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Investment in women and girls is women's empowerment
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain
Women are grossly discriminated against men in male-dominated society. They are discriminated in every sphere of public and private life by men. In developed countries, women also suffer from unequal wage and there is a “glass-ceiling “in corporate bodies that does not ordinarily allow women to become either executive directors or chief executive officers. Empowerment of women and girls is a long lasting investment for economic and social development in developing countries. Empowerment of women will create among them innovation, creativity and improvisation. Grameen Bank has demonstrated that women micro-credit receivers are financially more responsible than men-folk in paying their dues and getting more returns from the micro-credit. How do you empower or invest in women? Many development practitioners have come up with five objectives of empowerment: (a) anti-poverty approach, (b) welfare approach, (c) equity approach, (d) efficiency approach and (e) empowerment approach. Let me discuss the empowerment approach.
Empowerment of or investment in women
Education is an essential element of the investment of girls and women. A good quality education, designed on the basis of women and girls' immediate and strategic needs, builds women's capacities and prepares them to seize opportunities in the public and private domains. By investing in women and girls, women are empowered that is crucial to change some of the societal attitudes and behaviours that discriminate against girls and women. The investment in women and girls is therefore directly linked to their empowerment and to the full enjoyment of their rights in society. Women represent over 50 percent of the world's population and provide 60-80 percent of the world's agricultural labor, yet some research indicates they own less than 5 percent of the world's land. Assets and income in the hands of women results in higher caloric intake and better nutrition for the household than when in the hands of men. Improving women's land rights makes a powerful contribution to household food security. Women's property rights increase women's status and bargaining power within the household and community. Secure land rights provide women with greater incentives to adopt sustainable farming practices and invest in their land. Although women work in the agricultural lands in the countryside, women in most developing countries do not have secure rights to the land they work. Empowerment of women in the economic and social fields constitutes one of the fundamental objectives of all development efforts in the region. Improvement of status: Following the adoption of the Jakarta Declaration for the Advancement of Women in Asia and the Pacific (1994), and the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action (1995), significant achievements have been made in empowering women in the region. Their economic participation has shown uneven but steady progress with gender differentials in wages falling in many instances. Significant progress has also been made in terms of increases in female literacy and life expectancy rates, and reduction in mortality rates. A growing number of women are also succeeding in the use of new and innovative technologies, especially information technologies, and empowering themselves through effective participation in national machineries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example Grameen bank, Brac and other micro- financial institutions have empowered women in the country side of Bangladesh and they are no more solely dependent on income of husbands or male members of the family. With the changing demographic structure of the region and increase in the proportion of older persons, especially older women, the need for appropriate policies and systems to provide economic and social support will be an important issue. Promoting the greater participation of women in decision-making will continue to be a formidable challenge. The task of social and economic empowerment of women therefore remains a priority area of concern for the countries of the region.
There are also formidable challenges for women. Women are still grossly under-represented in the decision-making process and have restricted access to productive resources and social support systems. They experience the major brunt of the economic crisis and the modern adjustment process in the form of increased unemployment. Poverty remains the single most debilitating factor, hampering the integration of women into the development process. In many countries, the number of women in poverty continues to grow, with renewed fear that if there is any economic crisis in the country, it is likely to push a large number of women into poverty and social despair. They fall back on the informal sector for economic survival. Although significant progress has been made in alleviating poverty in the region, the women in poverty continue to suffer from economic hardship and social exclusion. The progress so far achieved in empowering or investing in women is highly uneven, with the weaker economies, especially the least developed countries and the economies in transition, falling significantly behind. The present economic globalisation has exposed women to greater uncertainty. Trafficking in women and children, with all its attendant social ills, and violence against women, has remained a major cause for concern in the SAARC region. The problems of economic and social support for ageing populations, especially older women, loom as an emerging challenge. An increasing number of women are being trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labour, with growing incidents of violence against women. Many migrant women face the bleak prospects of unemployment when they return home.
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has been engaged with the issue of gender-equality and to bring women in the mainstream development. During 1990s a regional plan was adopted identifying areas of concern and goals for women. Several short-term activities like workshops, training courses were held in the areas of women and environment, women and education, women and employment and women in agriculture.
Often it is found that although women earn money, empowerment eludes them because men take all the decisions in the family in the male-dominated traditional society. The main difficulty for empowerment of women is the hostile attitude of the conservative society to women in developing countries. They want women to continue their traditional duties of house-work and raising children. It appears that the conservative section of society does not realise that linkage between economic growth and social development is imperative for nations to prosper. Planning of gender equality and investment in women and girls appear to be the domain of politics and it is up to political leaders to ensure that right investment in women and girls takes place in society.
Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.