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women's political empowerment

Private sector engagement is key to success on gender equity

Anabel Gonzalez's picture

Photo: Visual News Associates / The World Bank

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, if there is one concept to keep in mind above all others, it’s that gender equity is vital 24-7-365, and not just as a once-a-year observance.

You have heard the argument before and you will hear it again: Economies cannot reach their full potential if half the population is systematically blocked from full participation. This fundamental idea motivates the World Bank Group as it redoubles its efforts to address gaps in gender equality.

Our deepening work to close key gender gaps shows that the issues go far beyond economic inequity. Barriers to women’s full economic participation also impose moral, emotional and at times even physical costs.

We see this in the laws that prevent wives from making autonomous decisions about their careers. We see it in instances of violence against women in the workplace. We see this when harassment occurs at rural border crossings where women traders can encounter threats, and worse, from border guards.

In developing and developed countries alike, women face obstacles to starting and managing a business, to accessing finance, to earning equal pay for equal work, and to owning land or other assets. Many countries maintain laws and regulations that advantage men while discriminating against women, often relegating them to the status of a legal minor.

As Emeritus Professor Linda Scott of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School told us recently, “Women are economically disadvantaged in every country on the planet” and “women’s economic exclusion imposes a significant drag on world economies and societies.”

A key part of the Bank Group’s gender effort revolves around the importance of leveraging the private sector to ensure that reform goes beyond policy statements and creates real economic benefits for women and men. The Bank Group’s Trade & Competitiveness Global Practice (T&C) has developed an approach to gender equity that focuses on expanding market opportunities, enabling private initiative, and developing dynamic economies.

The work we are doing recognizes the entrenched nature of the obstacles to fuller economic empowerment for women. Achieving results at scale will require sustained commitment. But we also understand the importance of realizing near-term progress to catalyze change, and we recognize how interventions in particular countries can show the way forward elsewhere.

The concept is simple: Good results generate more good results.

Should we focus more on women’s political empowerment when democracy goes off the rails? Tom Carothers thinks so.

Duncan Green's picture

My inbox has been buzzing with praise for a new paper on this issue by the Carnegie Endowment’s democracy guru, Thomas Carothers. Since he’s one of my favourite guest posters (no editing ever required), I asked him to summarize its findings.

Last year the gender, women, and democracy team at the National Democratic Institute approached me with a question. NDI, like many groups engaged in supporting democracy internationally, was responding to the increasingly fraught landscape of global democracy by attempting to think more strategically and move fully away from any lingering tendency to pursue a standard democracy “menu” across extremely diverse political contexts. NDI’s gender team wanted to insert women’s political empowerment programming into the new strategic discussion. Would I help them think it through? The team deflected my protests that I lack  expertise on women’s empowerment, telling me they would help me get up to speed.  They also politely pointed out that as someone who presents himself as a general expert on democratic change, perhaps it was time for me to correct my lack of knowledge about the gender domain. I signed on.

After some months of delving into the literature on women’s political empowerment and interviewing numerous aid practitioners and women’s activists working on the front lines, some interesting findings came into focus.  I present them in my new paper, “Democracy Support Strategies: Leading with Women’s Political Empowerment.”

At first glance, programs seeking to foster greater women’s political empowerment did seem to follow a standard menu –everywhere I looked I saw training for women candidates in local and national elections, efforts to strengthen the role of women within political parties, advocacy in favor of gender quotas in legislatures, and support for women’s parliamentary caucuses. Yet when I probed how such programming unfolds across different transitional contexts, important variations emerged.