The fulfillment of gender equality continues to elude many nations in the developing world, with women and girls bearing the vast brunt of its negative effects. But if communities want to alleviate the economic, social and political problems they face, achieving gender equality is absolutely necessary.
There are many reasons why gender equality is important. Here are just three of them. First, there is the moral imperative. Second, it protects the health and lives of women and girls. And third, it promotes economic development and reduces poverty.
1. Gender equality is a human right
It's simple: treating everyone equally fulfills their human rights. Women are of no less value than men. The United Nations has affirmed gender equality as a human right and placed it at the centre of all its Sustainable Development Goals.
Women and girls deserve the same opportunities and freedom to reach their full potential as do men and boys. Few people choose to cause emotional, developmental or physical harm. But that’s exactly what too often happens to women and girls.
In Amhara, Ethiopia, that’s what happened to Jejaw’s daughter—married off as a child and pregnant at 14 years old. She died while giving birth to a son after a protracted labour.
“We didn’t know what to do. She bled in front of our eyes and we didn’t know what to do. I still hold the pain of losing a child,” Jejaw, a priest, told a World Vision worker.
Born small and weak, the boy struggled for survival over the next few weeks. Ultimately, he lived but without his young mother by his side.
No child should be the victim of such tragedy. When women and girls are empowered to make their own decisions about marriage, childbirth, education and sexual, reproductive and maternal health, they have greater power to choose different futures.
The fulfillment of human rights requires buy-in from everyone in the community. Women and girls can’t do it alone because it’s not their problem alone. Men and boys have a key role to play in achieving gender equality.
Kobinath (l.) changed his behaviour and became a loving family man after engaging with World Vision’s MenCare program. Photo: Hasanthi Jayamaha
To this end, World Vision’s MenCare program helps men become more equitable, engaged and non-violent fathers and partners. It does this by helping men learn to reject rigid gender roles, denounce and refrain from violence and share decision-making power and control over household resources. This doesn’t mean the work is done. But it’s a good start.
2. Gender equality protects and promotes better health
The most devastating impact of the disparity in healthcare women and girls experience is death.
According to the World Bank, about 3.9 million girls and women under age 60 go “missing” each year in developing countries. It’s tracked under the clinical name “excess mortality.” And it’s devastating. The World Bank describes the number this way: “About two-fifths of them are never born, one-sixth die in early childhood, and more than one-third die during their reproductive years.”
The health of women and girls is negatively impacted in many ways. For example, in some cultures women and girls eat last and least, which can cause dire health risks stemming from malnutrition—including severe anemia in teenage girls.
Malnutrition can also place any children a woman or girl conceives in danger. A malnourished mother’s body can’t nourish her developing fetus. Pre-term babies are at greater risk of death before the age of five.
If the children survive, they’re more likely to suffer from poor growth and brain development. Outcomes like these help drive a cycle of poverty and malnutrition.
Healthy moms make for healthier, happier children. Photo: Jon Warren
In Ethiopia, a woman named Ehitenesh participated in a World Vision program called Born on Time. The program was designed to address gender-based discrimination and pre-term birth.
Ehitenesh described the inequality she faced—and the violence—from her husband: "I used to wash my husband’s feet every day after I spend the day preparing meals for our children, wash our clothes, fetch water and perform other very difficult activities all day.
“He used to get mad and yell at me when I said that I was tired at the end of a very long day. He treated me like a piece of material he owned. He used to beat me all the time and abused me badly. When I remember my previous pregnancy, before I delivered this child it was very difficult. I got sick all the time and didn’t eat well. He didn't help me with chores or take me to a health center for checkups."
The fulfillment of gender equality means reversing these patterns of negative behaviour.
Men can be educated to recognize the value and advantages of treating their female partners with respect and non-violence. And women can have better access to the healthcare and nutrition they need for themselves and their babies, who are the future leaders of development in their communities.
3. Gender equality promotes economic development
Poverty is common in many parts of the developing world. Escaping the cycle of poverty is more achievable when countries leverage the gifts and intelligence of all their people.
But that’s not what happens when girls and women—who typically represent half or more of the population—are prevented from fully participating in social and economic life.
Severina (l.) and Mikelina discuss the success of the farmer’s group they lead in South Sudan. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles
For example, in developing countries, women make up about half of the agricultural labour force, but only four of 52 countries guarantee them an equal right to land ownership. Without land ownership, it’s difficult to be independent of a male partner and access credit to build a business.
Recently, a World Vision program called FEED II helped women in South Sudan become leaders in their places of work. Along with Mikelina Serezio, Severina Philipo, a 50-year-old mother of six, led a farmers’ group numbering 50 women and men. With their leadership, as well as supplies of seeds and fertilizer, the group was able to increase harvest yields.
Said Severina, “Women are now able to support their husbands for the family needs and pay for the children’s school fees. World Vision’s intervention gave us the courage as mothers to send our girls to school and not get married.
“We share the income among the group and use part of it to buy construction materials for the granary where we can store our farm produce. We were still able to save 200,000 (South Sudanese pounds or $587 CDN). It was an achievement for us.”
These are just some of the tangible benefits that come with ensuring gender equality is fulfilled. However, it takes effort and there’s still much to do. The World Economic Forum estimates that it will be over 130 years before the gender gap is closed worldwide. The UN says it will take 300 years to end child marriage.
Seraphina and her husband Aloys stroll together in harmony near their home in Rwanda. World Vision worked with Aloy to help him build greater respect for Seraphina. Photo: Jon Warren
The payoff is too great to ignore: girls and women living the lives for which they were born. Happier, healthier families. Increased mutual respect, which means more peace in the world. And a dramatic acceleration of economic development that translates into less poverty and suffering.
It’s common sense, it’s love and it’s long past time to get to work.