As we mark International Women’s Day, women and girls are better off than just a few decades ago. Boys and girls are going to school in equal numbers in many countries. Women are living longer, healthier lives.
But even with the steady progress we’ve seen over the past few decades, one of our biggest challenges today is to avoid falling prey to a sense of self-satisfaction. We don’t deserve to, not yet.
We need a renewed sense of urgency and a clearer understanding of the remaining obstacles. When it comes to improving the lives of women and girls, we have blind spots. In fact, we know of three shocking inequalities that persist in education, the working world, and women’s very security and safety.
Blind Spot No. 1: Education of Girls.
We have made impressive gains in achieving universal access to education, but what we’re failing to see is that girls who are poor—those who are the most vulnerable—are getting left behind.
While wealthier girls in countries like India and Pakistan may be enrolled in school right alongside boys their age, among the poorest 20 percent of children, girls have on average five years less education than do boys. In Niger, where only one in two girls attends primary school, just one in 10 goes to middle school, and stunningly only one in 50 goes to high school. That’s an outrage.
Take a moment and think of the women who inspire you. Make a list. Who are the top 11 women? Would you include a construction worker from Jamaica? How about a midwife in Sudan or a jewelry maker in Costa Rica? What about a student from India or a small business owner in Egypt?
When most of us think about people who inspire us, we consider world leaders, celebrities, or those who’ve changed the course of world history. Or we might think of individuals who have had a significant influence in our lives—our role models or people we strive to emulate. The people who make it to our “inspiration list” are there because we relate to them, regardless if we’re man or woman.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, we present 11 stories of women around the world who’ve made amazing strides to achieve their goals and make long-lasting impacts on the lives of their children, families and communities.
One of the background papers to the World Bank’s 2012 Gender World Development Report, “Masculinities, Social Change and Development,” alluded to Raewyn Connell’s theory of “hegemonic masculinity” as well as the strong correlation between heterosexism and gender inequalities.
Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the gender practice that guarantees the dominant social position of men and the subordinate social position of women. As summarized by Schifter and Madrigal (2000), it is the view that “Men, by virtue of their sex, [are] naturally strong, aggressive, assertive, and hardworking, whereas women [are] submissive, passive, vain, and delicate.” Hegemonic masculinity justifies the social, economic, cultural, and legal deprivations of women.
In September 2013, four elderly sisters in Botswana were finally and definitively allowed to remain in the ancestral home where they had spent most of their lives — the result of their own tenacity and determination that a young nephew could not step in and take ownership of a property they had lovingly maintained.
This landmark decision by the highest court in Botswana, the Court of Appeal, followed five years of efforts by women’s networks and legal associations who helped the sisters bring their claim. The judges decided that customary laws favoring the rights of the youngest male heir were simply out of date.
“The Constitutional values of equality before the law and the increased leveling of the power structures with more and more women heading households and participating with men as equals in the public sphere and increasingly in the private sphere demonstrate that there is no rational and justifiable basis for sticking to the narrow norms of days gone by when such norms go against current value systems,” wrote Justice Lesetedi of the Botswana Court of Appeal.
The reform of discriminatory laws can lead to transformative change.
When Cyclone Phailin struck the Indian states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh last week, the predictions were dire. In 1999, a cyclone of comparable strength took 10,000 lives.
While Phailin affected up to 8 million people, leaving approximately 600,00 homeless, death tolls are currently estimated to be in the low double digits. What made all the difference between 1999 and today? A much improved early warning system, effective evacuations, and the construction of shelters probably played a crucial role. Credible forecasts and early warnings were available for several days before landfall, and close to one million people were evacuated.
Everyone who still thinks disasters are ‘natural’ should stop and consider this for a minute. This difference in impact is a real world example of an analogy discussed at the 5th Resilience Dialogue on Oct. 11, 2013. Here’s my interpretation:
Remember that old magic trick where a tablecloth is pulled off a fully set table but (almost) nothing falls over?
Last week I was a panelist at a civil society organization seminar during the World Bank Annual Meetings on the topic of “Engaging with Citizens for Greater Development Impact.” The task for the panel was to discuss good practices in citizen engagement to make governments and service providers (including the private sector) more accountable so that policies and project interventions have greater impact for all citizens. The other panelists included representatives from Civicus, Plan International, and the Bank and International Finance Corporation.
The invitation to this event made me reflect on a fundamental question: Is it realistic to expect citizens to hold service providers accountable given the huge asymmetry of power between the two, or are we setting unrealistic expectations that citizen engagement interventions can improve development outcomes?
As I searched for answers, I was reminded of the story of the mighty warrior, Goliath, and the shepherd boy, David, who stepped up to fight him when no one else dared. No one in his or her right mind would have given David a chance against Goliath. However, we all know how the story ends — David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead, causing the mighty to fall. Can we have similar happy endings in citizens vs. almighty service providers?
The evidence tells us that malnutrition costs lives, perpetuates poverty, and slows economic growth. We now know that nearly half of all child deaths globally are attributed to malnutrition. I have seen in my own country, Indonesia, how stunting caused by malnutrition has diminished too many children’s futures before they even begin. Malnourished children are more likely to perform poorly in school and drop out earlier than their better-nourished peers, limiting their future earnings. Data from Guatemala show that boys who had good nutrition before age 3 are earning nearly 50% more as adults, and girls had a greater likelihood of having an independent source of income and were less likely to live in poor households.
Malnutrition diminishes not only the futures of individuals, but also of nations. Recent estimates suggest that as much as 11% of gross national product in Africa and Asia is lost annually to the impact of malnutrition. To end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity, the world must commit to end child stunting due to malnutrition. I will be joining leaders from around the world in London this week to focus on this critical challenge.
"Five years ago, I was no one," said Kunti Devi to me, sitting up straight against the wall of her one-room mud hut in Bara, a small village in India's eastern state of Bihar. "Now, people know me by my own name, not just by the name of my children."
I was sitting on the floor, across from Devi, a mother of eight, who belonged to one of the most vulnerable and socially excluded castes in India. She recalled how when her husband got injured and lost his job a few years ago, the family was pushed over the brink — from subsistence to hunger and poverty. At the time, Devi took a bold step for a poor woman used to living in the shadows of society. She joined a women's self-help group in her village and took a small loan to raise goats. With the income she generated, she repaid her first loan and took another one — this time to lease land to produce grain. She borrowed again when her family faced a health crisis. Today, Devi has several sources of income. She is also planning ahead. She wants to open a food outlet on a busy road. And now, with two of her sons married, she wants to find a larger living space for her growing family.
When it comes to ID systems, India's Aadhaar initiative sets a high bar for the rest of the world. Aadhaar is a state-of-the-art online system that provides unique 12-digit ID numbers to residents of India. These numbers can be used for a wide range of public and private services.