The World Bank has released a report detailing the importance of empowering women and girls and giving them the tools to become equal members of society. As Hillary Clinton puts it, focusing development through a “gender lens” leads to meaningful results in communities and across countries.
As the Millennium Development Goals come to an end in 2015 and transition into a new set of development criteria, women will be put at the forefront. Investing in girls is shown to be effective and, data show that the opportunity cost of under-utilizing the skills of half of a country’s population does not make for a effective poverty reduction strategy: it weakens everyone’s opportunities and leaves individuals and countries less well off. Of course, we also believe that giving women and girls a voice is just the right thing to do.
Education will comprise a crucial aspect of the new development agenda. As stated in the World Bank report ‘Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity’:
“Educated mothers are more likely to take preventative actions, such as purifying water and vaccinating their children; to recognize common illnesses and to treat them; to seek help at the right time; and to use health care services effectively.”
“The impact that education has on women’s agency [empowerment] is illustrated by this example from rural Bangladesh, where, when girls were asked how education has made their lives different from their mothers’, they typically replied that it had helped them ‘find a voice,’ allowed them to ‘have a say,’ to ‘speak,’ and ‘to be listened to’.” (pages 43-46)
We all, as individuals, want our voices to be heard in our homes and communities. However, lack of empowerment leaves many women vulnerable to decisions made for them and to social norms which condone practices that have a negative affect on women and girls. In surveys of women across 54 countries, 43% say they have experienced domestic violence, 42% lack control over household resources, and 51% were married as children. Around 13% of women experience all three of these deprivations together, and this number rises along with poverty.
The poorer the woman the more likely it is that more than one of these deprivations affect her. The same study shows that in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, almost half of all women experience all three of these deprivations while virtually all women in Niger felt that they suffered from at least one of domestic violence, lack of control over household resources or child marriage. The numbers speak for themselves: women in poor countries, especially uneducated women, have little say over their lives.
We invite you to watch the full video of the panel discussion with Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Jeni Klugman, Director of Gender & Development at the World Bank Group. They reflect on the main issues relating to empowerment, cultural norms and what we can do to break the cycle of excluding women from full participation in their household and in their communities. You can also watch a shorter version here:
In discussing the report, the high level panelists focus on the importance of legislating changes to social norms to de-legitimizing negative behaviours. A new legal framework can also bring old practices into modern public consciousness. Just because something “has always been done” does not mean that it is right. Secretary Clinton notes that regressive norms often “cannot bear the light of day” and are carried on behind closed doors.
Engaging men and boys in the process of changing social norms is a key step to de-legitimizing the practices. To this end, UN Women has created the “He for She” campaign, to involve men to generate discussion on what can be done.
Reaching out to government leaders will be an important part of tackling inequalities. As Secretary Clinton points out, many leaders of poor nations have broken social norms within their own families and are proud of their daughters’ accomplishments and University studies abroad. The trick will be to get them to translate that feeling to all the daughters in their country.
In each section of the report, the overriding consensus is that education is the most critical aspect to reducing domestic violence, child marriage and women’s lack of economic independence. Data show that 90% women with just a primary education or less suffer from at least one of these three. That sinks to 18% of women who have completed high school.
It’s also important to remember that, as Phumizile Miambo-Ngcuka states, the quality of education is just as important as access. To this end, teacher training, curriculum and the minister of education are all crucial aspects of providing quality education. Education should help to make a girl feel that she has the ability to go out there and compete with the boys for the jobs; it is the teachers role to help instill that ethos into the students.
There is a lot of work to be done to improve the conditions for women and girls around the world. All the panelists, however, see the glass as half full, and while we have made progress already, they have the confidence that future will be brighter and that women will be given a stronger voice.