Unpacking Gender Equality And How To Positively Contribute To Change – Dr Shakira Choonara

We often use the term “gender” but what does it mean?

Often the terms “sex” and “gender” are commonly used interchangeably ( to mean the same thing) but there is a significant and important difference. Sex refers to biological differences between males and females. Gender refers to socially constructed characteristics of men, women, and other genders (e.g. transgender individuals). This means the way society defines the roles different genders have and the different expectations for each gender, for example women and girls must do household chores.

What do we mean by gender equality?

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states that gender equality is a human right. Let that sink, a human right! Women, men, boys, and girls of all classes and races participate as equals and have equal value. They enjoy equal access to resources, freedoms, and opportunities to exercise control. In my own words, I would describe it that we all have equal life chances, that we all have equal footing, and that we are not discriminated against e.g., told that you cannot be an engineer or police officer because that’s not a job for women and girls.

Where do we see gender inequality play out?

It starts off in our homes, you will be dressed in pink or blue from a really early age, you will be given Christmas or birthday gifts based on your gender (make-up or a truck), and the household chores you will be assigned will be based on gender e.g. cleaning and cooking is assigned to young women, while young men are allowed to stay out late and possibly have fewer domestic chores. In our religious spaces, there are clear roles for “men” and “women”, in some societies we see women as young as ten-year-olds being forced into child marriages, this is predominant in most of Africa. At school, there may be bathrooms based on a specific gender but no dedicated bathrooms for students with disabilities (in a wheelchair) or for transgender children. These beliefs and norms are not necessarily harmful and we should be respectful of people’s beliefs. Although, there is a point where these beliefs can be harmful and discriminatory and this is known as gender inequality.

How can we address gender inequality?

On a global level, there is a political commitment from governments, civil society, and donors to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 5 – achieving gender equality by 2030. There are sub-targets such as ending all forms of discrimination, violence, unpaid care work (e.g. chores in our households), and more female leaders.

Governments also have national-level commitments and policies, in South Africa for example, post massive protests such as Sandton Shutdown and Total Shutdown putting pressure on the government to finalise the National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide. We need to work together to ensure the plan is implemented, this also shows the value of organising and protesting against gender-based violence.

Finally, it is up to each of us to learn more about gender inequality issues, and to build awareness in our homes, schools, religious places, and online. We can do this through conversations, creating fun informative content, planning peaceful protests, learning more about our school policies on teenage pregnancy, and volunteering at a shelter for women and children who are survivors of gender-based violence. There is so much we can do!

Where can you learn more about gender equality?

If you want to learn more about gender equality issues, my favourite recommended website would be https://www.unwomen.org/ the social media pages are also quite cool and informative, check out UN Women (@unwomen) • Instagram photos and videos.

Fight for equality, fight for gender equality, fight for all genders, and fight for SDG5!

About the Author: Dr Shakira Choonara is an award-winning public health practitioner, 2017 Woman of the Year in Health in South Africa and a Lancet Commissioner on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing.  Dr Choonara is appointed to roles at both UN Women and the World Health Organization. tweet/ insta @ChoonaraShakira