Every year, during a time oscillating between summer and autumn, my institution the World Bank and the IMF jointly hold their Annual Meetings. Often, concerns about the global economy dominate the discussions. With all that is going on this year, I wondered why the main theme of the meeting was gender equality. As important as the topic may be, it was not going to deliver a tangible outcome in the near future, especially when developing countries in particular are facing uncertain horizons.
And yet, I must say I felt a sense of pride in, and belonging to, this message. The message was bold and visible: Huge banners hanging on our 13-storey building with the faces of women from different regions. In their different tongues they asked the same question: “Equal?” The question brought to mind stories of women who have lived a lesser life because they have had limited options; their attempts to transcend obstacles came at a high cost.
And I remembered…
Many of the Arab reformists in the late 19th century called for gender equality to build a more balanced society. “The Liberation of Women,” by Qassim Amin, written in 1899, was perhaps one of the earliest attempts in the Middle East to improve the conditions of women. Many others made similar calls for women’s education and financial rights. The Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim provoked his society by declaring in one of his poems:
The failures of the East are caused by the lack in women’s education
A mother is a school, empower her, and you build a nation
And I understood, and hence this blog, the reason that the topic of the World Development Report this year is on “Gender Equality and Development.” Focusing on the economics of gender equality, it notes the significant achievements over the past decades in education for instance. For various reasons, however, gender disparities persist in some areas, and progress will falter unless they are addressed.
The report reviews the areas that have seen rapid progress in bridging the gender gaps, and provides a deep analysis of the areas that remain immune to change. Gender disparities are still prevalent in economic activities (earnings gaps), input in decision making (less voice in household, community and society), and disparities based on social norms, beliefs and expectations (reproducing gender inequality across generations).
The report then identifies areas for policy makers to address in order to reduce the gender gap in human capital (health and education), close earnings and productivity gaps, shrink gender differences in voice and limit the reproduction of gender inequality over time. It is a report that needs to be read thoroughly as it analyzes issues and designs policies that will shape the path of development.
To my surprise, what deeply affected me was a secondary issue, and yet one that every woman has experienced, irrespective of income. It is the differing amounts of time that women allocate to care and related household work, as a result of inherited beliefs and norms. I believe these patterns need to be addressed as we seek to achieve gender equality. Only then can we achieve our fullest potential. And, I am confident reformists from the late 19th Century in the Arab World would celebrate.
 Qassim Amin 1863-1908) was considered by many as the Arab world’s “first feminist”. An Egyptian philosopher, reformer, judge, and member of Egypt’s aristocratic class, Amin advocated social freedom and women’s rights.
 Hafez Ibrahim (1872-1932), an Egyptian poet. Was one of several poets who revived Arabic poetry during the latter half of the 19th Century. He translated “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo into Arabic.