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Psst! Keep it quiet, but gender equality isn’t just tied to economic growth

[Brussels, 20 September 2011] The World Bank recently published world development report on gender makes the case for investment in women, but fails to address how gender equality must go beyond economic growth, argues Rachel Moussié, women’s rights adviser on economic policy at ActionAid International, in a blog posting for The Guardian.

The executive summary of the World Bank’s world development report (WDR) on gender trots out one of the organisation’s most familiar refrains: "Gender is smart economics." This is both misleading and unfortunate, because the data included in the report is much more nuanced. At times, it even questions the bank’s usual argument that economic growth leads to gender equality and gender equality leads to growth. There seems to be a pattern with WDR reports whereby the executive summary brushes over or ignores key findings that may contradict the bank’s policies.

The report’s key message is that economic growth does lead to gender equality, but with the exception of a few "sticky" issues. These issues arise when gender inequality persists despite economic growth. Women and girls are still more likely to die than men and boys. Women continue to be over-represented in low-paying, low-skill and informal employment. Rates of violence against women remain stubbornly high in both high-income and low-income countries, while the number of political positions held by women is disproportionately small.

Rather than simply "sticky" issues, these are fundamental areas of resistance that the women’s rights movement around the world has been fighting against. They are sites of deep-seated conflict and tension which economic growth alone cannot address.

The bank’s economic and political approach is evident, however, in the issues the report addresses and those it chooses to ignore. In a step forward, the WDR recognises the important work women do caring for children and the elderly: cooking, cleaning, and collecting firewood and water. These activities, performed alongside other work, are a heavy burden for women and act as a barrier to accessing higher earning jobs or participating in politics. The report notes that "women work more than men", but does not then consider that their workload increases significantly during an economic crisis. At such times, when family incomes drop and public services are cut, women and girls produce essential domestic goods that they can no longer afford to purchase such as food and clothes. When medical bills become too expensive or public healthcare services are not available, it is women and girls who care for the ill at home. Women’s labour not only replaces household income, but also subsidises the state.

The report claims that even in the wake of the most recent financial crisis there is "no evidence that women were more affected than men" in terms of employment. In previous crises, research has found that, while both women and men may lose their jobs, the impact on women is under-reported because their work in the home remains invisible. In addition, women are disproportionately represented in the informal economy. With so little information available, how can the bank be sure that women are not unduly affected?

The World Bank’s faith in the market to pick up the pieces after a crisis is evident in its treatment of social protection, or lack thereof. The report reduces this multi-faceted issue to conditional cash transfers, completely neglecting the important role programmes such as South Africa’s child support grant have played in lifting households and women out of poverty. The bank seemingly fails to recognise that poverty is chronic in the current economic system and the shocks frequent. Stop-gap measures are just not enough if governments are to prevent these shocks from reversing the gains made on gender equality.

The WDR does stress the pressing need for women’s ownership of and control over assets, particularly land. There is unfortunately no mention of communal forms of land ownership, but it is still significant that the bank has emphasised women’s control over land as a source not only of income, but also of status – and, more importantly, as a right.

The report fails to face the new and unavoidable challenges confronting countries. Take natural resources. In a world where land, water, seeds and forests are increasingly contested, how will women fare in the power struggle? What new challenges do climate change and diminishing natural resources pose for women, and what economic and social policies do governments need to adopt in response?

If the 2012 world development report succeeds in putting gender at the top of the bank’s agenda, it’s a good starting point. The bank’s development committee is scheduled to discuss the report and its implications for bank practices at next week’s annual meetings, and we can hope that some of the analysis will trickle down and influence their programmes and lending policies. But because the WDR has shied away from some of its own more controversial findings, the bank ultimately misses an opportunity to push the discussion on gender equality beyond economic growth and make even bolder decisions.

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