comment that feminism was to blame for the lack of working class jobs for men. It sounds like Men and Development avoids these tropes:

Legal and institutional changes can embed or trigger cultural shifts, but in many cases the latter exacerbate gender inequality by entrenching harmful masculinity norms. As Andrea Cornwall notes in Men and Development, for example, laws that oblige divorced men to pay alimony without also obliging them to provide child care cement the notion that men should be breadwinners above all else, and that women should take responsibility for caring. Microfinance programs’ targeting of women reinforces the idea of the reckless, irresponsible man who cannot be trusted to invest in his family. And the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, itself based on a misleading perception that all such men are perverted or violent, perpetuates the stereotype of men as aggressors and women as helpless victims.

I have written before about the dangers of taking men out of the question (Tim Ogden also has some good thoughts). Our tendency to do so is a natural reaction to the relative plight of women in developing countries. Yet, despite the fact that men are the cause of so much woe, we can’t ignore them as part of the solution .

In which I learn that gender empowerment is really difficult

I want you to be empowered and think for yourselves!

Apologies in advance for this meandering rant. While writing the last post on getting women onto land titles, I was thinking about how difficult it is for external actors to actually change deep-held beliefs and customs, especially with respect to gender.

I used to work at the Ministry of Finance in Malawi, which has long hallways, but choke points a the main stairwell, where only one person could comfortably pass at a time. Whenever two people approached from opposite directions, one would have to give way, and this was usually determined by seniority. Every time a secretary or messenger girl approached at the same time as soime big bwana in a suit (Malawian or ex-pat), the women would always immediately get out the way first. As I said, a lot of this had to do with seniority, but somehow seniority seemed strongly correlated with gender.

When I was a kid, I once strolled through a door at a mall without letting a woman  coming from the other side through first. My father told me off for not following the `ladies first’ rule. I like to think that I’m chivalrous by nature, but it might just be residual guilt from twenty years ago (is chivalry even politically correct nowdays?).

In either case, I often find myself reflexively getting out of way of women around doorways. This was particularly difficult in university, where I’d occasionally find myself holding the door for minutes on end as an entire sorority exited the building.

Back to Malawi – if I approached a doorway and saw a secretary/messenger girl coming the other way, I’d fling myself to the side to let her through, while the woman would think “guy in a suit” and throw herself to the side to let me through. So begins the stalemate, where each implores the other to come through the doorway first.

How does the stalemate get broken? Usually with me, the man, ordering the woman through the doorway first, to satisfy my sense of gender equality. As far as interventions go, we’re in Life of Brian territory now.

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A land registry of their own

Over at The Guardian, Renee Giovarelli makes the case that formal recognition of women’s land holdings in rural India will definitely improve children’s nutritional outcomes:

There is growing evidence that the reason for India’s malnourished children is not just empty pockets – it is, specifically, women’s empty pockets. Women in India have a lower status and therefore less control over resources, both land and money, and consequently do not have the leverage to ensure that their children’s needs are met.


Just last year officials in Odisha state opened the first Women’s Land Rights Facilitations Centre. And officials in West Bengal state have begun adding the names of women to all the land titles they distribute in their micro-plot poverty alleviation programme. Officials in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha and West Bengal are working to ensure that more women find their names on the title documents to the land they till.

This will allow women to fill their pockets, cooking pots and children’s bellies – a bumper harvest for their families and communities, and a better future for all of India.

Giovarelli’s argument is that getting women onto land titles leads to a shift in household bargaining power, allowing women to direct more resources to their children. This sort of win-win situation is particularly appealing to those of us concerned with gender equality and the plight of children in poor countries.

Yet, is it true? The eternal conundrum is whether or not formal/legal shifts in ownership actually result in real de facto changes in household bargaining power. This is a standard you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water problem.

Giovarelli presents two empirical studies to suggest that female land ownership does matter: one from Nepal showing that it is associated with better child health outcomes, the other showing that expenditure on food is higher in rural Ghanaian households where women have more control over land. The problem with these studies is that they aren’t convincingly causal – women who enter into marriage with a better bargaining position are likely to both exert ownership over household assets and push for better child health outcomes. Even if land ownership has a causal effect, we cannot be certain that these self-reported, deep-seated indicators of ownership would be affective by formal titling in any meaningful sense.

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