Holding Back Women Hurts Everyone in the Pacific

March 8, 2013

Gavin Murray and Franz Drees-Gross

Today is International Women’s Day, and a perfect time to reflect on why it is so important to promote gender equality in the Pacific. In the last decade: women’s voices are increasingly being heard and more women are entering the formal workforce. And in the Pacific, political leadership has endorsed the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, signaling all-important support for change.   

Nonetheless more needs to be done. Promoting gender equality is not simply an ethical move – it is an economic imperative. Holding back women hurts the economy. Excluding the agricultural sector, approximately twice as many men as women are in paid employment across the Pacific region. The World Bank's flagship World Development Report on Gender found that improving job opportunities for women could increase labor productivity by as much as 18 percent.

Many Pacific women work as farmers, helping to grow, cultivate and sell crops that sustain local economies. Yet, a lack of training and access to finance prevents many of these business women from fulfilling their potential. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, giving female farmers equal access to such resources could increase agricultural output by up to 2.5 to 4 percent, providing a huge boost to the rural economy.

And it is not only the economy that wins when women earn a steady income. We know, from countless studies, that women prioritize school fees, the health of their families and more. As women earn more, we are likely to see better health and education outcomes, combined with increases in productivity.

To lock in these gains, we must look at how we can encourage more women to join the workforce, starting from making the marketplace safer for women to sell their wares, all the way to offering them seats in the boardroom. We need to ensure that core industries, such as mining and fisheries in the Pacific, are providing the same job opportunities and working conditions for men and women alike.

Importantly, we need to address the issue of rampant violence against Pacific women, who are six times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women in the rest of the world. Professor Biman Prasad, Dean of the University of the South Pacific, estimates that domestic violence wipes out 6.6 percent of Fiji’s gross domestic product every year; other Pacific Island Countries are likely to face a similar cost.

Putting a stop to such violence is key to creating greater prosperity for Pacific women and the economy in general. More support services need to be made available for survivors of violence as well as counseling for men and women. Governments need to enact new legislation that will be enforced by better-trained and equipped police and the judiciary.

The Pacific Gender Equality Declaration, which commits leaders to implement specific national policy actions to progress gender equality, highlights the importance of improving women’s status at all levels of society. Governments, partners and women's movements across the region are showing their dedication to the cause, including Australia, which last year announced a record $320 million ten year initiative to help strengthen women’s roles as leaders, entrepeneurs, employees, consumers and stakeholders.

We know collective efforts such as these pay off for women and the economy. In the African nation of Rwanda, where politicians agreed to increase female representation in government, women now make up 56 percent of parliament - giving it the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. And research from the Australian National University found that a six percent increase in female representation increases GDP by one percent, further illustrating that we need to celebrate and replicate strides like these.

The World Bank and IFC are committed to working with our Pacific partners to build on this momentum so that we can achieve genuine change, help transform local and global markets, and create the opportunities for women to live more productive, and safer lives.


Gavin Murray is Regional Manager for the Pacific region at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the member of the World Bank Group focused exclusively on private sector development, and Franz Drees-Gross is Country Director for Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Islands at the World Bank. Working with governments to achieve gender equality is a priority for the World Bank Group as an integral part of its mission to alleviate poverty.