CAIRO: Countries that provide better opportunities for women can raise overall productivity, make institutions more representative and advance development prospects, according to a World Bank report.
Focusing on gender equality and development, the “World Bank Development Report 2012” found that countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have made rapid progress in enhancing women’s education, longevity and lowering fertility levels. Still, there are several fundamental problems that must be addressed.
Despite improvements and investments seen in human development in MENA recently, the report found that women still face several obstacles when seeking employment as the region lacks equality in access to economic opportunities.
“Labor force participation rates for women across the region remain very low, at 26 percent compared with the world’s average of 52 percent,” the report pointed out. “In Jordan, only 15 percent of 29-to-65-year-old women work, compared with 79 percent of men.”
As a result, the WDR report calls for action in four areas: addressing human capital issues such as excess deaths of girls and women and gender gaps in education, closing earning and productivity gaps between men and women, giving women greater voice within households and societies, and finally, 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.”
It was found that the causes of these barriers can be attributed to conservative social norms and legal restrictions on mobility and choice in the region, which can limit women’s decision-making power as well as their abilities to participate in the community outside their homes.
The report found that higher incomes help close some gaps, as in education. For example, “as schools expand and more jobs open up for young women, parents see clear benefits to educating their girls.”
The fact that there are limited employment chances in the region also has an effect on women’s opportunities, along with high rates of youth unemployment.
“Recent expressions of calls for change by the young people in the region only reiterate the critical need for greater opportunities for economic and social participation for all,” said the report.
It also highlights several disparities in specific areas; in developing countries for example, the rate at which girls and women die is relatively higher than the death rate of men.
“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,” the report read. “About two-fifths are never born due a preference for sons, a sixth die in early childhood, and over a third die in their reproductive years.”
Such losses can be seen on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in countries that are impacted severely by AIDS/HIV.
The report suggests several steps, which could be implemented in the region, as well as globally, in order to minimize the gender gaps and alleviate these disparities.
“Eliminating barriers that prevent women from working in certain occupations or sectors would have similar positive effects, reducing the productivity gap between male and female workers by one-third to one-half and increasing output per worker by 3 to 25 percent across a range of countries,” said the report.
For example, the report found that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, providing “equal access to resources for female farmers could increase agricultural output in developing countries by as much as 2.5 to 4 percent.”
“Blocking women and girls from getting the skills and earnings to succeed in a globalized world is not only wrong but economically harmful,” said Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President, Development Economics. “Sharing the fruits of growth and globalization equally between men and women is essential to meeting key development goals.”
The report underlined that recent calls for change sweeping across the region only reiterate the pressing need for equal opportunities, socially and economically.
According to World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick, achieving gender equality now is a necessity.
“Over the past five years, the World Bank Group has provided $65 billion to support girls’ education, women’s health, and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural services, jobs, and infrastructure,” he said.
“This has been important work, but it has not been enough or central enough to what we do. Going forward, the World Bank Group will mainstream our gender work and find other ways to move the agenda forward to capture the full potential of half the world’s population.”