Women’s Day: A time for concern, not complacency

As we mark International Women’s Day this week, let’s not be complacent. Over the past century, we have come a long way in increasing women’s voice, participation, and agency in societies around the world. Unfortunately, as the effects of the financial crisis continue to be felt and other political developments take place, there is increasing concern that the progress we have made is in jeopardy of taking a back seat to “more urgent” problems.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the headlines. Or replay the World Bank’s special event we held on Monday on women’s rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). As expressed by the panelists, Facebook posts, and countless live tweets, there is real worry that the progress being achieved, especially on women’s human rights, could be reversed.

Take the global economy, which is still fighting its way back from collapse. From the talks of strengthening the Eurozone to the struggles of creating more jobs, where are the high-level discussions or efforts to help women recover from the economic downturn? Although male workers were in many cases more affected by the crisis than women, there is evidence that female employment is growing at a lower rate than men’s. On the political side, some countries where elections are taking place are questioning the role of women in society–even in places where gender equality had been taken for granted. And in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many are wondering if gender equality will end up being part of the equation at all.

Let’s start with the areas of progress. One area of advancement has been on formal rights and constitutional guarantees for women. In Ethiopia, for instance, abductions of girls as a path to marriage have now been made punishable under the law. In great part thanks to the bravery of people like Aberash Bekele, a 14-year old girl who killed her 29-year old abductor and was finally acquitted in 1999, and also of lawyers who invoked the antidiscrimination articles of CEDAW adopted in 1979.

The other front where a lot has happened is on development indicators, as shown in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. Gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries. Since 1980, women are living longer than men in all parts of the world. And over the last 30 years, more than half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force as women’s participation in paid work has risen in most of the developing world.

Yet, gender disparities persist in many areas. Females are more likely to die, relative to males, in many low and middle-income countries as compared to their counterparts in rich countries. These deaths are estimated at about 3.9 million women and girls under the age of 60. And women are more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers or in the informal sector.

So where do we go from here? As a development practitioner overseeing the gender portfolio at the World Bank, I can tell you that International Women’s Day on March 8th should always serve as a reminder of this vitally important issue. But there are another 364 days of the year where we have to take action—both at work and at home, both as men and women, both as fathers and mothers. This is not the time to be complacent; this is a time for us all to be concerned. Only if we can lead by example and “engender” the attitudes of our children, will boys and girls become equal partners in the future.

By Otaviano Canuto

He is World Bank’s Vice President and Head of the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) Network

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