3.1 Gender roles and equality

As you know, men and women have different reproductive organs and also differ in other aspects of anatomy and characteristics such as facial hair. These differences define a person’s sex, but they do not define their gender.

You may think that the terms gender and sex are the same and can be used interchangeably, but this is not the case. Sex is a biological category based on physical differences and different reproductive functions. Gender is not defined by biology but is based on the roles in society, both in public and private life, that are associated with being male or female. It refers to the social and cultural attributes and behaviours that we tend to assume are typical of men or women. The Training Manual on Gender Planning in WASH (MoWIE, 2017) lists some examples of gender-related assumptions including:

  • Girls are gentle/boys are tough
  • Men have the power/women do not
  • Men are logical/women are emotional
  • Women are shy/men are not
  • Men should work outside the family/women should work within the family
  • Men are leaders/women are not.

These attributes are not predetermined but arise from traditional expectations of individuals and society, which assign these roles and relationships to men and women. From early childhood, girls and boys learn that these are their expected roles and there is often considerable social pressure to conform to these norms. However, it is important to note they are not fixed and can be changed.

These gender-related assumptions about men and women give rise to the traditional roles they are expected to play in society. Typically, men are expected to earn money for the family but not to undertake domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning and washing clothes, or to help with childcare. If they have community roles, these tend to involve management and leadership.

Women’s roles are more complex. They have the main responsibility for looking after the children and home, and possibly the care of older, sick or disabled relatives. In addition, they undertake paid work or other activities to provide an income, and they frequently participate in community organisations and activities. This combination of responsibility is described as women having a triple role (Moser 1995, cited in Coates 1999). The three roles are:

  • reproductive role – childbearing and caring for children, unpaid domestic tasks to sustain the home (cooking, fetching water, cleaning, washing clothes, etc.)
  • productive role – work done to produce goods and services for consumption or trade
  • community role – tasks and responsibilities carried out for the benefit of the community, usually voluntary and unpaid.

Some of these tasks are illustrated in Figure 3.1.

Figure 3.1 The many roles of women.

Case Study 3.1 Womitu’s busy life

Womitu is 21 years old and lives in Derashe town. Her parents believe that girls should get married early, so they organised an arranged marriage for her when she was 15, which meant she had to drop out of school. After a year, Womitu gave birth to a baby boy. Her husband worked as a vegetable farmer and life was not easy for Womitu, as she was economically dependent on her husband. After a while, when she knew her baby was growing well, she decided to sell some fresh vegetables in the village and earn additional money to support her family. Her husband agreed with the idea, and Womitu started the business, leaving her baby at her parents’ house. After a couple of months, Womitu joined a cooperative so she could access a loan to strengthen her business. As well as her family and business commitments, Womitu is sociable and an active participant in community associations like ekub and edir.

  • Read Case Study 3.1 and then briefly describe the different roles played by Womitu.

  • Womitu has a reproductive role caring for her son and the family home. She grows and sells vegetables in a productive role that brings in income. And she has a role in the community as a member of the cooperative and the community associations.

Even though both women and men do productive work that brings income into the household, the work of women is typically lower paid and given little recognition. Women tend to get paid less even if they are doing the same job as a man. In Ethiopia, the National Labour Force Survey of 2013 found that average monthly earnings were nearly 50% more for men than women (CSA, 2014). There is also inequality in unpaid tasks at community level where men typically have leadership roles while women do organising and support work.

These traditional gender roles contribute to the unequal relationship between men and women. Women generally have less access to resources, less power and are excluded from discussions and decisions at all levels of society, from their own household level upwards. The goal for an equal society, therefore, is to acknowledge that women have the same human rights as men. Equality means everyone is treated in the same way, so gender equality means men and women have exactly the same status, rights and opportunities. Working towards gender equality means adopting policies and practices that change the traditional gender roles of men and women in all aspects of life, of which WASH is one of the most important.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 3

3.2 Gender and WASH