By Jamil Nasir
March 13, 2013
“The average North Carolina housewife had to walk 148 miles per year while carrying 3.5 tons of water. There is no more important event that liberated women than the invention of running water and indoor plumbing, which happened in urban America between 1890 and 1930”, wrote professor Robert J Gordon in one of his papers on the long-term economic growth of the United States. Prof Gordon’s thesis implies that development and women’s empowerment are inextricably linked to each other.
Many social scientists and policymakers tend to subscribe to this view when they say that the issue of gender inequality is linked to poverty, and unless poverty is tackled, gender inequality will persist.
On the face of it, this argument is true to some extent: gender inequality is more acute among the poor countries, as evident from the imbalanced gender ratios and number of ‘missing women,’ an indicator of gender inequality developed by Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics.
Sen coined the term ‘missing women’ to capture the fact that the proportion of women is lower than we should expect if the birth and death rates of girls and women were the same as boys and men.
A society where the sex ratio is skewed – ie, males are more in number compared to women – is essentially characterised by gender inequality. Given the uniform treatment and care to both male and female child, the argument runs, a society should at least have equal proportion of women and men. Against this yardstick, poor and developing countries do not fare well on gender equality.
According to the World Development Report, 2012, it is estimated that about six million women are missing every year. Out of these, 23 percent are never born (abortion, sex selection), 10 percent are missing in early childhood (bad nutrition, differential healthcare facilities, infanticide), 21 percent in reproductive years (deaths while giving birth to child, bride burning) and 38 percent above the age of 60. So these six million missing women are victims of active gender discrimination.
Moreover, a large number of women fail to get equal access to education and employment due to discriminatory rules and institutions that are pitched against them. This is a type of passive discrimination against them.
Undoubtedly, gender inequality and poverty are closely linked to each other. Girls are likely to receive less care than boys in those societies where boys have stronger preference over girls due to peculiar socio-economic environments. The differential treatment meted to the female babies become very obvious and glaring when the income of a household declines due to calamities like drought, floods or earthquakes.
So it is argued that poverty is the main culprit for gender discrimination and therefore more emphasis should be placed on poverty alleviation, as economic growth and development will automatically take care of gender inequality. This thesis, however, captures only one dimension.
Mindsets and perceptions also need to be changed through well-designed public-awareness programmes. Economic incentives are also equally important. If women have fewer opportunities in the labour market, parents will be least incentivised to educate girls, especially if they have fewer resources, and in the rationing of these resources the male child will get precedence over the female child as the male child is likely to pay back the investment on education by entering the labour market.
Perception prevails, especially among poor families and rural households, that girls’ education will not have much payoff as they are not supposed to take care of the family in financial terms. This means that motivation for education stems from employment opportunities.
The policy implication is: creation of job opportunities for women in the labour market can provide a strong impetus to change and go a long way in reducing gender inequality.
If economic growth and development were enough to reduce gender discrimination, sex ratios would have improved in the countries like China and India where economic growth has remained impressive in the past.
Further, poverty reduction through sustained growth, especially in China, has been well recognised at the global level but, despite sustained growth and poverty-reduction, gender inequalities have not gone down. It vindicates the point that development, per se, is not sufficient to reduce gender discrimination.
Skewed gender ratios in countries like India and China show that economic development and new technology do not necessarily reduce gender inequality. Rather, reduction in the costs of discrimination can sometimes be more fatal, as has happened in India. According to the 2011 census in India, sex ratios are reported to have dropped to their lowest level since 1947. This happened due to new technology that helped in sex selection.
Advertisements like ‘Better pay Rs5,000 now than Rs50,000 later’ were put up by the clinics in Mumbai. Here Rs5, 000 refers to the fee for sex selection, or in a sense ‘infanticide,’ whereas Rs50, 000 hints at the dowry that the parents would have to pay at the time of the girl’s marriage.
Thus, the lowering of cost of sex identification and abortion with the emergence of new technology is likely to further skew the gender ratios, especially in societies where the male is preferred over the females, if everything is left to the market.
Doing away with gender discrimination is not only desirable from social and ethical perspectives; it has economic dividends for the society as well. It is now well recognised that gender inequality is a big constraint to economic growth. In order to empower women in society, development strategies should come to their aid.
For example, in the rural areas of Pakistan women still have to travel long distances to fetch water, and if the developing projects for providing potable water are given priority, it can lessen their sufferings.
Similarly, more investment in reproductive and health-care services can lead to better development outcomes with regard to their health. Further, legal and regulatory frameworks that impede women’s empowerment also need to be visited as we cannot lay the foundation of an inclusive society if we continue to discriminate against half of our population.
Jamil Nasir is a graduate of Columbia University.