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World Bank: East Asia Pacific has made progress on gender equality, but challenges remain

December 15, 2011

Gender equality is both important in its own right as well as a contributor to poverty reduction and economic development, says the World Bank

HANOI, December 15, 2011 – Gender equality matters in its own right but is also smart economics: Countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve outcomes for children, make institutions more representative, and advance development prospects for all, says the World Development Report 2012 on Gender Equality and Development.

“There has been progress in narrowing gender gaps but disparities remain in many areas,” said Sudhir Shetty, the report’s Co-Director, in a media briefing in Hanoi. The one disparity that remains serious is the rate at which girls and women die relative to men in developing countries: Globally, excess female mortality after birth and “missing” girls at birth account for an estimated 3.9 million women each year in low- and middle-income countries. About two-fifths are never born due to a preference for sons, a sixth die in early childhood, and over a third die in their reproductive years. 

 “On the bright side, the world has made significant progress in narrowing gender gaps in education, life expectancy and participation in labor markets over the past 25 years,”commented Shetty.

Disparities between boys and girls in primary education have closed in almost all countries. In secondary education, these gaps are closing rapidly, and in many countries, especially in Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia, it is now boys and young men who are disadvantaged. Among developing countries, girls now outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries, and there are more young women than men in universities in 60 countries. Similar progress can be seen in life expectancy where women in low-income countries not only outlive men but live 20 years longer than they did in 1960.  And in much of the world, gaps in labor force participation have narrowed with over half a billion women having joined the workforce in the last 30 years.

Remaining gaps include the lower school enrollments of disadvantaged girls; unequal access for women to economic opportunities and incomes, whether in the labor market, agriculture or entrepreneurship; and large differences in voice between women and men both in households and societies.

The report argues that these patterns of progress and persistence in closing gender gaps matters for development policies. Higher incomes help close some gaps, as in education. As schools expand and more jobs open up for young women, parents see clear benefits to educating their girls. But too often, markets and institutions (including social norms around house and care work) combine with household decisions to perpetuate disparities between men and women. As part of this, gender gaps in earnings remain stubbornly unchanged in much of the world.

“In the East Asia and Pacific region, there has been significant economic and social progress --including on gender equality, but more needs to be done,” said Andrew Mason, author of the East Asia Pacific Gender Companion Volume. “Evidence shows that promoting gender equality in economic opportunities promotes development by raising income, promoting female empowerment and voice, and increasing women’s access to political and legal institutions. Eliminating inequality of opportunity in economic participation could increase total growth in the region by 7 to 18 percent. This has large implications to poverty reduction. So, women’s economic empowerment is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”

“Vietnam has made significant progress in gender equality, but important challenges remain both socially and economically,” commented Mason. “Policy actions are needed to address these challenges in the context of an economy making the transition from low to middle income “.

The WDR 2012 calls for action in four areas: 1) addressing human capital issues, such as excess deaths of girls and women and gender gaps in education where these persist; 2) closing earning and productivity gaps between women and men; 3) giving women greater voice within households and societies; and 4) limiting the perpetuation of gender inequality across generations.

 “Focused domestic public policies remain the key to bringing about gender equality,” said Ana Revenga, WDR Co-Director. “And to be effective, these policies will need to address the root causes of gender gaps. For some problems, as with high maternal mortality, this will require strengthening the institutions that deliver services. For other gaps, as with unequal access to economic opportunities, policies will need to tackle the multiple constraints –in markets and institutions- that keep women trapped in low productivity/low earning jobs.”

 To ensure that progress on gender equality is sustained, the international community needs to complement domestic policy actions in each of these priority areas. It can also support evidence-based action by fostering efforts to improve data, promote impact evaluation and encourage learning.  The report recommends that policymakers focus on the most stubborn gender gaps that rising incomes alone cannot solve. It is by fixing those shortcomings that the payoffs to development are likely to be greatest, and where policies changes will make the most difference.

 “Development partners can support domestic policies in many ways -- more funding, greater innovation and better partnerships,” said Sudhir Shetty, “Additional financing for clean water and sanitation and maternal services, for instance, will help the poorest countries. More experimentation, systematic evaluation and better gender-disaggregated data can point to ways of improving women’s access to markets. And, partnerships can fruitfully be expanded to include the private sector, civil society groups and academic institutions.”

Media Contacts
In Hanoi
Ngan Hong Nguyen
Tel : +(84-4) 39346600, Ext. 234
In Washington
Merrell Tuck-Primdahl
Tel : (202) 473-9516
Natalia Cieslik
Tel : (202) 458-9369