LONDON – According to the United Nations, 70% of women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime. The World Bank adds that women aged 15-44 are more likely to experience rape or domestic violence than cancer, car accidents, war, or malaria. Such indicators are even more alarming in emerging markets, where discrimination and gender inequality are particularly prevalent.
This partly reflects the failure of public policy to ameliorate the distributive consequences of rapid economic growth. With the informal sector continuing to play a major role in emerging economies, women often have access to only unreliable and transitory employment that offers casual and irregular wages. Meanwhile, unprecedented urbanization has disrupted traditional family structures, further undermining the role that women can play in economies and societies.
The damaging impact of active gender discrimination – such as bride burning and female infanticide – is clear. But passive discrimination – tolerating rules and institutions that deny women equal say in reproductive decisions, equal access to education and employment, equal pay for equal work, equal rights before the law, and equal political influence – is similarly destructive.
In all of its forms, gender discrimination makes women vulnerable to sexual slavery, trafficking, and forced marriage, deprives women of their inalienable rights, and diminishes their quality of life. At the same time, it stunts the capacity of boys and men to understand women’s plight, thus diminishing their motivation to change the situation. While these issues are global, they are most urgent in emerging markets, where they are undermining the social and economic progress on which the rest of the world increasingly relies.
In the wake of the global economic crisis, emerging markets have become the engines of worldwide growth. But these countries face growing constraints to sustainability, social cohesion, and political stability, including erosion of their international competitiveness, environmental degradation, weaknesses (including corruption) in national, local, and corporate governance, wasted human capital, and growing social, economic, and gender inequality.
Failure to make full use of women’s talents undermines emerging markets’ economic development, while the marginalization and abuse of women threatens their social advancement and impairs their political stability. With most countries worldwide facing continued economic uncertainty, the international community has a vested interest in emerging economies’ resilience, collective capacity to sustain global demand for goods and services, and ability to confront the challenges, such as gender inequality, that threaten their success.
The importance of overcoming these barriers to development was emphasized at a recent symposium (of which I was the chair) at Green Templeton College, Oxford. Fifty leaders from government, business, civil society, and academia identified gender inequality as the most urgent constraint to sustainable growth, social cohesion, and political stability, and agreed on the steps needed to address the issue effectively.
First and foremost, national policymakers must take concrete, comprehensive action to ensure that women are forced to abandon neither productive nor reproductive activities. To this end, governments should implement measures that guarantee, directly or indirectly, affordable child- and elder-care support systems for working parents.
Moreover, private employers should be encouraged to build supportive workplaces by implementing creative solutions to common constraints. For example, MAS Holdings in Sri Lanka has incorporated into the workplace nursing stations, on-site banking, and company buses that ease employees’ commutes and facilitate participation in sports programs. Such measures not only lead to increased productivity; they also bolster loyalty, morale, and thus employee retention.
At the same time, it is crucial that women enjoy total reproductive autonomy and sexual sovereignty. This can be achieved only with the provision of universal and unfettered access to reproductive and other relevant health-care services.
But even healthy reproduction has a dark side. Neonaticide (killing infants that are less than one day old), infanticide (killing infants that are more than one day old), and the practice of disposing of female children in favor of male offspring are not only barbaric; they have led to imbalanced gender ratios in many emerging markets.
Policymakers must enforce criminal sanctions against these practices. Subsequently, educational programs for children and adults should be launched, in collaboration with religious groups, in order to improve public understanding of gender inequality. By promoting a shift in public perceptions, such programs can catalyze fundamental behavioral changes.
International action is also crucial. The World Bank and regional development banks should be encouraged to incorporate gender-equality criteria into their eligibility criteria for loans and credit to emerging-market governments and private-sector corporations. Such a clear economic link would help to motivate local policymakers to take strong action, while helping to bolster public support for policies promoting gender equality.
The international community has a profound stake in the future performance of emerging markets. In order to bolster these countries’ social and economic advancement, the development agenda in the coming years should include a robust commitment to promoting gender equality.