26 March 2014
International Women's Day Amsterdam 2013 BRIDGES OF PEACE FOR OUR FUTURE: we still have to bridge the colonial gap in the present

International Women's Day 2013

On International Women's Day 2013, we can celebrate the great progress achieved in women's lives. But we must also deplore the widespread discrimination and violence from which women still suffer.

On International Women's Day 2013, we can celebrate the great progress achieved in women's lives. But we must also deplore the widespread discrimination and violence from which women still suffer.

The lives of women around the world have improved dramatically, at a pace and scope difficult to imagine even 25 years ago. Women have made unprecedented gains in rights, education, health, and access to jobs and livelihoods, according to World Bank analysis. More countries than ever guarantee equal rights under the law in such areas as property ownership, inheritance and marriage.

But many other gender gaps persist, and the gender equality agenda is far from complete. In particular, girls and women who are poor, live in remote areas, are disabled, or belong to minority groups continue to lag behind. Too many girls and women are still dying in childhood and in the reproductive ages.

It is far from superfluous to ask why gender equality matters. First, following the work of Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, development is fundamentally a process of expanding personal freedoms, and for all people. Thus, gender equality is at the heart of what development is all about.

Second, gender equality is also smart economics.

Women now represent some 40 per cent of the global labor force, 43 per cent of the world's agricultural labor force, and more than half the world's university graduates. Productivity will be raised if their skills and talents are used more fully. Eliminating barriers that discriminate against women working in certain sectors or occupations could increase labor productivity by as much as 25 per cent in some countries.

If women have greater control over household resources, this can enhance economic growth by changing spending patterns in ways that benefit children. And improvements in women's education and health have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Brazil, Nepa, Pakistan and Senegal.

Gender equality can help society more broadly through more representative decision-making. Empowering women as economic, political and social actors can change policy choices and make institutions more representative of a range of voices. In India, giving power to women at the local level led to increases in the provision of public goods, such as water and sanitation, which mattered more to women.

The good news is that things are getting very much better.

Gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries, and in secondary education these gaps are closing rapidly, and much faster than when today's rich countries were poorer. Since 1980, women are now living longer than men in all parts of the world, and in low income countries women now live 20 years longer on average than they did in 1960.

Over half a billion women have joined the world's labor force over the past 30 years as women's participation in paid work has risen in most of the developing world. An important reason has been the unprecedented reduction in fertility in developing countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Colombia and Iran. Female labor force participation is lowest in the Middle East and North Africa (26 per cent) and South Asia (35 per cent), and highest in East Asia and the Pacific (64 per cent) and Sub-Saharan Africa (61 per cent).

But many problems still remain. Females are more likely to die, relative to males, in many low- and middle-income countries than their counterparts in rich countries, especially in childhood and during their reproductive years. Despite the overall progress, primary and secondary school enrollments for girls remain lower than for boys for disadvantaged populations in many sub-Saharan countries and in some parts of Africa, as well as among disadvantaged populations.

Women still have unequal access to economic opportunities. They are more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers or in the informal sector. Women farmers tend to farm smaller plots and less profitable crops tan men. Women entrepreneurs operate in smaller firms and less profitable sectors. As a result, women everywhere tend to earn less than men.

In many countries, women -- especially poor women -- have less say over decisions and less control over resources in their households. And in most countries, women participate less in formal politics than men and are under-represented in its upper echelons.

Perhaps the greatest gender drama of all is the phenomenon of the "missing women of Asia", first identified by Amartya Sen. These are the girls who have died young as a result of discriminatory access to health care or nutrition, or have been killed as infants, or were never born due to sex-selective abortions, a grotesque perversion of technology. The UNDP estimates that China and India together account for more than 85 million of the 100 million missing women.

Even in Asia's most advanced countries of Japan and Korea, gender discrimination is still very pronounced. Many young women from these countries are "missing in action", as they shy away from marriage and childbearing, and live at home with their parents and follow their careers.

What to do to tackle these gender gaps? Over the long term, economic growth and prosperity can empower women, but as the case of Japan demonstrates, it can be a very slow process. And as the World Bank argues, while gender equality should be a developmental goal in itself, it can also provide a boost to economic growth.

So there are policy actions which national governments and the international community should undertake in the areas discussed above, especially (i) reducing excess female mortality (such as by improving access to clean water and sanitation, and maternal care) and closing education gaps where they remain, (ii) improving access to economic opportunities for women, (iii) increasing women's voice and agency in the household and in society, and (iv) limiting the reproduction of gender inequality cross generations. The problem of the missing women of Asia can only be solved by great efforts to change attitudes regarding the role of women.

Can globalization itself reduce any of the gender gaps? Yes indeed!

First, trade openness, and the diffusion of new information and communications technologies have translated into more jobs and stronger connections to markets for women, increasing their access to economic opportunities and contributing to their economic empowerment.

Second, urbanization and greater access to information have allowed many in developing countries to learn about life and mores in other parts of the world, including the role of women, possibly affecting attitudes and behaviors.

Third, the incentives for public action for gender equality are stronger than ever because the rising global consensus on the intrinsic importance of women's economic, social, and political empowerment means that gender inequality hurts a country's international standing.

But to benefit fully from the potential of globalization, it must be complemented by the domestic policy actions discussed above.

One issue that the World Bank did not address in its report is the terrible sexual and other violence that women suffer in too many countries. This has risen to global attention following the December 16 gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi.

“Global revulsion over the Delhi gang rape should send a message to the Indian leadership to bring about long overdue reforms to criminalize the full range of sexual assault and to protect women’s dignity and rights,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Urgently needed are resources to enforce India’s laws and hold accountable officials who don’t discharge their duties in a sensitive way.”

What hope for the future can we have on this International Women's Day 2013? History shows that very often revolution, rather than evolution, is the path to rapid progress. Hopefully this tragic event in India might trigger a rapid and comprehensive wave of reforms to improve laws and above all their implementation concerning women's rights.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, international women's day, gender and development, world bank, violence against women, human rights watch

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