The statistics are staggering. According to USAID, globally, nearly 98 million girls are not in school. A more recent UNESCO report puts the number closer to 130 million, which is both good and bad, because while it could mean that more girls “count”–it’s also millions more who are not being educated. In the developing world, one in seven girls is married before her fifteenth birthday, and each year, more than 287,000 women (99 percent of them in developing countries) die from pregnancy, and childbirth-related complications.
Additionally, USAID statics show that, “while women make up more than 40 percent of the agriculture labor force, only 3 to 20 percent are landholders. In Africa, women-owned enterprises make up as little as 10 percent of all businesses. In South Asia, that number is only 3 percent.”
This gender inequality, especially in the workforce, is disturbing when you realize how much potential–economic and otherwise–is being lost.
For far too long, international development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) didn’t recognize that the best way to help a country develop was to focus on the needs of women and girls. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change.
At the beginning of this millennium, the United Nations held a summit that, a few years later, resulted in a Millennium Campaign. Eradicating extreme poverty was the overarching goal, but women’s empowerment was also addressed at that time.
More recently, in September, 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has 17 specific goals: gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of the top five goals.
But how is this apparent focus playing out in real life?
Two specific movements are helping to change the conversation, for the better, about the “how” of creating gender parity.
Private Sector Non-Profits are Stepping Up, With Data
It takes accurate data to solve a problem. It’s no coincidence that that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes this, and is working on the problem.
In May, 2016, Melinda Gates announced an $80 million commitment, over three years, “to close gender data gaps and help accelerate progress for women and girls around the world.” Gates said, accurately, in the press release, “We simply don’t know enough about the barriers holding women and girls back, nor do we have sufficient information to track progress against the promises made to women and girls.”
Take the education-for-girls statistic. We know that more education equals greater earning power. On average, even one year of secondary education increases earnings by women in developing countries by 10 to 20 percent, generally. But, if we can’t even accurately state the number of girls currently attending school, how can we create an effective initiative to keep girls in school longer?
When organizations like the Gates Foundation get involved, there’s bound to be forward momentum that leads to solutions.
Gender Disparity is No Longer a “Women’s Issue”
As stated in the report, Women and Non Government Organizations in Developing Countries, “The patriarchal social relation in many developing countries provides the ideological foundation for gender inequality.”
This truism has been used to keep “women’s issues” in a separate box from all other issues faced by people in developing nations. But that thinking is taking a new turn.
It is well recognized, in most cultures, that women are central to the home and family.
Helping women, therefore, has a ripple effect. It positively affects their children, their families, their local communities and, eventually, their country.
Leaders like Nobel Peace laureate, Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist responsible for leading Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which helped end the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, have proven that women’s voices are key to a country’s stability.
On a smaller scale, programs like those offered by Heifer International, which works to eradicate poverty through sustainable agricultural and commerce programs, also encourages women’s involvement in the community by supporting women-led cooperatives.
Also recognized is the need to work with fathers, husbands, and brothers in order to change the view of a woman’s “place” and acknowledge the value women can bring to the world, and the ways in which families and communities will be better for it.
If the international community of aid agencies, and individuals, can continue to find ways to link the need for gender equality to the success of programs in developing countries, we might truly be able to make the world just a bit better.