Does gender sensitisation work?

The strategy of gender sensitisation encourages critical reflection on prevalent assumptions to mount a challenge to gender stereotypes. Can it undermine embedded beliefs? The success of gender sensitisation programmes in contexts such as Zambia is an urgent question.

Alice Evans
28 July 2014
Dr. Christine Kaseba, the First Lady of Zambia

Dr. Christine Kaseba, the First Lady of Zambia. Demotix/Ali Mufti. All rights reserved.

How can support for gender equality be increased? One strategy is gender sensitisation: enabling people to critically reflect on widely-shared assumptions that men are typically more competent in socially valued domains and hence more suited to leadership. Such interventions have become increasingly common in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, sensitisation is often incorporated into donor-funded programmes as the default gender element. But does it work? Can it undermine long-standing beliefs? Is change possible within a generation?

This is a pressing question in a context such as Zambia (in Southern Africa), where men are often stereotyped as breadwinners and leaders. Although people are increasingly aware of women’s economic contributions (reflecting rising female employment), many still presume that women are typically less competent and less deserving of status than men. Such assumptions impede egalitarian social change, leading voters and employers to overlook female candidates. Even if a woman does not personally endorse these sexist views, she may nevertheless conform due to concerns about cultural expectations. Similarly, men often eschew unpaid care work in order to maintain their masculinity and secure social respect.

Gender sensitisation programmes in Zambia are numerous. They include workshops for parliamentarians on gender-based violence, training for community leaders in low-income areas, peer education in schools, radio discussion programmes, as well as school lessons on gender equality. In ‘Civics’ classes, secondary school students are taught and examined on the social construction of gender roles and responsibilities, as well as the laws and customs that discriminate against women.

The effectiveness of these interventions varies. When sessions are participatory – providing a safe space to share and discuss differing views and experiences, and challenging each other’s accounts – sensitisation often leads participants to question their gender stereotypes and presumptions about cultural expectations.  By hearing others express support for flexibility in gender divisions of labour, participants often revise their presumptions about cultural expectations. Whereas men might otherwise fear that they might be ridiculed for doing ‘women’s work’, such concerns lessen when their neighbours voice approval.

However, sensitisation in Zambia is rarely participatory. It typically exposes participants to the abstract ideas of gender equality – ‘women can do what men can do’; ‘50:50 in decision-making’ – but seldom allows them to debate gender stereotypes. Men and women who I interviewed often narrated that their experiences of sensitisation (either in school or in workshops) had just comprised note-taking, without discussion. Such information-provision does not provide learners with reason to revise their presumptions about cultural expectations. Accordingly, even after learning about gender in Civics, male students are often still reluctant to sweep outdoors, for fear they will be mocked by passers by.

Participants whose experiences of gender sensitisation merely comprised rote-learning generally recalled that they had perceived the subject as unimportant: to be learnt for the exam and then forgotten. This was reflected in their apparent difficulty in remembering taught content, with regards to the social construction of gender relations.

Another impediment concerns facilitators’ attitudes and behaviour. Scaling up gender sensitisation, in a largely partriachal context, often requires mobilising trainers with limited commitment to gender equality. Civics teachers, for example, are sometimes openly sceptical of taught content, denying that men should cook or clean at home.

The syllabus is also contradicted through behaviour. I once observed a Civics teacher leave her lesson on human rights in order to beat the noisy, unsupervised class next door. The children objected, “Madam, corporal punishment, isn’t it a violation of children’s rights?” She responded, “You children, you don’t listen, so we just have to use a whip for you to listen”. Widespread corporal punishment leads students to think that rights only exist on paper: to be learnt for the exam but not expected to be enforced in real life. Similarly, although students learn about the social construction of gender roles, when teachers do not enforce class-cleaning rotas and boys do not become accustomed to this work, they often resist it as ‘girls’ work’.

The effectiveness of gender sensitisation also seems contingent upon participants’ experiences of sex-differentiated practices, by which they interpreted abstract ideas of gender equality. Participants – from across the socio-economic and generational spectrum – seemed most supportive of equal competence and status when they were able to make sense of it through first-hand evidence of women demonstrating equal competence in socially valued (masculine) roles. Prolonged exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour is commonly perceived as disconfirming evidence of gender stereotypes, relating to both competence and status.

Echoing a broader trend, Matthew, a 47 year old market trader, described how “at first we thought maybe it is a joke." But “after seeing what they were talking about, it’s now that we came to realise”. Henry, a 30 year old miner, explained that he immediately concurred with messages about women’s equal capabilities because he had been single-handedly brought up by his mother, a market trader and grassroots politician.  He observed: “see what is right; not that you follow it automatically but if it makes sense to you”.   

These findings – derived from qualitative research undertaken in Kitwe (the largest city in the Zambian Copperbelt) – suggest that scaled-up forms of gender sensitisation are seldom effective. In order to be convinced of equal competence in socially valued domains, people require first-hand evidence. This often takes the form of personal exposure to women demonstrating their equal ability to perform roles previously thought to be beyond their abilities. Although such exposure is increasing, in a context of rising female employment, it is far from universal. Women still face numerous constraints.

One way of amplifying exposure to flexibility in gender divisions of labour would be to introduce active labour market policies, such as quotas. Television programmes might also play an important role in alleviating the burden. In order to encourage men to share care work, Nollywood films, local soap operas and televised cooking competitions could normalise the wishful slogan – inscribed in school Civics books – that ‘men can do what women can do’.

But when respected authorities do not communicate personal support for an egalitarianism that challenges gender assumptions, and there is a parallel gap in popular culture, people are not provided with any reason to rethink their presumptions about the types of behaviour likely to be respected by others. Participatory gender sensitisation can be transformative, but it is dependent on support on all fronts.

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