Gender Equality and the Rights of Girls and Women: Simply Smart Economics

The World Bank has called gender equality "smart economics." As long as women and girls are excluded from many sectors of society and the economy, developing countries will miss out on opportunities for economic advancement.

In its recently-published flagship report, the World Bank has called on developing countries to close the gender gap. Gender equality, says the global development lender, is simply "smart economics."

The Bank's report is entitled, World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. Similar sentiments regarding girls, poverty and development were discussed in another World Bank working paper, entitled The Girl Effect Dividend.

Women and girls suffer the burden of discrimination in many cultures. Globally, the preference for sons has caused higher female mortality and "missing girls," which together account for an estimated 3.9 million females in low- and middle-income countries every year. Of this number, about 40 per cent are baby girls who are never born, aborted as parents prefer to have a son. More than 30 per cent are women who die in their childbearing years, while 17 per cent are girls who die in their early childhoods.

Girls are also at a disadvantage in other sectors of society. When it comes to property rights, for example, only 5 per cent of land holders in Kenya are women. In the West African country of Burkina Faso, improving women's access to land capital could increase household farmers' outputs by 6 per cent through the reallocation of resources such as fertilizer, notes the Bank.

According to the president of the charitable Nike Foundation, "girls are the invisible infrastructure of poverty," but are, at the same time, also "unique change agents."

Some 33 per cent of girls aged 13-24 not currently in school are missing out because domestic chores. Yet, reducing poverty and gender discrimination while empowering girls at an early age, is of the utmost importance, given the risks accompanying adolescence. By 2020, it is expected that there will be 100 million child brides. Among girls aged 15-19, pregnancy remains the leading cause of death. Moreover, 75 per cent of the 15-24 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa that are HIV-positive are girls and young women.

Educating girls can have powerful payoffs at the individual, household and even macroeconomic levels. With seven years of schooling, a girl will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. With every extra year of secondary schooling, her expected wages will increase by 25 per cent. Considering that there are 500 million girls and young women in the developing world, the potential impact of education is enormous.

Including women in sectors from which they have been traditionally excluded is a vital part of making institutions more representative and transforming the dream of rapid economic advancement into reality. For instance, removing obstacles that prevent women from entering the workforce on an equal basis as men could boost output per worker by 3-25 per cent across several countries.

The good news is that we're not starting from ground zero. Significant progress has already been made, though challenges still remain.  Girls outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries and in universities in 60 countries. Women in some poor countries now outlive men and are living 20 years longer than they did more than 50 years ago.

The World Bank has acknowledged progress in narrowing the gender gap in social sectors such as health and education, as well as in labour markets over the past 25 years. Achieving gender parity in basic education has been especially successful, with disparities closing almost across the board.

The President of the Washington-based international financial institution, Robert Zoellick, stated that over the past five years, the Bank has provided $65 billion to support initiatives for women and girls – among them education, health, employment, and access to credit, land, infrastructure and agricultural services.

Failures to invest in women are partly responsible for inadequate poverty alleviation and socio-economic development. Achieving maximum productivity and social gains is impossible with so much of the country's population excluded.

"Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalized world is not only wrong, but also economically harmful," said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank Chief Economist (and Senior Vice President), adding that sharing the benefits of globalization between both men and women is imperative for meeting development targets.

To do so, the Bank has called for more action in four key areas: human capital, closing wage and productivity gaps between men and women, a greater voice for women, and ending gender inequality handed down from one generation to the next.

Public policies created by national governments are essential for bringing about gender equality, said another bank official. These policies, however, must address the underlying causes of the inequality in the first place.

Achieving gender equality and empowering women is Goals #3 and an essential part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are a set of eight comprehensive targets for development. While each goal deals with a different set of benchmarks and indicators, they are all interrelated and interdependent. Goal #3 for instance, is directly related to  goals on poverty, maternal and child health, education, and HIV/AIDS.