According to the UN, 70 percent of women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime. The World Bank adds that women aged 15 to 44 are more likely to experience rape or domestic violence than cancer, car accidents, war or malaria. Such indicators are even more alarming in emerging markets, where discrimination and gender inequality are particularly prevalent.
This partly reflects the failure of public policy to ameliorate the distributive consequences of rapid economic growth. With the informal sector continuing to play a major role in emerging economies, women often have access to only unreliable and transitory employment that offers casual and irregular wages. Meanwhile, unprecedented urbanization has disrupted traditional family structures, further undermining the role that women can play in economies and societies.
The damaging impact of active gender discrimination — such as bride-burning and female infanticide — is clear. However, passive discrimination — tolerating rules and institutions that deny women equal say in reproductive decisions, equal access to education and employment, equal pay for equal work, equal rights before the law and equal political influence — is similarly destructive.
In all of its forms, gender discrimination makes women vulnerable to sexual slavery, trafficking and forced marriage, deprives women of their inalienable rights and diminishes their quality of life.
At the same time, it stunts the capacity of boys and men to understand women’s plight, thus diminishing their motivation to change the situation.
While these issues are global, they are most urgent in emerging markets, where they are undermining the social and economic progress on which the rest of the world increasingly relies.
In the wake of the global economic crisis, emerging markets have become the engines of worldwide growth. However, these countries face growing constraints to sustainability, social cohesion and political stability, including erosion of their international competitiveness, environmental degradation, weaknesses (including corruption) in national, local, and corporate governance, wasted human capital and growing social, economic and gender inequality.
Failure to make full use of women’s talents undermines emerging markets’ economic development, while the marginalization and abuse of women threaten their social advancement and impairs their political stability.
With most countries worldwide facing continued economic uncertainty, the international community has a vested interest in emerging economies’ resilience, collective capacity to sustain global demand for goods and services, and ability to confront the challenges, such as gender inequality, that threaten their success.
The importance of overcoming these barriers to development was emphasized at a recent symposium at Green Templeton College, Oxford.
Fifty leaders from government, business, civil society and academia identified gender inequality as the most urgent constraint to sustainable growth, social cohesion and political stability, and agreed on the steps needed to address the issue effectively.
First and foremost, national policymakers must take concrete, comprehensive action to ensure that women are not forced to abandon productive or reproductive activities. To this end, governments should implement measures that guarantee, directly or indirectly, affordable child and elderly care support systems for working parents.