Developing strategies to end hunger
 

126 posts categorized "Good Governance"

"If she did not fight ... it would have been another story"

In sub-Saharan Africa, a girl with hopes for more than a primary education is unlikely to realize them. For rural girls, the odds are even worse. In a region where a minority of all school children—regardless of gender—even complete lower secondary school (ninth grade), parents must fight to give their daughters an equal chance. This was the experience of Fouzia Dahir, a Kenyan Somali woman whose mother personally shielded her from the social and physical forces that threatened to knock her off the path to a college degree. Fouzia’s story is featured in the 2015 Hunger Report video, just released this week and posted above.

Not only are women and girls the majority of the world’s hungry people, but they are the chief agents the world relies on to help end hunger. Evidence shows that gender discrimination causes hunger, but it also shows that removing gender discrimination leads to benefits that reach every level of society. When women are empowered, families, communities, and even economies are healthier and wealthier. Fouzia’s life and work illuminate this truth. She is the founder of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment, a non-profit organization in Kenya that advocates for equal opportunities for rural women and girls and equips them to seize those opportunities.

Fouzia’s organization takes direct aim at the largest, most obstinate barriers that stand between rural girls and an education. The most threatening of these is deep poverty, which forces many parents to pull their children out of school to work—simply because the family’s survival depends on it. Scarce economic opportunity and the poverty that results from it exacerbate gender inequality by driving families to make difficult choices about which child gets to go to school. Fouzia’s organization trains rural women to be more productive farmers and connects them to markets so they can earn enough income to send all of their children to school and keep them there.

Social norms pose another pervasive, if invisible, threat to women’s empowerment. Fouzia’s community is no exception. Families who embrace modern education often still hesitate to educate their girls, convinced that their rightful place is in the kitchen. Early marriage is commonplace and virtually always means an end to the child bride’s education. Even girls who manage to evade an early marriage face the next challenge of balancing school and studying with an oppressive burden of domestic work that they alone are expected to shoulder. They must walk miles each way to fetch water, gather firewood, and also do the household cleaning, leaving little or no time for homework. Many eventually drop out of school. This is why Fouzia’s organization works to start conversations among families and between families and schools that encourage a more equitable sharing of household work within the family.

Fouzia is a catalyzing force in her community who is generating very real economic and social returns and making lasting improvements. This would not be possible but for the uncompromising insistence of her mother, herself illiterate, that Fouzia stay in school. Fouzia sees potential similar to her own lost in every young girl denied an education.

You can read Fouzia’s story in her own words and learn more about the importance of education to women’s empowerment by reading the 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish …We Can End Hunger

Derek Schwabe

Tales from My Father: Education Matters for Personal and Global Development

Long before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed upon in 2000 by world leaders, my father had a vision—to provide me with the best quality of education he could. Besides values, I don’t recall many things about personal development that he emphasized more than the value of education in my life.

My father’s vision of what education had to offer was twofold: the opportunity to advance personal growth by learning the life skills needed for self-confidence and self-sufficiency, and the opportunity to contribute to society and to future generations. In other words, he believed that education empowers individuals and communities to achieve a broader set of development goals—for example, to fight hunger, poverty, and malnutrition, and to build stronger, more stable societies.

My father’s ideals ring as true to me today as they did then. I also know now that without his vision and support, I could easily have been among the hundreds of millions of women around the world whose fate in life is determined simply by the circumstances they were born into. Education carries costs—necessities such as textbooks and supplies as well as the loss of help with household chores—and in some cases, a girl's education is further limited by cultural practices that dictate how far a girl or woman can or should go.

MDG 2 includes a target of ensuring that, by 2015, all children, boys and girls alike, are able to complete a full course of primary schooling. There have been impressive strides forward, particularly at the start of the decade. By 2012, all developing regions had achieved, or were close to achieving, gender parity in primary education. Moreover, some of the nations that have most advanced their children’s access to primary education are among the most impoverished. 

Image1The president and first lady issue a call to action at the Let Girls Learn launch earlier this week. (Photo credit: Faustine Wabwire, Bread for the World Institute)

However, evidence suggests that more recently, progress in reducing the number of children out of school has slowed considerably. According to the World Bank, primary and secondary school enrollment gaps remain in the poorest and most difficult circumstances. Of the remaining 58 million out-of-school children of primary school age, half live in conflict-affected areas. Others who are more likely not to attend school are girls from poor rural households and children with disabilities. The problem is found in many sub-Saharan Africa countries and in some parts of Asia. The same barriers that prevent children from starting school often prevent those who do start from finishing: the primary school dropout rate in developing regions is more than 25 percent. Yet, low-income countries have witnessed a 9 per cent decrease in aid to basic education between 2010 and 2011, from $2.1 billion to $1.9 billion. In sub-Saharan Africa, home to over half of the world’s out-of-school population, aid to basic education declined by 7 per cent over the same period.

Bread for the World Institute’s 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, shows that empowering girls and women is critical to economic development gains, including ending hunger and malnutrition. The legacy of the past, high dropout rates, and continued significant numbers of out-of-school children mean that illiteracy remains a barrier to development today: 81 million adults and 126 million youth worldwide lack basic literacy skills, of whom more than 60 percent are female.

Last Tuesday, March 3, 2015, was a very special day for me. I had the honor of re-living my father’s tales of education. I was not listening to my father this time, but to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the East Room of the White House. The President and First Lady had invited guests to witness the launch of a new initiative, Let Girls Learn. According to a newly released factsheet, Let Girls Learn will galvanize public and private sector resources to make a final push toward strengthening access and quality primary school education for girls around the world. It will “expand and strengthen existing programs to help adolescent girls complete their education and pursue their broader aspirations.”

The President and First Lady’s call to action through Let Girls Learn is especially timely as the global community forges the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals to carry on the unfinished agenda of the MDGs. My father would agree—it is past time to Let Girls Learn.

  Faustine Wabwire

Sad Statistics for the United States on Maternal Mortality

Infant feet

As a policy analyst, my life revolves around data related to hunger, poverty and nutrition of mothers and their children. Statistics are the tool of my trade. I use them to report, to convey information, and often to advocate on issues. A few stay with me: 805 million hungry people in the world (one person in nine); 165 million stunted children who will never reach their full potential in life.

In my research for the Institute’s series celebrating Women’s History Month, I came across another statistic that will stay with me for a long time. A study by the respected British medical journal The Lancet found that the United States is one of only eight countries where maternal mortality (death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth) is on the rise. The other countries are Afghanistan, Greece, and several countries in Africa and Central America.

In this country, 18.5 mothers died for every 100,000 births in 2013—almost 800 women died here that year alone. This is double the rate of Canada and triple the rate of the United Kingdom! What is going on here? How is it that women in the United States are dying at a faster rate from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth than in almost any other place in the developed world?

There seem to be several contributing factors. Some of the reported rise in mortality is likely due to more rigorous data collection; the United States is one country where data on almost anything is readily available. Another factor is the rise in the number of pregnant women here who have conditions—such as hypertension and diabetes—that contribute to making their pregnancies “high risk.” More girls with heart or neurological diseases are surviving to adulthood—good news, but they remain at higher risk during pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that American women of color – particularly African Americans -- are three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or giving birth than their white counterparts. Higher poverty rates, which carry numerous consequences such as more chronic health problems and less access to prenatal care, are a major reason that women of color in our country run much higher risks in becoming mothers. 

There is a parallel between efforts to end maternal mortality and efforts to end global hunger. We know that a lack of available food is not the problem. It is getting access to nutritious food — a particular problem for pregnant women and children – that is a major problem. Affording food and reaching a place where it is available pose the biggest challenges. Researchers have found the same to be true in efforts to end maternal mortality -- particularly during or shortly after childbirth. The major problems are affordability and access to skilled care. This is true in the United States as in many developing countries.

The situation is even worse in “fragile states,” developing countries suffering armed conflict or civil war while also confronting high rates of food insecurity. 

Womwn in healthclinic_UN
Mothers and small children line up at a health clinic. Credit: UN

In its State of the World’s Mothers 2014 (SOWM) report, the international organization Save the Children says: “These countries and territories (more than 50 in number) lack resilience to emergencies and face chronic underlying challenges, including extreme poverty, weak infrastructure, and poor governance. In these settings, children and mothers face an everyday emergency, whether or not a humanitarian crisis is officially recognized by the international system.”

During this Women’s History Month, I encourage you to read Save’s SOWM report and take a look at the statistics on maternal mortality compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations World Health Organization. As a result of a concerted effort by governments, international donors, and civil society, we are making remarkable progress toward the goal of ending hunger.  Much less progress has been made toward the fifth Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths. An equally concerted and collaborative effort, accompanied by sustained funding for healthcare programs in the United States and overseas, particularly in fragile states, is needed to help women survive as they secure humanity’s future by bearing children.

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Women's History Month: Where We're Coming From

Global women's movement photo

Carrying firewood in Bangladesh. To help end gender discrimination, unpaid chores must be more equitably shared. Photo by Todd Post/Bread for the World.

Welcome back to Bread for the World Institute's March series celebrating Women's History Month by illustrating the many ways women's empowerment and gender equity are intertwined with our mission: ending hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. (For more on what we mean by "women's empowerment," see yesterday's series opener).

Our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger, identifies three components of efforts to achieve gender equity and the progress against hunger that comes with it: more bargaining power, more equitable sharing of unpaid work such as household chores, and greater representation in government and civil society.

Progress in redressing the power differential between men and women has made it possible for women to take many steps forward. Ending gender discrimination is a necessity if women are to gain enough bargaining power to live their lives as equal and equally valued members of their society. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As of 2014, all but seven countries have ratified the convention: the United States, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga.

Women perform many more hours of unpaid labor than men -- often burdensome tasks such as fetching water from faraway wells and pounding grains so that they can be cooked. At the same time, most must also grow food or participate in the informal or formal paid economy.

A third area of "women's work" is, of course, to ensure humanity's future by bearing children. It was this area -- workplace rights for pregnant and nursing women -- that saw the first international effort to recognize and try to ease the difficult balancing act between work and family responsibilities required of most women. In 1919, the International Labor Organization adopted the Maternity Protection Convention, under which new mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave and, once they return to work, two breaks each day to nurse their babies. The most recent update, adopted in 2000, provides for 14 weeks of paid leave. There are just four countries that require no paid maternity leave at all: the United States, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

Finally, equality for women requires that a fair share of their society’s leadership reflects and represents their experiences and perspectives. One of the most basic indicators of the ability to help lead is whether a person has the right to vote. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to make women's suffrage the law of the land. By 1994, women had the right to vote in 96 percent of the world's countries. When women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to vote for the first time later this year, there will be only one remaining jurisdiction in the world where men can vote but women cannot -- Vatican City.

For more on the history of the global women's movement, see the timeline in the introduction, "Women's Empowerment: A Moral Imperative," of our 2015 Hunger Report.

 Michele Learner

 

What do we mean by "women's empowerment"?

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Editor’s note: This post kicks off our celebration of Women’s History Month (March). Throughout our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger, as well as in much of the Institute’s other analytical work, we emphasize the necessity of women’s empowerment and gender equity – not only as a matter of individual rights, but also as an absolute necessity for further progress against hunger and malnutrition. The link between gender discrimination and hunger has proven persistent both in the United States and globally. This month we present stories, graphics, and analysis to help show the way forward on both fronts – gender equity on one hand, and ending hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity on the other.

Consider two children from poor households living in an Indian city. They are both 7 years old. They live in the same neighborhood and are both excelling in mathematics at the same primary school, showing every sign of a bright future. But one of these children is more likely than the other to still be in poverty as an adult, simply because she is a girl.

People are born into or fall into poverty for many reasons. But the reason a bright young girl is more likely to remain there than a bright young boy has everything to do with empowerment. Empowerment is what is needed when members of a society lack bargaining powerthe ability to negotiate favorable economic outcomes for themselves. When women and girls lack bargaining power, they are denied the opportunity to develop and use their gifts so they can support themselves and their families.

Some of the most common ways of increasing one’s bargaining power include getting more education, participating fully in the economy (which requires, for example, access to financial services such as a bank account or credit), and benefiting from basic social services such as health care. The availability of such “bargaining power builders” varies widely from country to country, but disempowerment means that women and girls almost always have less access to them than men and boys. In fact, our schoolchildren example may be overly optimistic, because it ignores the likely possibility that, even at age 7, the schoolgirl has already encountered home- or community-level barriers to her health, nutrition, and/or education.

It’s worth noting that neither women nor men living in poverty have much economic bargaining power, especially in developing countries where the vast majority of the population does low-paying, low-productivity work. But even within the constraints of poverty, working conditions for men and women are far from equal: women suffer many more forms of discrimination, which worsen the effects of poverty on their lives.

Empowering women is not only the right thing to do—it is an economic no-brainer. Excluding women from an economy is forgoing the efforts and talents of half the workforce. Studies consistently show that increasing women’s and girls’ bargaining power is one of the most effective ways to lift families out of poverty and boost economic growth, because women are more likely than men to invest their earnings back into the well-being of their families.

Discrimination that establishes and reinforces women’s lower status in society starts within the family and extends through social norms and national laws. Women all over the world have struggled for many years to empower themselves by creating change in all of these areas, sometimes aided by their governments and/or male allies – and there have been many improvements. Check back on Institute Notes later this week for a look at what has been achieved so far and what remains to be done.

Derek Schwabe

Good News: Africa Marks Six Months Without a Single Case of Wild Polio

Polio victory 2

Eradication of an infectious disease is one of the absolutes in the field of medicine: the disease can re-emerge so long as there is a single case anywhere in the world. It's all or nothing.

An unprecedented global effort deserves credit for dramatic progress against polio -- an age-old threat to children's lives and health -- in a single generation. It is a true example of the power of global organizations, governments, civil society, and billions of parents dedicated to a single goal.

The world reduced the number of polio cases by more than 99 percent since the late 1980s by vaccinating between 3 and 4 billion children. The list of countries where the virus is endemic has grown shorter and shorter, with India removed from the list last year. Only three endemic countries remain: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

For several years now, the world has seemed to be on the very brink of eradication. Polio would be only the second major disease, after smallpox in 1977, to be eradicated by human effort.

But conflict and politics continually threaten to undo progress. Nigeria saw an alarming resurgence a couple of years ago, due partly to civil unrest and persistent rumors that polio vaccination teams were, in reality, seeking to make children ill or sterile. And just last week, four members of a polio vaccination team were kidnapped and later found dead in Pakistan -- the latest of at least 70 health workers in Pakistan in the past four years alone to give their lives to help eradicate polio.

There is very good news from Africa, however. In late January 2015 -- January 24 to be exact -- Nigeria celebrated six months with no cases of wild polio. This is a first for Africa's most populous country. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative credits the victory to "increased political commitment, programmatic innovations, and determination from a huge number of stakeholders."

And on February 24, 2015, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative reported that it has been six months since the last reported case of wild polio anywhere in Africa -- an 18-month-old boy from a nomadic community in Somalia who had received his first dose of polio vaccine but missed subsequent ones. Polio teams in Somalia have improved their coverage by studying travel patterns, working with community elders, and focusing on the children of nomads. Somalia eradicated the virus in 2002, but has been reinfected twice by wild poliovirus originating in Nigeria.

Global health officials caution that the victories are fragile. Vigorous vaccination campaigns must continue. Still, it's the first time in Africa's history that no one has wild polio -- and that's something to celebrate.

Photo credit: Margie Nea for Bread for the World

 Michele Learner

 

 

One in Three Women Still Endures Gender Based Violence

One in three women around the world has experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner

The World Health Organization recently updated its international estimates on violence against women, once again confirming the appalling truth: one in three women (35 percent) experiences violence.  Thirty percent of women worldwide experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner. The 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger, explains how violence against women perpetuates hunger:

Gender-based violence is one of the clearest manifestations of women’s disempowerment, and it is directly associated with hunger. When a farmer is beaten so badly that she ends up physically disabled or with a severe mental illness, the household has lost farming skills that are crucial to ensuring its food security.

Gender-based violence occurs throughout a woman’s lifetime, though it’s more likely to take certain forms at certain ages. Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war, or malaria.  Armed conflict, as we would expect, puts women at greater risk of gender-based violence. In the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, 29 of every 1,000 women were raped in 2006 and 2007 alone.

Social norms that treat gender-based violence as normal may well be the greatest barrier to progress toward ending it. The fact that violence against women is socially acceptable is one of the main reasons that survivors do not seek help and support. They are afraid to, knowing that they can expect little or no support from families, friends, or even authorities whose responsibility it is to protect them if they report cases of rape or domestic violence. As in many other contexts, victims are frequently blamed for provoking the violence.

Police officers who investigate a woman’s charge of abuse belong to their own societies, after all, and they reflect their communities’ beliefs. Thus, in a survey of male police officers in India, all of those interviewed admitted that they believe a husband has a right to rape his wife.

Changing centuries-old social norms takes time, and must be locally driven if it’s going to work. But U.S. development assistance can play a catalyzing role by building the capacity of local people to speak up and step out. The Hunger Report offers some sound examples of instances when this has worked. One is the story of Changu Siwawa of Botswana, who participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders—a U.S. led initiative that brought together 500 exceptional young African leaders to share solutions to the continent’s most pressing social ills.  You can read Changu’s full story here on the 2015 Hunger Report website. 

Derek Schwabe

Celebrating the Tenure of USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Raj Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah welcomes guests to the launch of Bread for the World Institute's 2011 Hunger Report in November, 2010. (Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World)


Dr. Rajiv Shah will be departing USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) this week. His appointment as USAID Administrator came in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in early 2010, just as famine was hitting South Sudan and at a time of continued powerful aftershocks from the global food price crisis. USAID sets and implements the U.S. government’s development and emergency food aid policies, and its employees staff U.S. Missions in countries around the world where hunger and poverty are endemic. In addition to managing a series of crises, Dr. Shah also set out to revitalize an agency that had long been criticized for being overly bureaucratic and dependent on large U.S. implementing partner organizations to carry out many of its programs.

We will remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for his passionate commitment to and impatience in the fight to end hunger and malnutrition. In five years, remarkable progress has been made against food insecurity and malnutrition, and U.S. leadership has played an important role. In 2010, Dr. Shah created the Bureau for Food Security at USAID to implement Feed the Future, the U.S. global food security initiative. Under his leadership, USAID also developed the first-ever Multisectoral Global Nutrition Strategy, which will improve coordination across the agency’s bureaus and programs and, most importantly, the effectiveness of U.S. investments in nutrition. 

In addition, President Obama and Administrator Shah have been relentless advocates at the global level for greater and smarter investments in agriculture, food security, and nutrition. They secured new commitments of resources from other countries, multilateral institutions, and the private sector. Dr. Shah served on the Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, helping to provide strategic direction as SUN was getting off the ground. At the country level, USAID has been a key SUN partner. Today, SUN, whose members at last count are 54 countries with high rates of childhood stunting, has begun to change national policies and commit funding to fight malnutrition.

We also remember Dr. Shah’s time at USAID for increasing attention to strengthening local capacity and institutions, including recognizing the key role of local civil society. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is a member of USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, designed to give policy guidance directly to the Administrator, and was honored to participate in an ACVFA working group that developed a paper on local capacity development. Beckmann later co-chaired the ACVFA task force on strengthening Feed the Future’s collaborations with civil society. Reflecting on Shah’s tenure, Beckmann said, “I thank God for Raj Shah’s outstanding leadership. USAID’s increased effectiveness is making a difference in the lives of millions of people, and it has set the stage for bipartisan collaboration in the U.S. Congress on international development issues. ”

We were honored by Dr. Shah’s presence at important moments for Bread for the World. At Bread’s 2011 Hunger Report launch, Dr. Shah called the report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition,
“the best statement [he’s] read about the importance of Feed the Future to U.S. efforts to combat global hunger and malnutrition.”  He announced the establishment of the Bureau of Food Security at the launch. Dr. Shah was also the keynote speaker at Bread’s 2012 Gala to End Hunger.

He addressed Bread for the World members, representatives of international civil society, and global nutrition stakeholders at the 2013 Sustaining Political Commitments to Scaling Up Nutrition event in Washington, DC. It was here that he announced USAID’s plan for a Global Nutrition Strategy.

Dr. Shah’s individual accomplishments, and USAID’s accomplishments during his tenure, are too numerous to list. Under his leadership the agency prospered. Bread for the World developed closer working relationships with key management and program staff. He has set the bar very high for his successor and has put in place strategies and programs that assure continued U.S. government leadership in the global fight to end hunger and extreme poverty. We at Bread for the World wish Dr. Shah continued success in all his endeavors and look forward to working with the next USAID Administrator.

Scott Bleggi

The President's Budget a Mixed Bag on Food Security and Nutrition

President Obama released his final budget on Monday, February 2, 2015. As was reported by Bread for the World in a press release, the budget invests in people as a key to sustained economic recovery. It includes increased funding for maternal, newborn and child health, and it prioritizes early childhood care and education.

The budget can be lauded for these important domestic funding initiatives, but it is more of a mixed bag in addressing international food and nutrition security. It requests a $14 million reduction from Fiscal year 2015 enacted funding levels in nutrition spending, which is allocated to USAID’s Global Health Bureau.  This is disappointing given worldwide recognition of nutrition’s role across development sectors, and global momentum to improve nutrition policies and programs, especially those focused in the 1,000 days ‘window of opportunity’ from a women’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.  Investments here are among the smartest that can be made, with long-term health, social and economic benefits accruing to both individuals and countries themselves.

The International Affairs (150) account in the budget, which funds overseas operations, counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian relief and development assistance is again less than 1% of the total.  At $54.8 billion it does enjoy a small (2.4%) increase over the previous year’s funding but is still many billions below what was spent as recently as the year 2010.

As was reported by the World Food Program, “…humanitarian aid programs were among those that got hit the hardest by budget cuts. Overall humanitarian accounts went down by 13%. International Disaster Assistance was cut by $154 million. Food Aid was cut by $66 million.”  All this during times of historic demand for global assistance. To say that USAID and its implementing partners are stretched thin is an understatement. In fact, according to the Famine Early Warning System web site, there are eight “areas of concern” – Central African Republic, Central America and the Caribbean, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Yemen – that are being watched closely.  Any of these countries or regions can easily slip into food insecurity, requiring additional funding.  Save the Children reported it was “concerned with the funding levels for humanitarian assistance”.

The President’s budget builds on the Administration’s efforts to increase access to early childhood care and education for U.S. children from birth to age five. But at the same time it proposes cuts in disaster assistance, food aid and nutrition, cuts which paradoxically, could have a devastating effect on children from birth to age five overseas in countries where help is most needed.

The President’s budget has been presented to Congress, which will likely now develop a budget of its own.  If the final budget is approved with additional cuts to the 150 Account and any new global humanitarian conflicts arise, a very tight funding scenario could turn disastrous.

The advocacy community will surely be focused with Congress on restoring funding to this critical account.  And surely Congress can find ways to not have the most vulnerable population overseas – women and children - bear a disproportionate amount of cuts in a budget of $4,000,000,000,000.

Scott Bleggi

United States Still Lags behind Peer Countries on Women in Elected Office

Proportion of Women in National Parliaments of Ten Most Developed Countries

Congress has more than 100 women for the first time in U.S. history.

continuing chorus of news articles has been triumphantly proclaiming this news ever since the November Congressional elections. People like the number 100 because they tend to think of 100 percent and the ideas associated with it -- completeness, sufficiency, even perfection. Years of chasing after 100 on countless school exams have ensured that I will always look on it favorably. But when it comes to women in Congress, 100 is hardly a number to celebrate.   

Compared to other high-income countries, the United States has a much lower percentage of women elected to government office, and November’s elections did not change that. Among the 10 most developed countries (according to the United Nations Development Program), the United States ranks last on female representation in national elected offices. See the chart above. Women in the 114th Congress hold 19.4 percent of seats, up less than one percentage point from last year. And this is the highest percentage in history. Other high-income countries now average 25 percent women in national parliaments, with Nordic countries closest to equal representation with consistent shares of one-third or more. Currently 95 countries have larger shares of women in national parliaments than the United States.

The evidence shows that women who are elected to office have different priorities and achieve results that are different from those of their male counterparts. Women legislators introduce many more bills on health care, education, and child care than men do. Women also tend to work harder than their male counterparts to keep legislation they’ve sponsored alive, and they are more collaborative, seeking consensus so the bills will pass. In a study of the U.S. House of Representatives, these factors made female legislators more effective than males at getting their legislation advanced and passed.

Although we can’t stereotype and pigeonhole all women as more “nurturing,” female members of Congress have proven to be more collaborative and more focused on social issues. It makes sense that electing more women could help reduce political polarization and potentially advance an agenda of ending hunger and poverty in the United States.

You can read more about the historical impact of women in the U.S. Congress in Chapter 4 of the 2015 Hunger Report: When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger.

Derek Schwabe

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