Guillermo, Patricia


 by Patria C. Guillermo


“Life is a whole, it is a circle. That which destroys

the circle should be stopped. That which maintains

the circle should be strengthened and nurtured.”

Julekha Begum, peasant woman from Gaibandha, Bangladesh


Human beings are the most important resource that maintains the circle of life. Thus, it is important that men and women fulfill their gender roles to attain goals for humanity because without better interaction and understanding of gender roles, working towards sustainable development will become unauthentic and slow.

Considering the huge task of humanity, that of resuscitating, conserving and preserving a dying Mother Earth, this paper presents an overview on the linkages between gender and sustainable development and how gender question should be handled in relation to sustainable development.

Gender and its Divide

Gender in common usage refers to the sexual distinction between male and female.  However, since the 1950s, the term gender has been increasingly used to distinguish a social role (gender role) and/or personal identity (gender identity) distinct from biological sex.   Sexologist John Money wrote in 1955, “[t]he term gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively.  It not solely limited to biological sex[1]

Applied to social science, gender involves the different social attributes and opportunities associated with being male or female. On a broader scope, gender is viewed in the context of the socio-cultural relationships between men and women.  Gender also takes into account class, race, ethnic group, economic status, and age.  And, because of these, gender attributes women and men have different approaches in responding to the various socio-economic-cultural situations in society.  However, these gender differences had developed a wide gender division between men and women.  Due to the dominant patriarchal culture, men’s attribute of being aggressive and strong has ruled over the women’s attribute of being hesitant and weak.   

Patriarchy is based on philosophical, social, and political systems in which men, -- by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor – determine what part women shall or shall not play.  Patriarchy marginalized women in the social, economic, political and cultural spheres of the society wherein the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.[2]

Gender Divide – still a wide gap

The gender divide has a classical root that dates back to Aristotle.  Aristotle was a believer in women’s inferiority, defining women as the “misbegotten male” [3] or “defective male.” [4]  His theoretical biology of women’s nature is stated this way: 

“The form of the human body is provided by the male seed so that every male insemination would naturally produce another male individual in the image of his father. In case of a biological accident, a female matter distorts this male form and so produces an inferior or defective human species called the female.”[5]

The patriarchal order propelled by Aristotle’s view about the male and female was not challenge till the eighteenth century when Jesuit missionaries found matrilineality in native North American peoples.[6]  From then on, many feminist studies have explored on the mythical past of matriarchy. 

These studies had one way or another inspired and influenced the emergence of the several types of feminism that defined the various strategies and women’s action in addressing the issues on gender inequality.  Many women’s organizations have contributed to setting a sustainable agenda through their advocacy and lobbying, developing alternatives to unsustainable development, and making sure that women’s voices are heard and their perspectives taken into account.

Yet the contribution of women to survival and development is not fully recognized. For most societies in the present world, there still persist deep-rooted patterns of gender inequality within the social structures and values in the sphere of the individual, family, community and society.  Many women experience gender inequality in relation to the family and socio-economic status. Generally, women work longer days. Household and reproductive tasks are combined – such as cleaning, cooking, shopping, childbearing, and care giving. Women take charge of the provision of water, fuel and other basic household needs while attending to productive activities in the fields or other forms of income generation. Many migrant women workers, displaced women, single parents and refugees confront additional obstacles that often result in further marginalization and violence against women.

The achievement of gender equality has a long way to go, despite the considerable efforts exerted by the feminist movement.  Certainly, the feminist movement had achieved several victories in the struggle for women’s rights and welfare.  However, gender equality remains a serious challenge in all societies.  Efforts should be strengthened both at the national and international level, if women are to find themselves, not several steps behind men, as in the case today, but beside them in real partnership, both sharing the fruits of development in the family, in the workplace, in the political and economic spheres, in all sectors and at all levels.

Gender is not synonymous to women

The word “gender” is not synonymous with the word “women.” Gender refers to how societies define different roles, rights and responsibilities for women and men. These roles, rights, and responsibilities are variable across countries and may change over time. A key aspect of gender is that it defines the social relations and power balance between the sexes.[7]

To a great extent, social and cultural contexts determine gender relations. Patriarchal values instilled from childhood influence the attitudes of both men and women throughout their lives. Traditional gender roles are the source of humanity’s pain, anxiety, and suffering.  The masculine role demands men to be tough, aggressive, and competitive. This role compels them to suppress their emotions and become insensitive to the feelings of others.  Men should prove their manhood by dominating and intimidating others, sometimes through violence.[8]  The feminine role demands women to be weak, subservient, and indecisive.  This role compels women to easily draw back and always agree in silence.  Womanhood is measured in terms of how they obey their husbands and raise their children.  In effect, these gender roles have distorted the inner-self of the individual that affected the relationship between men and women.

Women are not alone in realizing this imbalance because men too are sensitive to such. In the autumn of 1970, Jack Sawyer, in one of the first public statements made concerning what would become known as the men's movement, wrote and article in the journal Liberation "On Male Liberation" challenged men to "free themselves from the sex role stereotypes that limit their ability to be human." The stereotypes included the ways men related to women, questions of power and dominance in both private and public life, and freedom for full emotional expression.[9]

For a long time, men have been simply reacting to the evolving changes as a result of the women’s struggle against patriarchy.  In the struggle towards gender equality, men have a role to play, but first they must become more conscious of the ways in which their “privileged position” oppresses men.


Matthew Fox noted that men’s realization of their being victimized by patriarchy as slow.  This is so because of the patriarchal values that made it appear that men are not victims at all, but the successful ones in this system.  Fox further stated that, “Male liberation will constitute the next important chapter in the awakening of women’s consciousness, for men too have been victimized by the system that exploits Mother Earth, women, and children.”  [10]

Gender–Balanced Approach to Sustainable Development

Accepting the distortions in the gender roles of women and men is essential towards a gender-balanced approach.  Male and female attributes are not necessarily contradictory and working out ways to complement with each other will make humanity’s relationship with the society and environment more sustainable.  Gender and development actions, whether being advance by the feminist or the male liberation movements, should look at the social, political and economic structures and development policies from the perspective of gender differentials.

Innumerable sustainable development policies to empower women at the national and international level were crafted by various organizations and governments due to the pressures from a strong feminist movement.  Agencies like the World Bank and United Nations have undergone programs and projects on gender and sustainable development. However, the underlying premises of their gender strategies must be re-examined whether this really brings about gender equality or merely underscores gender division between men and women.

Biological and psychological gender differences should be highly considered.  Policy makers should not view women or men as a single homogenous group.  Instead, the relationship between gender differences should be taken as a whole.  An understanding of gender equity is essential in taking into account the different roles, responsibilities, levels of performance, and participation in decision-making.  The roles that women and men play should be made visible.

Gender equity should be viewed as a cornerstone to achieving sustainable development, which is conventionally defined as “the state of living where humanity is in harmony with the environment and his/her fellowmen.”[11] Therefore, sustainable development is not possible without gender equity, so that women and men would live in harmony, in relation to not only Mother Nature, but also living in harmony with each other.  In fact, it is a prerequisite for any action aimed at improving humanity’s quality of life.[12]

Sustainable development strategies should be premised on the promotion of the value of cooperation not competition, redefinition of strength as power-with not power-over, and the adoption of a relational belief system wherein interdependence is a natural state and enabling others is a source of self-esteem.  Moreover, a language that is inclusive for both men and women should be adopted.

There should be a “marriage” between the feminine powers of intuition, sensitivity, gentleness, compassion, receptivity, and reverence for nature and the masculine animus energies of will, drive, passion for order and control to heal the “split” or gender divide.[13]

The goal is to create a world in which women and men are viewed as distinctive beings, equal in dignity and in nature, but blessedly different in important biological and psychological ways.  It is a world where women and men work together to re-create the world in the image of women and men.

Therefore, the task is neither women’s empowerment nor male liberation. It is MUTUAL EMPOWERMENT!



[2] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point. Bantam Books, New York, USA, 1982.

[3] Rosemary R. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk:Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston, Beacon Press, 1993, 96.

[4] Matthew Fox, commentary; text by Hildegard of Bingen.  Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Bear & Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1985, 14.

[5] Armando Tan. Images of Women in Patriarchal Anthropology. In God’s Image – Journal of Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Vol. 21, No. 4, December 2002, 22.


[7] The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Gender Policy, 1998.

[8] Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion. Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco USA, 1990.


[10] Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco USA, 1988.

[11] Dr. Leopoldo J. Dejillas. Paper on Introduction to Sustainable Development, 2007.

[12] Lorena Aguilar, The Unavoidable Current, Gender Policies for the Environmental Sector in Mesoamerica. Costa Rica: The World Conservation Union (IUCN), 2000.

[13] Frank X. Tuoti.  The Dawn of the Mystical Age  Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.