|A 'save the girl child' poster at a Delhi hospital. |
Creating better opportunities for women and girls makes good economic sense and increases development prospects, according to the World Bank's flagship report published on Monday.
The world development report (WDR) 2012, which focuses on gender equality, argues that investing in women is an economically sound strategy. If women and girls were given access to all tiers of education, land rights, more opportunities to enter the job market, and more control over their lives - particularly in respect of family planning - overall development prospects would improve for all.
However, while the report makes an economic case for gender equality, it also acknowledges that it will take more than economic growth to improve women's lives. In fact, rapid economic growth has, in some circumstances, exacerbated gender inequalities.
The report argues that "sticky" issues need to be addressed such as health and education, discrimination in the workplace and lack of rights in the home. High maternal and child mortality rates persist in countries that have made huge economic progress, such as India and China, and, while gender gaps in education have narrowed, girls from the poorest families are still less likely than boys to attend school and have the chance to enrol in secondary and tertiary education. Women represent more than 40% of the global workforce, but are still likelier than men to be employed in low-wage jobs because the responsibility of raising children and looking after the home continues to fall to them, says the report. Meanwhile, the pay gap between men and women remains stubbornly wide in many countries, including wealthier states.
The report notes that attitudes to women are transmitted from one generation to the next, which means a shift in thinking about women's roles is needed. Laws relating to domestic violence also need to be introduced and enforced more strongly in some countries.
The report found that the worst disparity between the sexes is the rate at which girls and women die in relation to boys and men in low- and middle-income countries. "Globally, excess female mortality after birth and 'missing' girls at birth account every year for an estimated 3.9 million women below the age of 60," it says. Of this number, around two-fifths of girls are never born, because the preference for sons remains stubbornly ingrained in some societies. The report suggests that sex selection has been exacerbated by rapid income growth: "Higher incomes have increased access to ultrasound technologies that assist in sex selection at birth."
Commenting on the report, Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank chief economist and senior vice-president for development economics, said: "The main message [of the report] is that gender equality matters for development outcomes and development policy-making."
He added: "Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalised world is not only wrong but also economically harmful. Sharing the fruits of growth and globalisation equally between men and women is essential to meeting key development goals."
The report calls for four areas of action. Both the high number of deaths among women and girls and gender gaps in education need to be addressed; this includes improving maternal healthcare as well as improving access to safe water and better sanitation. Earning productivity gaps between women and men need to be closed. Women need to be given more say within their homes and communities. And gender stereotypes need to be prevented from filtering through to future generations.
Asked how the World Bank expects the recommendations contained in the report to be put into action, Otaviano Canuto, vice-president, poverty reduction and economic management, said: "For the first time we have a framework that is comprehensive enough to encompass not only proposals on how to deal with each one of the specific gaps but … lays out a policy agenda and suggests what to do and how to approach these problems at country level." He said this would make a "huge difference in the quality of our country policy dialogues".
However, Rachel Moussié, women's rights adviser on economic policy at ActionAid International, said the report had failed to adequately address the "sticky" issues or fully understand the impact the current financial crisis is having on women.
Writing on the Poverty matters blog, she argued: "Rather than simply being 'sticky' issues, these are fundamental areas of resistance that the women's rights movement around the world has been fighting against. They are sites of deep-seated conflict and tension that economic growth alone cannot address.
"The bank's economic and political approach is evident, however, in the issues the report addresses and those it chooses to ignore. In a step forward, the WDR recognises the important work women do caring for children and the elderly: cooking, cleaning, and collecting firewood and water. These activities, performed alongside other work, are a heavy burden for women and act as a barrier to accessing higher earning jobs or participating in politics … [The report] does not then consider that their workload increases significantly during an economic crisis … when family incomes drop and public services are cut."
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