Eliminating gender discrimination and empowering women will have a profound and positive impact on the survival and well-being of children, according to a new UNICEF report issued on UNICEF’s 60th anniversary.
Gender equality produces the “double dividend” of benefiting both women and children and is pivotal to the health and development of families, communities and nations, according to the State of the World’s Children 2007.
“Gender equality and the well-being of children are inextricably linked,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “When women are empowered to lead full and productive lives, children and families prosper.”
According to the report, women’s influence in key decisions improves the lives of women and has a positive effect on child well-being and development.
Despite progress in women’s status in recent decades, the lives of millions of girls and women are overshadowed by discrimination, disempowerment and poverty. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and women in most places earn less than men for equal work. Millions of women throughout the world are subject to physical and sexual violence, with little recourse to justice. As a result of discrimination, girls are less likely to attend school; nearly one out of every five girls who enroll in primary school in developing countries does not complete a primary education. Education levels among women, says the report, correlate with improved outcomes for child survival and development.
“If we care about the health and well-being of children today and into the future, we must work now to ensure that women and girls have equal opportunities to be educated, to participate in government, to achieve economic self-sufficiency and to be protected from violence and discrimination,” Veneman said.
A roadmap to gender equality
The State of the World’s Children 2007 presents seven key interventions to enhance gender equality:
* Education: Key actions include abolishing school fees and encouraging parents and communities to invest in girls’ education.
* Financing: Little recognition has been given to the resources needed to meet the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Investment to eliminate gender discrimination must be integrated into government budgets and plans.
* Legislation: National legislation in property law and inheritance rights should ensure a level playing field for women, alongside measures to prevent and respond to domestic violence and gender-based violence in conflict.
* Legislative quotas: Quotas are a proven method of ensuring women’s participation in politics. Of the 20 countries with the most women in parliament, 17 use some form of quota system.
* Women empowering women: Grassroots women’s movements have been vocal champions for equality and empowerment and should be involved in the early stages of policy formation so that programmes are designed with the needs of women and children in mind.
* Engaging men and boys: Educating men and boys, as well as women and girls, on the benefits of gender equality and joint decision-making can help nurture more cooperative relationships.
* Improved research and data: Better data and analysis are critical, especially on maternal mortality, violence against women, education, employment, wages, unpaid work and time use, and participation in politics.
Closed out of household decisions
The report finds that women do not always have an equal say in crucial household decisions, which can have negative consequences for children. In only 10 of 30 developing countries surveyed did 50 per cent or more of women participate in all household decisions, including those regarding major household spending, their own health care or their visits to friends or relatives outside the home.
Women’s ability to control their own lives and make decisions that affect their families is closely linked to child nutrition, health and education, the report states. In families where women are key decision-makers, the proportion of resources devoted to children is far greater than those in which women have a less decisive role.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that if men and women had equal influence in decision-making, the incidence of underweight children under three years old in South Asia would fall by up to 13 percentage points, resulting in 13.4 million fewer undernourished children in the region. In sub-Saharan Africa, an additional 1.7 million children would be adequately nourished.
Gender gap in earnings
As income in the hands of women can reap benefits for children, gender gaps in earnings can decrease or limit the resources available to meet children’s rights, such as health care, adequate nutrition and education.
Estimates based on wage differentials and participation in the labour force suggest that women’s estimated earned income is around 30 per cent of men’s in countries surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa, around 40 per cent in Latin America and South Asia, 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and around 60 per cent in CEE/CIS, East Asia and industrialized countries, the report states.
The political sphere
Women’s increased involvement in political systems can also have a positive impact on the well-being of children. Growing evidence from industrialized and developing countries alike suggests that women in legislative bodies have been especially effective advocates for children. Yet as of July 2006, women accounted for just under 17 per cent of all parliamentarians worldwide.
Welcoming the report, Anders B. Johnsson, Secretary-General of the Inter-parliamentary Union said: "There are clear links between the political representation of women and the well-being of children. The State of the World's Children report, which is a global reference on all issues to children and a vital resource for us all, demonstrates this fundamental point in more ways than one."
Key to strong societies
The benefits of gender equality go beyond their direct impact on children. The State of the World’s Children shows how promoting gender equality and empowering women – Millennium Development Goal number 3 – will propel all of the other goals, from reducing poverty and hunger to saving children’s lives, improving maternal health, ensuring universal education, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.
For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 156 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.
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