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What the Nigerian girls can teach us about women's empowerment

Nigerian Girls 012

Bring Back Our Girls is big news. In Washington DC, where I work, the media was out last Friday to report on a vigil for more than 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Earlier that morning, I attended a briefing at the Capitol by the nongovernmental organization PCI on the difficulties of trying to measure women’s empowerment. The room was packed with representatives of other NGOs, but I didn’t notice any media. The briefing was titled Measuring the Hard to Measure, which says a lot about why development programs struggle to provide effective help in reducing gender inequality, and maybe about why the media isn't interested yet.

The two events occurred on the same day purely by coincidence, but it seems fitting that they were happening together. On the one hand, we’ve got the backlash represented by Boko Haram, men who feel threatened by the thought of women being less than submissive to their demands. On the other, empowerment programs have mostly been about increasing the rate of girls attending school -- relatively easy stuff. Looking ahead we have to face up to the challenge that there is much harder work to do in reducing gender inequalities, and a lot more backlash inevitably. The guys in Boko Haram have a lot more to fear than girls going to school and they know it.  

Increasing women’s participation rates in public office has proven much more difficult than increasing school attendance. Globally, women hold an average of just 22 percent of seats in national parliaments. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for reaching 30 percent by the end of 2015. 

It is interesting to observe how income does little to reduce the gender gap in political representation. Developed countries have done only slightly better than developing ones, and neither group will meet the MDG target. Both started out alike in 1990 - the MDG baseline year - with an average of 13 percent. Presently developed countries have reached 25 percent and developing countries 21 percent.

Progress has been slow because of discriminatory laws, underinvestment in woman’s human capital, norms that cast doubt on their decision making capacity, and unpaid care work that takes up a disproportionate share of women’s time compared to men’s…among other things. But those are some important ones for starters. The confluence of so many inequalities makes it hard to disentangle them to address individually. That was the take away from the PCI briefing. Gender inequality is a multidimensional problem demanding multidimensional solutions. 

Gender inequalities will persist as long as the political will to address them is lacking, or I suspect until women’s participation in politics reaches a tipping point.  Todd

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