Why is it that we still need to talk about women’s economic empowerment in 2017?
Once you peel back the layers of data and statistics, you get to the bottom of the issue. It’s raw, and most people don’t want to hear it, but it’s at the root of all: girls are less valued than boys.
This month, I’m attending this year’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York, which is focussing on ‘Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’. I believe that to achieve equality in the workplace, and gain full recognition of the economic benefit of doing so, we cannot focus solely on women. We must go to the source of the problem: deep discrimination against girls and the many barriers they face to reaching equal access to economic opportunities.
A lifetime living in the shadow
It’s possible to accurately tell the gender of a foetus from 18 weeks. From this point onwards, not having even left the womb, girls are under greater threat than boys. Gender-biased sex selection is not a new phenomenon, and it’s estimated that 117 million women* across Asia are “missing” because of it.
If a girl survives this first hurdle, as she grows and reaches school age, she faces her next major barrier – getting an education. One in 5 adolescent girls across the globe continue to be denied their right to education. The reason for this are many, but think on these two statistics:
- More than two-thirds of all child domestic workers are girls.
- Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. More than 1 in 3 – about 250 million – were married before their 15th birthday.
Depending on how her education has fared, and if she’s avoided marriage at 13, and escaped domestic servitude, she will enter the workforce, and face the barriers working women face daily. And don’t forget that to find work is a major achievement: girls and young women make up the majority of the world’s 628 million young people who are not in education, training or employment.
Girls and women bear the brunt of unpaid work
Our girl will probably be expected to do some work for free. The unpaid work around the globe that keeps our economies ticking along lands disproportionately on the shoulders of girls and women.
On average, women spend 3 times as many hours as men doing unpaid care and domestic work. But even small changes here can make a difference: a Gates Foundation study recently found that school enrolment rates for girls increased by 12% in one country when the time walking to collect water was reduced by an hour.
No investment and little protection
In 90% of countries there is at least one law that acts as a barrier to women's economic equality.
Economic equality is a contributing factor to gender equality. However, 190 million fewer women have an account at a financial institution than men. Why? Because if you’re a woman or young girl it’s much harder to get a formal credit history, to apply for proper identification, and in some countries you may need permission from your husband to open an account. How do you participate in public life and improve your understanding of finance when you can’t even open a bank account?
According to the World Bank, in 90% of countries there is at least one law that acts as a barrier to women's economic equality. Their research also highlighted that in 18 countries, a woman has to ask for her husband’s permission to work.
Added impact of gender-based violence
Forty-one countries completely lack laws against sexual harassment, while 46 have no laws addressing domestic violence.
The prevalence of gender-based violence within the home, in public spaces, on the way to work and in the workplace also has a significant impact on girls’ and women’s economic performance. And yet still, in 2017, many countries still do not provide protection from violence and harassment for girls and women. Forty-one out of 173 countries examined by the World Bank completely lack laws against sexual harassment, while 46 countries have no laws addressing domestic violence.
Is it any wonder with all these societal, educational, financial and legal barriers constricting a girl’s development, that 100 million young women around the globe can’t read a single sentence?
This is no way to treat half of the world’s population.
Breaking the cycle
Girls don’t need empowering, they just need a fair start and a level playing field. That’s why at Plan International we are aiming over the next 5 years to make sure 100 million girls learn, lead, decide, and thrive.
We’re working with girls like 19-year-old Neha. Living in an urban slum outside Delhi, India, her limited future lay before her – pinned down by social and cultural restrictions, and a lack of opportunities common in the lives of millions of girls her age. But then Neha enrolled on Plan India’s innovative Saksham educational programme, and after 45 days of training in foundational skills that will support her throughout her career, she has a new job and a brighter future.
Investing in girls and women like Neha will not only transform their lives, it will contribute to ending generational poverty. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 if gender gaps in paid work were completely closed. That’s equivalent to the combined economies of the US and China today.
In the short term, Neha’s training will help break the cycle of poverty for her and her family, but as other young women follow her lead, it will lead to a social transformation, and a world where girls can realise their human rights.
Empower women? No, we just need to give our girls a fighting chance.
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