A question dominated discussions ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8: How can we make it count?
Gender equality and empowerment are principles that have been widely adopted for some time; but for many women, particularly those in developing countries, action lags way behind the rhetoric. The same is true in business: Evidence abounds for the business case for investing in women, but the reality remains that for a lot of women, things at work haven’t progressed much beyond what their mothers experienced.
It makes sense then that the issues that came up time and again during a panel I participated in at the sixth annual meeting of the UN's Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs) titled “Jobs, Gender and Development: Confronting the Global Challenge," mainly related to the enduring challenges women face at work. I had gone there thinking I had much to add to that topic, but I came away having learned more than I could share, about topics I hadn’t expected.
A question dominated discussions ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8: How can we make it count?
Finding and keeping a job, and even participating in the labor market, is harder if you are a woman than if you are a man living in the Western Balkans. This is a conclusion I can draw from my first year as Country Director for the Western Balkans, reminding us that gender inequality persists in many forms while another International Women’s Day passes.
Only half of the working age population participates in the labor force in the Western Balkans. This is low by both European and global standards - but participation among women is even worse. This rate was only about 42% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a mere 18% in Kosovo in 2012 - the lowest in all of Europe and Central Asia. This participation gap persists throughout a woman’s life, contributing to low employment rates, and widens during child bearing years. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the gap between male and female employment rates has reached a whopping 44 percentage points for those aged 25 to 49 years with a young child living at home.
Failure to address these labor market inequalities is a missed opportunity for faster economic growth, poverty reduction and increased shared prosperity in a region struggling to recover from the neighborhood effects of the Eurozone crisis.
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.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we asked women who work at the World Bank Group one simple question: "How will ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity empower women around the world?" Here’s a sampling from World Bank women around the world.
I saw firsthand how something as simple as a gas connection could transform lives. A mother of five in Colombia told me – with tears in her eyes – how her life, and that of her family, had improved. Her children were healthier with fewer respiratory illnesses. She could cook safely and start her own business selling food outside her house.
– Carmen Nonay, program manager, Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid
If you are a poor woman, you are not allowed to make decisions about your life and the future of your children. You do not even think about such big things under the daily pressure. Ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity will allow women to get access to their basic human rights, transform their communities and contribute to changing the world.
– Maria V. Handal, office manager, Yemen
In many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, women are outpacing men in enrollment at universities. In terms of learning outcomes, girls in the region outperform boys in mathematics. And yet, these investments in human capital remain largely untapped. Women can help boost prosperity in the region if their productive potential is harnessed and barriers to their economic participation are reduced.
– Tara Vishwanath, lead economist
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.
Jim Yong Kim knows something about prejudice. When he was growing up Asian American in Iowa, kids would make “kung fu” gestures and hurl racial slurs at him. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, the World Bank Group president writes that his experiences are “trifling indignities” compared to what gay and lesbian citizens of Uganda and Nigeria are now experiencing, in the wake of new laws making homosexuality a crime punishable by up to life in prison.
Institutionalized discrimination goes far beyond those countries, he notes; 81 other countries also criminalize homosexuality. It also goes beyond sexual orientation to encompass laws that discriminate against women and members of minority groups. And aside from being wrong, Kim writes, “Widespread discrimination is also bad for economies. There is clear evidence that when societies enact laws that prevent productive people from fully participating in the workforce, economies suffer.”
He points out the irony that AIDS activists, many of them gay, fought to ensure access to life-saving drugs for people with AIDS, most of them African. Kim concludes, “Eliminating discrimination is not only the right thing to do; it’s also critical to ensure that we have sustained, balanced, and inclusive economic growth in all societies.”
I got together with my friend Asma'a one evening at a popular Cairo café overlooking the Nile. Like many of the young Egyptians I had met that summer, Asma'a was smart, motivated — and unemployed. Since graduating with a law degree, she had applied for countless jobs to no avail, and had all but given up on finding a job in her field of study. She was particularly upset that evening because her parents had forbidden her from accepting a waitressing job, deeming the work to be morally inappropriate. Feeling ever more desperate, Asma'a said she would be willing to take any job just to be able to work.
Asma'a is one of 865 million women worldwide who have the potential to contribute more fully to the global economy. These women represent a powerful resource for driving economic growth and development. Yet the underuse of women's talents and skills is holding many countries back. An International Monetary Fund study estimates that if women like Asma'a were to participate in the labor force at the same rate as men, they could raise GDP in Egypt by 34 percent. Employed women also invest more of their income in their children's health and education, helping families to escape the cycle of poverty.
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.
This past May, I traveled to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to produce “Mind the Gap: Gender Equality and Trade in Africa” with a Nairobi-based film crew. As I headed off on my first official trip, I read and re-read the chapters that this film was designed to complement — all part of a fantastic new book, “Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential.” I felt very comfortable with the facts and figures — tourism in Kenya accounts for 12.5 percent of GDP; cotton is the third largest export in Uganda; small business owners are a huge part of Tanzania’s export economy, etc. — but did not fully understand the situation we were trying to explore until I met Mary.
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.