Bridging the Gap through Women’s Economic Emancipation

Man’s evolution took giant leaps in the 21st century through rapid advancements in science and technology. But on the societal front, economic development has, so far, been sluggish in some countries due in part to the painfully slow acceptance of women’s critical role in the global political economy.

While the feminist movement emerged to protect women against misogyny as well as gender-specific discrimination and preserve the rights such as bodily autonomy and integrity, it has literally taken mankind two millennia to recognize that sustainable development is next to impossible without the integration of women for a sustainable, fair and prosperous future.

Over the last 50 years, nations developed, for better or for worse, depending on how each country coped with problems stemming from inflation, poverty, conflict and disease. It is not untrue to claim that empowering members of the female gender – said to be the third billion after India and China – through education and by encouraging them to participate in the workforce, has the potential to raise the living standards of all communities as well as alleviating poverty and even conflict.

In their book “Half the Sky – How to Change the World”, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn note, “Countries nurturing terrorists are disproportionately those where women are marginalized. As the Pentagon gained a deeper understanding of counter terrorism, it became increasingly interested in grassroots projects such as girls’ education. Empowering girls, some in the military argued, would disempower terrorists.”

Women’s emancipation is, thus, not just about freedom from gender-based violence, female marginalization, illiteracy and other ills afflicting societies. It is, in fact, essential to the formation of civil societies, nation-building and a world without exploitation.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) “Executive Summary of Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now”, “Gender inequality means not only foregoing the important contributions that women make to the economy, but also wasting years of investment in educating girls and young women. Making the most of the talent pool ensures that men and women have an equal chance to contribute both at home and in the workplace, thereby enhancing their well-being and that of society.”

Educational attainment in the last two decades has been quite impressive as far as emerging markets are concerned. While educating women accounts for more than half of the economic growth in OECD countries, the enrolment of women in secondary and tertiary education surpasses that of men in countries like Brazil, Spain, France, Sweden and the US. In contrast, war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan clearly illustrate how repressive gender-biased policies and attitudes as well as prevailing patriarchal practices make positive economic activity almost an impossibility.

In the article “Peace-building and reconstruction with women: reflections on Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine”, Valentine M Moghdam comments, “Afghanistan was once considered a model of post-conflict reconstruction, yet women can hardly be said to be enjoying security, participation and rights. Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution mandates compulsory education up to grade nine, but the majority of girls remains out of school. Secondary school enrollments remained extremely low, especially for girls; only nine percent of girls attending primary school continued to secondary school. The country’s Supreme Court barred married women from attending high school – in a country where girls as young as 10 are married off, often to far older men.”

Even though the numbers for female enrollments in schools and colleges are growing in frontier and emerging markets, percentage is still low as far as STEM education is concerned. Integrating women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is key to boosting economic diversity, thereby creating knowledge-based societies.

The case of Africa, the “Hopeless Continent”

A case in point is Africa, once deemed to be the “Hopeless Continent”, has proven its naysayers and experts wrong. According to a report by the law firm, Freshfield Bruckhaus Derigner: “Over the last decade, Africa has emerged as a prime investment destination for global businesses seeking M&A opportunities. The value of African inward investment has tripled in the last ten years reaching more than $182bn while deal volumes have doubled now standing at a total of 2,417. International investors now account for half of the total value of African M&A, completing 255 deals worth $20.0bn out of a total of $39.5bn and 758 deals in 2012. This is up from $6.4bn and 122 deals in 2003.”

Major catalysts for this stupendous growth have been attributed to the adoption of new technologies and data-rich mobile penetration. Access to the Internet, information and communication technologies in the sub-Saharan Africa has also opened a cornucopia of opportunities for even its womenfolk. Young visionary African women are striving hard not only to create better communities by educating girls, but are also playing an instrumental role by introducing innovative technologies that can benefit the common woman.

Co-founder and Chairperson of Techwomen Zimbabwe Rumbidzayi Mlambo is a successful social entrepreneur working with Government, development agencies and private sector in Zimbabwe. Talking about their technology-based initiative Tech Woman Zimbabwe, she says, “It is an international mobile application development program for women and girls between the ages of 10 to 20. A relatively new establishment, we strive to provide girls with the opportunity to learn how to build and develop applications in a period of three to four months. We wanted to come up with innovations that would actually benefit ordinary women. The idea is to develop and then integrate technology in women’s day-to-day lives; improving the things they do every day and consequently creating a meaningful impact on the national economy in the long-term. Our decision to work with girls and young women was mainly due to the under-representation of the female gender in STEM fields. In addition to this, we noticed that these young girls were actually seeking a platform to develop their skills and willing to showcase their capabilities.”

Although Tech Woman Zimbabwe has experienced a very positive response from girls, it is quite another story as far as parents are concerned. “Unfortunately, there has been mixed response from the parents. While some are supportive of their daughters, many believe this initiative to be a waste of time and this greatly hinders girls’ participation as a result,” says Mlambo.

Talking about gender bias in STEM education specifically in Zimbabwe, Mlambo says, “We were surprised to notice that girls work better in a single-sex environment where they are free to laugh and think. They thrived among other girls. This made us explore and ascertain reasons as to why men cause hindrance to a girl’s progress. And it came as no surprise that boys, even at a very young age, are conditioned to have a negative perception about girls.”

Tackling the widening gender gap is indeed a complex issue, and it needs to be dealt with on multiple levels namely through education, policy-making and, most importantly, by incorporating women into the “conversation”.

While opinion-makers put much emphasis on the role of government in leveraging technology, creating legitimate policies that support and encourage women participation, there are those like Mlambo who think otherwise, “I do believe there is an overemphasis on governments about policies regarding education (STEM included). It is time for us as a community, as well as groups of women, to take action. Governments come and go as a result of which policies change. Yes, we do need government support – but a sustainable framework should be introduced whereby legitimate policies are retained and there is continuity so that once the governments do go, rules and regulations remain unchanged. Policies that are based on politics are inconsistent and tend to alter while community or business-based ones definitely tend not to shift or change.”

On a positive note, as far as some Arab countries are concerned, there have been inroads to gender equality and development. The Arab Spring in 2011 was a starting point of change, though the pace has mellowed down over the past few years. And while women have made remarkable strides in the health sector as well as education, integrating women into the “formal economy” remains a complicated issue, making this an interesting paradoxical debate the world over.

According to a World Bank report titled “Opening Doors Gender Equality and Development in the Middle East and North Africa,” “Women in the region continue to face significant restrictions on mobility and choice. These constraints are held in place by legal frameworks, including regulations that restrict work and political participation; and by social and cultural norms. A second constraint is the poor quality of education and critical skills mismatches between what is studied in school, especially for girls, and what the private sector demands. Third, employers often perceive women as more costly and less productive than men. For their part, women have concerns about their reputations and safety in private sector jobs.”

What is happening in the MENA region

That said, women entrepreneurship, especially in STEM fields, is on the rise across the MENA region but does still faces many roadblocks.

Founder of Middle East’s highly popular virtual skills marketplace Nabbesh, and an inspiring entrepreneur Loulou Khazen Baz comments in an interview, “Regionally speaking, more and more people are coming online and there is a massive Internet penetration in this part of the world… Women can contribute massively to the economic activity of the country. Research shows how women can greatly impact the GDP. Even though women represent 50 percent of the population, the MENA region has one of the lowest women labor force participation in the world. There is a huge untapped pool of talent who are currently not contributing to the economy.”

Surprisingly, women accounted for 9.8 percent of corporate board seats across the world in 2011, while in the Gulf Coorporation Council (comprising six oil-rich countries: UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), they accounted for 1.5 percent as per the Dubai-based Institute for Corporate Governance. However, this soon changed for the UAE as the country’s Prime Minister and Dubai’s ruler H.H Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, issued a federal law obligating all government departments and related companies to have female representation on their boards. Experts opine that even though laws are in place, complete enforcement will be gradual.

Conclusion

Economic diversity can become a reality only by creating knowledge-based societies where achieving gender equality and women’s rights are “ends in themselves”, says an OXFAM report, “as their absence drives poverty while fulfillment is shown to drive development.”

Indeed, change is usually difficult; but this is also a time of changing realities! Ensuring a prosperous future is certainly no easy task, but the road to global economic freedom is within reach through strategies that target structural change such as enhancing women’s educational attainment, introducing women-centric coherent policies and fostering women-led enterprises.

Sabin Muzaffar

Publisher and Executive Editor of Ananke