OPED: Women: Let's Not Leave It to the Next Generation

March 8, 2012

Caroline Anstey, Managing Director, World Bank Group The Huffington Post

In palatial rooms at the Berlaymont, Brussels, EU finance ministers have been discussing how to save the Eurozone and balance growth with austerity. Across the globe in Mexico City, G-20 ministers have been trying to save the world economy by strengthening financial systems. In New York at the General Assembly, representatives have been rallying to muster resolutions to denouce violence in the Middle East. Where in the corridors and halls of power are they talking about women's rights? The answer is easy. In side meetings, rarely ever the main event.

Let's for a moment imagine a different world. It's a world where women are recognized as helping drive global growth -- today we already know that women represent 40 percent of the global labor force. A world where all women and girls have the chance to live full productive lives -- today we know that too many girls and women still die in childhood and in the reproductive ages. A world where there's equal employment opportunities, equal earnings, equal rights to own land or inherit property.

Today in the developing world, it is women who're more likely to be the unpaid family laborers, or farming smaller plots or if they're entrepreneurial, operating in smaller firms and less profitable sectors. It's women who in general in the developing world are earning less than men. It's women who are suffering from pervasive sexual violence, and political, economic, and social disenfranchisement.

We know all this from countless studies. Our own World Bank research has shown the lower the income, the more women and girls are disadvantaged, and we know that low income countries lag behind in realizing progress in boosting female school enrolment. Countless more studies from the UN, government agencies and non government organizations all point to persistent segregation, opportunity and earnings gaps between men and women.

These studies line our shelves. At women's meetings or international fora we quote them incessantly to one another. But where are the men at these meetings? And is anyone listening? Where are the global agreements? Where is the action? Where is the nexus of change?

Some might argue it's happening all around us. They would say just look beyond the sea of men in blue, grey and black, and you'll see the women. In boardrooms? Well only partly. The fact is women have low representation on the boards of large firms -- about 12 percent in Europe, ten percent in the Americas, seven percent in Asia and the Pacific and three percent in the Middle East and North Africa. In Parliaments? Well again the answer is only partly. The fact is women are much less likely to belong to a political party than men. Even in 2010, women ministers were twice as likely to hold a social portfolio than an economic one.

There was of course last year's Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded jointly to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." There's been improvement in girls' access to primary education, and more countries have signed up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, though some key countries are noticeably missing.

So there is recognition -- but insufficient change. In the World Bank we believe that gender equality is smart economics. We know it to be the case -- and so do many others. We know delivering clean water, sanitation and maternal care helps drive down maternal mortality rates. We know giving women title to land -- as has happened in Ethiopia -- helps narrow the gaps between men and women. We know from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Cote d'Ivoire., Mexico, South Africa and the United Kingdom that increasing the share of household income controlled by women -- either through their own earnings or by cash transfers -- changes spending in ways that benefit children, communities, and societies.

The list of what works is long. We also know the list of what's needed is long. We know too that progress for instance in reducing maternal mortality has not kept pace with income growth. Over the past two decades, only 90 countries had a drop of 40 percent or more in maternal mortality rates, while 23 countries showed an increase. Women who run the house in rural areas in the developing world are less likely to get credit. And on a continent like Africa, women are less likely than men to own or use a cell phone.

So as we mark International Women's Day, let's consider how we can reshape attitudes and change societal "norms" among men and women about gender. It needs to be done. One of the most disturbing findings from the World Bank's field research in 19 countries in all regions around the globe, showed that for women going about their everyday lives, many of the problems of old still remain, even as new challenges have emerged.

Perhaps more telling still, for many women change remains an aspiration reserved for future generations. Not for them, not for now, but hopefully for their daughters or granddaughters. We owe it to those women to take action now. A good start would be for some of those high-level global discussions -- and decisions -- on growth, prosperity, financial systems, and violence, to begin to factor in the potential role of the forgotten fifty percent of the world's population. Let's not leave it till the next generation.