Consider three ways in which a society or culture can deprive women of their ability to make their own decisions: the society can deny women control over household resources, it can condone wife-beating, and it can allow child marriage. According to a World Bank analysis of 54 developing countries 13% of women in these countries experience all three of these deprivations, and only 21% experience none of them.
The figure appears in Voice and Agency : Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, co-authored by Jeni Klugman, Lucia Hanmer, Sarah Twigg, Tazeen Hasan, Jennifer McCleary-Sills,
and Julieth Santamaria. Here is the list of 54 countries, by region: \”East Asia and Pacific (Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste); Europe and Central Asia (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine); Latin America and the Caribbean (Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru); Middle East and North Africa (Arab Republic of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco); South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal); Sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe).\”
Of course, the three limitations on women above are not an exhaustive list. \”Legal discrimination is pervasive. In 2013, 128 countries had at least one legal difference between men and women, ranging
from barriers to women obtaining official identification cards to restrictions on owning or using property, establishing creditworthiness, and getting a job. Twenty-eight countries—mainly in the
Middle East and North Africa and South Asia—had 10 or more differences. In 26 countries, statutory inheritance laws differentiate between women and men. In 15 countries, women still require their husbands’ consent to work. Other laws limit women’s agency in marriages and family life.\”
The case for equality of women is of course fundamentally rooted in considerations of justice and fairness and basic human decency. But it has an economic dimension as well. For example, \”intimate partner violence\” has substantial economic costs. As the report notes (citations omitted):
\”Different models have been developed to estimate the economywide costs of IPV [intimate partner violence]. Although these models vary in their core assumptions, they generally take into account some combination of direct and indirect costs that are both tangible (and can be monetized) and intangible (which cannot be readily monetized). These estimates typically include costs related to service provision, out-of-pocket expenditures, and lost income and productivity. IPV incurs direct costs on services in the health, social service, justice, and police sectors. … Women exposed to partner violence in Vietnam have higher work absenteeism, lower productivity, and lower earnings than working women who are not beaten … In Tanzania, women in formal wage work who are exposed to severe partner abuse (both lifetime and current) have 60 percent lower earnings.\”
Child marriage imposes economic costs as well, as the report notes:
Child marriage in developing countries remains pervasive, with one-third of girls being married before age 18 and one in nine being married before age 15 … If present trends continue, more than 142 million girls will be married before the age of 18 in the next decade. And each year, almost one in five girls in developing countries become pregnant before age 18. The lifetime opportunity costs of teen pregnancy have been estimated to range from 1 percent of annual gross domestic product in China to as much as 30 percent in Uganda, measured solely by lost income. In developing countries, pregnancy-related causes are the largest contributor to the mortality of girls ages 15 to 19—nearly 70,000 deaths annually.
There is no magic bullet policy answer to improving the life opportunities of women. Legal and social changes that allow ownership of property, inheritance rights, credit opportunities, and more all play an important role. Raising the education level for teenage girls can be quite important:
\”In Turkey, for example, extending the compulsory education age by three years changed parents’ and girls’ aspirations for the future—in just five years, the share of 15-year-old girls who were married fell by 50 percent and the probability of giving birth by age 17 fell by 43 percent … Increasing incentives for girls’ schooling through CCTs [conditional cash transfers] can be an effective way to tackle regressive gender norms. This approach has been successful in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey, for example. … Benefits to girls of staying in school can extend beyond the value of educational attainment, enhancing their agency in other ways as well. For example, in Malawi, a CCT targeting 13- to 22-year-old girls and women led to recipients staying in school longer and to significant declines in early marriage, teenage pregnancy, and self-reported sexual activity …\”
Opportunities for women to have paid work outside the home can also make a difference: \”Expanding economic opportunities is a major policy challenge. Opportunities for women to work are opening up slowly at best in most regions—globally, women’s labor force participation has actually fallen slightly since 1990, from 57 percent to 55 percent.\”
Many of these changes will be facilitated or supported as women come to play a larger role in political institutions. As one example, the share of women in national parliaments has been rising in all regions of the world over the last couple of decades, as shown in the figure below. But glance over at the vertical axis, and you see that in no region does the share of women in the national parliament exceed 25%.