I am very grateful to Japan’s Prime Minister for inviting us all here today. Since taking office Prime Minister Abe embraced the course of gender equality wholeheartedly. More than that he made it an integral part of ‘Abenomics’ which has been boosting Japan’s growth prospects. And he has done it because the case for gender equality in Japan is more than obvious. Since I come from an institution that is a strong believer in data and evidence let me start by saying that bringing women in Japan to full participation would mean a 9% bigger GDP. In other words, a richer Japan.
If we translate this into the language of what full participation of women would mean for the whole world, it is mind boggling. The estimates range between a 12 trillion and 28 trillion bigger world economy if we women were all to give our best.
We are talking about achieving the sustainable development goals and the financial gap that exists; a gap that in different estimates is somewhere between $5 trillion and $7 trillion. So here is the simple solution to our financial shortcoming, and it has one name: women. I look at the audience and I see such a diverse group of people, men and women. And I can say that I have been coming to Japan for many, many years. But it is now that I see more women in the audience than normally there would be men.
I heard some comments, ‘But isn’t Japan not yet at par with other countries on the topic of gender equality?’ And here is my answer to that. It would not be first time in history where Japan will come from behind to overtake everybody. Take the economic miracle of Japan: the country came out of a very destructive war and only in a few decades it became the envy of the whole world. And I in my heart of hearts wish for Japan to follow the same path from behind to way ahead on the issue of gender equality.
I am someone who has come to embrace this topic wholeheartedly after many decades believing that we have to be gender blind: you are either good or not. And then I recognised late in my life that if we leave this issue to its own device it would take hundreds of years for equality to be achieved. So we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
For us at the World Bank Group, gender equality is paramount for our success in development efforts. Unless we make sure that girls and women have the same rights as boys and men, no country, no community will reach its full potential, as Mrs Abe just said. So what do we do to achieve that full potential? I will focus on three messages today. First, success in achieving gender equality starts from making sure that girls are in school, they stay there, they learn, and they step out of school fully confident in their skills and capabilities.
Unfortunately, we still have a significant gender gap in education. Millions of girls over the next years are going to be missing this most valuable of assets, building their skills and capabilities. At the World Bank that has meant a very strong focus on making sure that in countries richer and poorer in the developing world, education is a priority and girls find their pathway to it.
Let me give you two examples. One is Afghanistan. The World Bank reengaged in Afghanistan 15 years ago. At that time, there were only one million Afghan kids, 90% of them boys, that were in the school system. I can say proudly that today eight million Afghan children are where they belong – in school – and 40% of them are girls. And that is despite tremendous resistance, difficulties, and even sometimes life-threatening action. And I want to give credit not so much to us at the bank, but to the mothers and the girls themselves. For persevering in one of the most difficult environments.
A second example is Bangladesh. I don’t know whether there is anybody here from Bangladesh in the audience. It is a remarkable country which approximately two decades ago decided that if it doesn’t take a strong stand on equality for boys and girls, men and women, it simply cannot make it out of poverty. So Bangladesh with the support of the World Bank has done three things. One: small stipends for boys and girls to go to school. And a massive campaign to enrol girls to attend school. This has turned into a community celebration, the day when girls step into school to be able to build their lives.
Second, a massive family planning campaign, because population growth in Bangladesh was so high that the country just couldn’t cope with it.
And third, a recognition that having jobs for girls when they graduate would make investment in education more profitable, more advantageous for the country. And this is how the textile industry in Bangladesh was born and prospered; having all these girls educated made it possible for Bangladesh to step up its economic activity. And we now see the country ready to step into higher value economic activities.
My second point regarding our job as a World Bank on the issue of gender equality concerns economic empowerment. Economic empowerment starts from empowerment, simply. Giving girls and young women the chance to decide what to do or not to do. We have done a study at the world Bank on early marriage and what it shows is 15 million girls every year get married under the age of 18. Very often, not by their own choice. How is your day so far? Is it a good day? A great day? Okay. By the end of this great day, 41,000 girls under the age of 18 will have been married.
So we are working with countries to come up with policies that allow girls to have the choice so they stay in school. And if they choose to work, they are able to do that. When girls marry later in life they usually have healthier children; they have fewer children, so their families and communities and countries are better positioned for development. But then of course we say, this is good but not good enough.
Women ought to have the same rights to land ownership, ownership of assets, and also on access to finance. And what we find time and again is that women are more reliable than men – with due respect to the men in the audience, and my apologies for saying that. But women pay on time and when they borrow money, they make great use of the money. For themselves, for their children, for their families, and of course for their communities.
We have just launched with the generous support of Japan, together with 13 other countries, a very important financial initiative. We call it ‘WeFi’. This is the Women Empowerment Financial initiative, which provides $350 million in grants to generate at least $1 billion of finance for small and medium sized enterprises owned or run by women. And we also provide the training that women need to succeed; the accounting skills, the ability to market their goods, to reach out to others. And as I’m sure you will hear in the panel to follow, new technology makes this much easier.
We also work on issues like safe transportation. We found that, to get women into work, we ought to worry about how they get there.
I was in Mumbai; the World Bank finances a train service. And in this train there is a special car for women only. I travelled in the car and women tell me, thank god we have it, because now we feel safe. We go to work. Otherwise, most likely, we would stay at home.
Let me go to my third point for today. And it is walking our own talk. As an organisation, we are committed to gender equality in our own ranks, and it was not like this always. When I joined the World Bank in the early 90s, women were few and far between. And in fact I remember walking into the bank dressed in a colourful jacket, looking around, walking out, and buying a dark blue suit. So that I could fit in and blend. My President at that time, Jim Wolfensohn, once said to me, ‘Kristalina, so much work to do, and so very few women to do it.’ But we are changing this.
The World Bank has set a target for itself to have 50% women in senior leadership by 2020. And I am very proud to tell you that we are 45% already there. Only 5% to go. And in fact one of our most senior women is here: Keiko Honda. We are very proud of her; she leads our Guarantee Agency. And we also provide flexitime to our women; the ability to work from home; we support them with child services so they can come and feel comfortable working. And our president is among the champions, like Prime Minister Abe, of ‘he for she’.
My last message today is to the women in the audience. Yes: ‘he for she’ is very important. We need senior men to stand up for gender equality. But don’t forget: ‘she for she’. We women especially senior women, we owe it to our children, to our grandchildren, to leave for them a world in which everybody has the opportunity and the right to be who he or she wants to be.