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: In their different tongues they asked the same question: “Equal?”
The World Bank's "think equal" campaign, which launched the new World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development, addresses the challenge of women's empowerment and gender equality well. Preconceived notions of what it means to be a "real man" or a "real woman" are deeply internalized and integral to our identities and relationships. Women and men who seek to mix up this picture will have to do the hard work of acknowledging that some of our most cherished values and assumptions about gender no longer make sense and may ultimately prove to be harmful.
She stared at the money in her palm for a long time while tears slowly trickled down her face. After a long silence Hana, a 19 year old Yemeni woman spoke, “This is the first money I have ever held in my hand that is mine.” “How do you feel?” asked the director of the women’s shelter where Hana had been living in for the past four months. As if reborn and with an empowered voice, she replied, “Strong.” The story of Hana is one example of the barriers faced by Yemeni women. Born into a violent environment where her vicious father abused women, Hana lived her childhood believing that she was worthless.
World over, many aspects of gender inequality continue to persist. Women face higher risks of death at birth and throughout their life cycle. Women are under-represented in schools, jobs, boardrooms and parliaments. Women continue to earn less than equally qualified men. In many cases, women have less power to make decisions and choices about their lives even within their homes. Many of these persistent gender gaps are still evident even in the developed world. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is little difference between girls and boys in education or health outcomes.
The story of Ghalia Mahmoud published in the August 17th edition of the Washington Post took me by surprise. I had hardly finished the article when questions began to fill my head and my heart started to flutter with excitement. Was it because Ghalia, previously a maid, had succeeded in becoming a TV host? Or was it that the Washington Post was interested in telling her story, deeming it worthy of publishing? Or was it tied to my glimpse of the World Bank report on Food Price Watch a few days earlier? It reported that the high level of global food prices and continued price volatility, posed a constant threat to the poorest segments of the population in developing countries.
The democratic movements sprouting all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are arousing high optimism for greater voice and inclusiveness. Democracies are about sharing power, and about reflecting the will of the people through peaceful processes at the ballot box. But, will the will of the people and people power usher in greater gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly as women fought shoulder to shoulder with men for change?