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Sex inequality slows growth

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — A growing number of countries have adopted population and development policies to meet the health-care and education needs of women, including their reproductive health needs. In spite of that, gender inequality persists in most countries around the world. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) state of world population report 2005, gender inequality hinders not only the growth of affected individuals but also the evolution of societies and the development of countries.

Greater equality in the power relations between women and men, combined with increased access to adequate reproductive health services would save the lives of thousands of women. In addition to its effects on health of women, gender inequality undermines the possibility of reducing their poverty. Several studies have shown that societies with the greatest gender discrimination are poorer, have slower economic growth and lower quality of life than those with with less discrimination.

Although 99 percent of maternal deaths during pregnancy and delivery are preventable, it has been estimated that 529,000 women died from complications of pregnancy and childbirth in 2000. That is the equivalent of one maternal death every minute, almost all occurring in developing countries. In addition, for every woman who dies during pregnancy and delivery approximately 20 more suffer serious harm — adding up to between 10 and 20 million mostly preventable injuries a year. Maternal deaths are practically nonexistent in industrialized countries.

Maternal death has both immediate and long-term consequences on families and communities. The death of a mother increases the risks of infant and child mortality. Because of their role in maintaining family cohesion, the death of a mother can have devastating psychological and economic consequences affecting the futures of surviving family members.

Education is another area with significant disparities between men and women. There are 600 million illiterate women compared to 320 million men. While access to primary education has increased in total numbers, still only 69 percent of girls in Southern Asia and 49 percent in sub-Saharan Africa are able to complete primary school. The percentages are even lower for when secondary-level education is considered.

Higher education levels in women are associated with better economic prospects, better reproductive health and higher awareness of the dangers posed by risky behaviors that lead to HIV/AIDS. Children of educated mothers also benefit, since for every year of a mother’s education there is a 5 to 10 percent drop in the risk of their child dying before their fifth birthday.

Good reproductive health can also result in economic benefits through what has been called the “demographic dividend.” Smaller families mean that a higher proportion of young parents enter their reproductive years with fewer dependents to support. Smaller families mean slower population growth, which in turn diminishes competition for natural resources. Economists attribute the unprecedented growth of East Asian economies between 1965 and 1990 to a lower birthrate.

From the economic point of view, much of women’s work is still unrecognized and poorly paid, even though in developing countries rural women are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of food production. According to the World Bank, women still earn an average of 75 percent of men’s pay for the same jobs.

Violence against women continues to be a curse worldwide, affecting all societies and all social strata. The toll of violence on women’s health is greater than that of traffic accidents and malaria combined. Gender-based violence can take many forms and includes domestic violence, rape, female genital mutilation, and “honor” and dowry-related killings.

To achieve a more equal and just society means addressing all forms of gender inequality, which in turn can improve as access to health care, to economic and educational opportunities and lead to greater respect for every woman’s human rights.

Ensuring equality of rights between men and women in terms of education, health, jobs, property and credit, as well as fostering women’s participation in public life will contribute to reduce child mortality, improve public health, slow population growth and stimulate economic growth. Societies should be judged for their efforts to lower the gap between women and men’s rights.