Developing strategies to end hunger
 

New Data: Social Norms Pose Unchecked Threat to Women’s Empowerment

The World Bank recently released the 2014 World Development Indicators—the most current and accurate collection of global and country-level development data available. Each year, the World Bank works to expand and improve the body of data available to more consistently gauge progress on an ever-growing number of development variables.

Women’s empowerment is an area where data has been notoriously inconsistent and incomplete. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000, included a goal to “promote gender equality and empower women” as MDG 3. But meeting a goal depends greatly on its indicators of success. The MDGs defined progress on women’s empowerment almost exclusively by whether girls have equal access to primary education and by whether more women are serving in national parliaments. By those measures, the world has indeed made great strides since 2000. Today the global gender gap in access to both primary and secondary education is nearly closed, and about one in five parliamentarians in the developing world is now female (Rwanda's parliament is majority female). Yet, there are significant limitations to what the current MDG indicators can tell us about how empowered women are throughout the world.

Percent of Women who believe a husband is justified in beating his wife when she argues with him

One of the more revealing new datasets released by the World Bank this year shows that in many countries, a large number of people – both women and men – do not support women’s equal participation in household decisions. One of the starkest demonstrations of this is shown in the graphic above, which lists the 10 countries with the highest proportion of women who agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife when she argues with him.  

There may not be many areas of consensus in the development community, but the belief that women are the key to ending hunger and extreme poverty is one of them. Women’s dual roles as producers and caregivers make them essential actors in every family. When women share decision-making power equally with men in the household and in society, their families are healthier and more prosperous. The next generation is better off because women, more than men, spend their additional income on feeding and educating their children. And generally, two capable adults working in partnership can accomplish far more than one can alone.

Legal rights are necessary but not sufficient. As the global community reaches consensus on the set of global goals that will replace the MDGs in 2016, it will need to diversify its toolbox of indicators for measuring women’s empowerment, adding indicators that capture the influence of less tangible factors like cultural norms and stigmas. Countries will need to explore ways to help men and women examine and question these staunch norms that undermine women’s agency. Women who see themselves as equals who are entitled to express their opinions without fear of violence will be better equipped to provide for their own families and contribute to a healthier society and economy.

  Derek Schwabe

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