Gender discrimination not good for growth

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 7 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Economies that narrow the gender gap and improve the status of women grow faster, the World Bank said Wednesday and, in a report issued to mark International Women’s Day, urged  societies with high levels of gender inequality to adopt measures that improve the status of women.

Equal access to land and property, and building infrastructure that meet the needs of women, such as improving rural transportation, water and education and designing programmes that bridges the gap between men and women were among the measures advocated by the Bank.

The report, ‘Engendering Development Through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources and Voices’, noted that if the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia had narrowed the gender gap in education as did East Asia, their economies would have grown by as much as one percent more each year than they did between 1960 and 1990.

In Africa, improving rural women’s access to productive resources like education, land and fertilizer could increase agricultural productivity by as much as one-fifth, said the report, released on the eve of Women’s Day, which is commemorated on Mar 8.

“Gender disparities are very closely associated with poverty. The gap between men and women in such things as health and education is greater in poor countries than in rich countries, and within countries it is greater among the poor,” said Elizabeth King who co-authored the report.

Even at the dawn of the new millennium, women remained under-represented in parliaments across the world, accounting for less than 10% of seats in all but a handful of nations. The report noted that in Eastern Europe, there had been a drop in female representation from 25 to 7% since the adoption of economic and political reforms after the fall of communism.

Women only got about half as many years of education than as men in South Asia, while many female-headed households in Latin America were either landless or owned only small pieces of land.  Enterprises managed by women were often under-capitalized with less chances of obtaining credit than those run by men.

“Societies that discriminate on the basis of gender pay a significant price in greater poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance, and a lower quality of life,” noted Andrew Mason, the other author of the report.

The study noted that areas such as domestic violence had an economic cost. Domestic violence resulted in lower productivity, greater absence from work, increased homelessness, greater demand for medical and community support services and larger expenditures on police and judicial services.

While it was difficult to measure its exact costs, the report estimated that domestic violence reduced women’s earnings by more than 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Chile and by 1.6% in Nicaragua in 1996.

Citing research conducted in 1995, the report said in Canada, the cost of violence against women was about $1 billion each year, or about 1% of Canada’s GDP.

The Bank called ‘Engendering Development’ the most extensive study yet of the link between gender and economic progress. It noted that a recent study of 63 countries concluded that gains in women’s education made the single largest contribution to declines in malnutrition between 1970 and 1995.

One of the report’s major shortfalls was that it failed to analyse the impact of the World Bank’s own policies in the negation of women’s progress in developing countries.

No comprehensive study on the social impact of the World Bank’s long-criticized structural adjustment policies (SAPS) had so far been done, even though they have been in operation for two decades.

A range of independent studies have noted that aspects of SAPS, such as trade liberalization, have had negative consequences on many poor economies, resulting in retrenchments, the elimination of subsidies and permitting cheap imports that have destroyed local industries.

Other policies, pushed through SAPs, such as charging fees for public services like primary education and health care have tended to hit women hardest.

[A major problem, relating to the overall approach of the Bank and its management (and economists), that has been brought out in the G-24 research papers in the past, has been that the Bank has been ‘adding on’ various desirable policies and objectives - ranging from environment, social issues, gender issues etc - to its basic policy framework (whether under the old structural adjustment programmes or the latest poverty reduction strategies programmes).  Such adds-on, often individually good in themselves, but more often aimed at pleasing special northern NGO constituencies, end up as additional conditionalities, obscure the failures of programmes and the reasons, enabling the Bank to blame the countries and their governments for faults in its policy advices.]

Some of the Bank’s own reports have acknowledged that macro-economic reforms may have been too harsh or too swift for those with few resources, but the Bank was quick to point out that there was no research that directly linked SAPs to growing poverty in developing countries.

“The Bank is two-faced,” said Laura Frade, Latin America regional coordinator of Women’s Eyes on the Bank, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that monitors the impact of the Bank’s policies on women.

“On the one hand it has invested a lot in SAPs and privatisation which hurt the poor; yet on the other, it has put in a lot of work on research on poor people.”

‘While the report is an advance in terms of the Bank’s understanding of gender and development, it does not go far enough in analysing the impact of structural adjustment policies on women.”

“When men lose their jobs it is women who have to work harder in the informal sector and children, mainly girls who have to leave school,” said Frade, who works in the rural areas of Chihuahua in Mexico. “I see this everyday with my own eyes, the impact of the Bank’s policies on gender.”

Third World Network-Africa, an NGO group, noted that economic reforms driven by the Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Africa over the last 20 years had exacerbated the gender-based constraints that accounted for women’s economic subordination and unequal status on the continent.

Results of the NGO’s ongoing research under the Gender and Economic Reforms Programme in Africa showed that economic stabilisation policies and SAPs have generally worsened the situation of women and reinforced existing inequalities.

“The Bank needs to understand how women shoulder the burden of the social impact of adjustment, how they are affected when health spending is cut or their incomes are reduced,” says Angela Wood of the Bretton Woods Project, an IMF and World Bank policy watchdog.  “The Bank says it does understand, but often it does not because it does not follow through - it’s not reflected in its policies.”