African nations could boost productivity and economic growth by eliminating gender disparities.
A report by the World Bank says removing barriers preventing women working in certain jobs would cut the productivity gap between male and female workers by a 30-50 per cent, and raise output per worker by 3 to 25 per cent in some countries.
Equal access to resources for female farmers could increase agricultural output in poorer countries by up to 4 per cent.
But this might not happen in poor and developing countries as women are increasingly bearing the brunt of poverty, their chances of accessing education getting slimmer as they continue to be left out in crucial decisions affecting them, such as family size and finances.
The World Development Report 2012 says more women than men were also dying of curable diseases.
Globally, excess female mortality in infancy, childhood and in their reproductive years, and “missing” girls at birth, account for an estimated 3.9 million deaths in women below the age of 60.
About 40 per cent of these are actually never born, as a result of sex-selective abortions in countries like India and China. About 20 per cent die in infancy and childhood, and the rest die during their reproductive years.
Maternal mortality in East Africa is among the worst in the world. Data from Unicef shows that regionally, the riskiest place to have a baby is Tanzania, where a woman has 1 in 23 chances of dying in childbirth. This is followed by Burundi, with 1 in 25 chances, Uganda and Rwanda, both with 1 in 35, and Kenya, with 1 in 38 chances. Compare this with countries like Malaysia, in which a woman has 1 in 1200 chances of dying in childbirth.
The report says that although women have entered the labour force in large numbers over the past two decades, this increased participation has not translated into equal employment opportunities or equal earnings for men and women.
“Women and men tend to work in very different parts of the ‘economic space’ with little change over time even in high-income countries… Women are more likely than men to engage in low-productivity activities. In agriculture, especially in Africa, women operate smaller plots of land and farm less remunerative crops.”
But curbing female deaths and giving women greater access to resources and opportunities could translate into real economic gains. Women represent more than 40 per cent of the global workforce, 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force and more than half of the world’s university students. But when women’s labour is underused or misallocated — because they face discrimination in markets or societal institutions that prevents them from completing their education, entering certain occupations, and earning the same incomes as men — economic losses are the result.
“Gender equality is smart economics,” says World Bank president Robert B Zoellick. “Countries with greater gender equality tend to have lower poverty rates; a child’s chance of survival is much greater if income goes into the hands of the mother; simply by giving women more control over agricultural inputs, agricultural productivity can be as much as 20 per cent higher in some countries.”
A recent survey by Egerton University’s Tegemeo Institute sponsored by the World Bank and Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture shows that more women than ever before are farming in Kenya as men seek other jobs and migrate to cities and towns.
“Women are now dominating farming,” says 34-year old Shelmith Wanjiru Kuria from central Kenya, quoted in the survey. “Men here are supported by the women.”
But low access to credit continues to hamper agricultural productivity and women find it especially difficult to obtain loans for lack of collateral. Jane Wambui, also quoted in the survey, says that yields on her 4-acre farm are decreasing because she can’t afford to buy fertiliser, which she says has risen from Ksh300 ($3.25) for a 250kg bag to about Ksh4,000 ($43) today.
The World Development Report says these kinds of gender gaps diminish a country’s ability to compete internationally, particularly if the country specialises in exporting goods and services for which men and women workers are equally well suited, such as agriculture.
The challenge is that growth in traditional agricultural exports has benefited men more than women because women are less likely to work on commercial crops and are crowded out of traditionally female-intensive crops when these crops become commercial.
“In some parts of the country, cash crops are the preserve of men,” says Nairobi economist Samuel Nyandemo.
“Women are relegated to growing food crops for subsistence. It’s an issue of attitudes and perceptions. Some of these barriers are very rigid and will take some time to change.”
Economist Sudhir Shetty, the co-director of the World Development Report said: “These gaps matter for development… The fact that women and men are treated differently is a negation for development. The simple truth is that gender equality makes economic sense.”
Over the past five years, the World Bank Group has allocated more than $65 billion or a staggering 37 per cent of its lending portfolio to support the education of girls, health of women and access to credit, land, agricultural extension services, jobs and infrastructure.
Greater expansion in technology can significantly bridge the gender divide in the labour force.
The report notes that traditionally, men have been more likely to be employed in sectors and occupations with stronger physical requirements than women, as men have an advantage in physical strength.
Therefore, computers or mobile phones, by de-emphasising physical skills, should favour women, even if women have no advantage over men in using a computer or acquiring computer skills.
The growth in mobile technology has had particular benefits for women. About 41 per cent of women interviewed in a number of developing countries, including India and Kenya, declared that owning a mobile phone had increased their income and their access to economic opportunities.
In many cases, women, particularly rural women, were willing to reduce expenditures on other items to have access to a mobile phone, suggesting that the perceived benefits outweighed the costs, which averaged 3.5 per cent of household income among those surveyed. Thirty-four per cent of women reallocated resources away from other items to pay for a phone subscription.
The report notes that young men invest less in their human capital because they see education as having low or mixed value, particularly in labour markets that do not operate on merit.
Across the world, men’s dependence on employment to gauge their self-worth and define their identity makes them vulnerable to economic volatility.
A man from the West Bank is quoted in the report: “Men are affected more than women [by unemployment], which leads to frustration and family problems and, in some cases, leads to violence by men against women and children, and may lead to illness.”
Source – The East African – Christine Mungai, September 25, 2011