Today, of all days, no one needs to remind feminists, and humanists more generally, that there is no greater moral and political imperative than to ensure the equality of nearly half of the global population — it is fundamental to a just and more tolerant world. Moreover, equality is a human right, and over the past two decades, the world has affirmed that women’s rights are human rights.
Similarly, when women are empowered, humanity is empowered. That is something that is often overlooked: The tangible benefits of gender equality to humankind as a whole.
Acknowledgement of this truth is evident in the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals, accepted by 194 governments around the world and endorsed by the United Nations. These global goals explicitly call for incorporating women and gender into every objectives — ranging from “Zero Hunger” and “No poverty” to “Quality Education” — and has one goal focused exclusively on women. This goal, simply entitled “Gender Equality,” is a testament to the continuing elusiveness of the rights of women and girls.
Clearly, gender equality is essential to our planet’s collective future. Let’s take a look the specifics, starting with poverty. Simply put, we understand that gender equality will reduce poverty. Remember the phrase “the feminization of poverty”? It continues to hold true. The shocking fact remains that more than one in five people in the world — that’s over 1 billion people — live on less than $1.25 a day. Seventy percent of such “ultra-poor” people are women. Poverty reduction in lower income countries depends in large part on women, whose work is often unremunerated. In addition to their key role in household management and caring for children, the sick and the elderly, women are responsible for essential tasks such as fetching increasingly scarce firewood and water. Gender inequality is recognized as further perpetuating poverty, because women face life-threatening risks from early pregnancy and lose chances for education and improved income early in life. Ensuring that women graduate out of such poverty and have greater earning capacity will, almost by definition, make headway against this scourge.
Gender equality promotes agriculture and will reduce world hunger. Women comprise an average of 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in lower income nations, yet women farmers control less land and have restricted access to all the investments necessary to improve agricultural productivity. Worldwide, less than 20 percent of landholders are women. If women had the same access to resources as men, they could increase agricultural output that could potentially reduce the number of hungry people in the world by approximately 90 to 130 million.
Gender equality also expands labor markets and improves employment opportunities for all. With women now representing 40 percent of the global labor force and more than half the world’s university students, overall productivity will increase if their skills and talents are used more fully. Full participation of women in the labor force would add many percentage points to most national growth rates, probably double digits in many cases. According to a recent study published by the International Monetary Fund, closing the gender gaps in the labor market would raise gross domestic product in the United States by 5 percent, in the United Arab Emirates by 12 percent and in Egypt by 34 percent. Investing in programs that improve income generation for women can return $7 for every dollar spent.
Gender equality in education contributes to higher economic growth. Over the past 50 years, increased educational attainment for women and girls accounts for about 50 percent of the economic growth in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, a group of 35 high-income nations. In the Asia and the Pacific region, it has been estimated that between US$16 billion to US$30 billion is lost annually as a result of gender gaps in education. Investing in education programs for girls and increasing the age at which they marry can return $5 for every dollar spent on such programs. Interestingly, research also indicates that every single additional year of education for women of reproductive age decreases child mortality by 9.5 percent.
To top off all this information is another extraordinary fact: A one-year increase in health expectancy for women could raise a nation’s gross domestic product by up to 4 percent. In other words, gender equality in health contributes to economic development.
On this International Women’s Day, let’s act on the moral and political imperative to ensure gender equality everywhere. Let’s do this with the secure knowledge that advancing women and girls is also one of the best ways to promote everyone’s prosperity.