• Lamlela Plaatjie (South Africa)

Utilizing the capability approach to achieve gender equality



Gendered development encompasses the sociocultural, political, and economic aspects of life that inform systemic stratification. Women and children are society’s most vulnerable and marginalized demographic groups, their perceived inferiority is deeply entrenched within sociocultural structures; a reason why dismantling and reforming systemic discrimination through policy is a tiresome exercise. Regarding ownership of assets and resources; economic opportunities; political representation and physical safety; women are underrepresented globally, indicating that inclusive development remains an aspirational target. Extreme poverty also disproportionately affects women, the severity exaggerated with gender wage gaps as men earn significantly higher. Women’s experiences of worker exploitation in the labor market contribute to the widening of gender income gaps. Unpaid domestic labor is predominantly represented by women, tangible evidence of a division of labor that positions men and women differently. Currently, women only constitute 47% of the global labor market in the formal sector, whereas for men it’s 72%.1 This different positioning signals that there is a power imbalance based on the type of labor performed by each gender. By expanding women’s freedoms to access economic opportunities, ownership of assets, bodily autonomy, and political rights; a power equilibrium can be attained through inclusive policymaking.


The main tenet of the capability approach to development posits that freedom is the means and ends of development. Freedoms are expanded through policies that enhance women’s capabilities through access to equal opportunities; ensuring adequate social safety nets and protection against physical violence. Following this perspective, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a template for expanding freedoms and personal agency by enhancing individual capabilities. According to the capability approach, an optimal society is reflected by the number of freedoms experienced by its people. SDG 5 concerns gender equality and aim to recalibrate the status quo by improving women’s disposition in society. It has been reported that the likelihood for economically active women to invest in child-rearing (nutrition; healthcare; education) and the overall improvement of living conditions in households is higher when compared to male counterparts. Policymaking through a gendered lens is inherently inclusive and pro-growth, it considers and highlights the implications of gender inequality in development.

Women with limited economic resources and assets are at greater risk for exposure to violence from domestic partners; as the opportunity for economic and social mobility is reduced. Legal provisions that safeguard women against violence, exploitation, and discrimination are fundamental for achieving gender-inclusive development. Increasing women’s economic participation has positive social impacts in addition to contributing toward sustainable economic growth. Expanding women’s capabilities by promoting policies that enhance access to economic resources through education; labor market reforms; healthcare and reproductive policies; trade liberalization reforms to regulate industries dominated by women workers (i.e. import restrictions in agriculture) to protect their livelihoods. Regarding gender gaps in the labor market, useful strategies include:

  1. Incentivising unpaid domestic work using government subsidies; social protection; insurance

  2. Vocational training complemented by employment linkages through public works programs targeted at women

  3. Setting sectoral gender quotas for women’s representation

  4. Equal and quality earnings


The gender gap in education is evident in enrolment and school completion rates, basic literacy is a transversal skill and is valuable for employability and economic mobility. Strategies to reduce gender gaps in education encompass:

  1. Campaigns to reinforce the importance of education equally for boys and girls; to challenge gender biases

  2. Ensure access to good quality education

  3. Incentivize school attendance for the extremely poor i.e. household staple grocery parcels for students who meet minimum attendance requirements

  4. Promote Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) equally among boys and girls

  5. Build teacher capacity for gender-sensitivity


In the United States, regression has been made in women’s political rights and bodily autonomy following the controversial 2022 overruling of the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. The Roe v. Wade lawsuit2 bestowed upon women the constitutional right for pregnancy termination, as a result of this reversal, women’s sexual reproductive rights are violated by impeding personal agency. This is considered a characteristic of an ill-developed society according to the capability approach, ironically, the United States is a global economic leader and considered well-developed from a neoliberal perspective. The implications of this ruling have direct consequences on additional pressures on women’s economic resources; poverty exposure risks; career mobility; physical and emotional well-being and productivity. A larger representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions could direct policy agendas to reflect women’s needs and perspectives. Policy blindspots are highlighted by facilitating holistic and integrated approaches to achieve sustainable development mandates. By prioritizing women’s issues through inclusion, sustainable economic growth is inevitable and shouldn’t be perceived as a tradeoff.