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Empowering women and girls like Malala—now a global icon in the fight for gender equality—has proven catalytic in tackling poverty. Ending violence against them and addressing the cultural norms that perpetuate are now rightly top development priorities.
By Jeni Klugman and Matthew Morton
WASHINGTON—At a World Bank panel on development and gender-based violence, Indira Jaising, one of India’s leading lawyers, was blunt. “Violence keeps women poor,” she said.
The costs associated with gender-based violence, like the scale of the problem itself, are indeed staggering—in both individual suffering and lost productivity and earnings. And that creates unique obstacles to tackling poverty in many of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable countries.
Conservative estimates of lost productivity resulting from domestic violence range from 1.2 of GDP in Brazil and Tanzania, to 2 percent of GDP in Chile—roughly what most governments spend on primary education, or about 1.5 percent. But those figures don’t include costs associated with long-term emotional impact and second-generation consequences. One study estimates the total costs linked to domestic violence for the United Kingdom at 10 percent of GDP.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. That’s about 938 million women— more than the number of undernourished people in the world and close to the population of Africa.
Gender-based violence takes many forms, ranging from rape and domestic violence to sexual assault, harassment, and trafficking—from “honor killings” in Afghanistan and “dowry deaths” in India, to murders following allegations of witchcraft in Papua New Guinea.
It is a global challenge that even the wealthiest countries have yet to solve.
Women in poverty, especially in poor countries, often confront multiple layers of difficulty in avoiding or escaping gender-based violence. They may have less financial independence and fewer exit routes, and they often live amid longstanding social norms that at best turn a blind eye to the brutalities they face—and at worst sanction them.
They may face greater social stigma if they seek help, and institutions may be too weak to provide help when they need it. Asked why they wouldn’t report abuse, women in developing countries most commonly reply that they believe it would do no good.
Assessing the impacts
Gender-based violence both expresses and reinforces inequality. It tells women they are worth less than men and undermines their ability to make choices and act on them independently. It demands concerted action as a violation of women’s basic human rights, but also as an economic issue.
Children exposed to sexual abuse, domestic violence, and maltreatment, for example, have shown impaired social-emotional functioning and educational outcomes in adolescence, and lower job performance, job stability, and earnings into adulthood.
In some communities, girls’ basic rights are violated and human talent development is disrupted by gender-based violence in schools. A 2008 survey in Mozambique, for instance, found that 70 percent of girls reported knowing that some teachers demand sex for better grades, and 50 percent reported sexual abuse by boys in their peer group.
Women exposed to partner violence have shown higher work absenteeism, lower productivity, and lower earnings than peers who aren’t beaten. Even male perpetrators of partner violence in Vietnam had higher work absenteeism after a violent episode. Fear of encountering violence—such as on public transportation—further deters many women from seeking employment.
These impacts on women’s employment and productivity have much broader repercussions for business and development. In emerging markets, according to one Goldman Sachs study, narrowing the gender gap at work could boost per capita income by 14 percent by 2020.
World Bank Group priorities
To address these issues, the World Bank Group, with its twin corporate commitments to ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity, has made gender equality a top priority, including tackling gender-based violence.
Historically, the Bank has invested relatively little in addressing gender-based violence—but we have recently identified it as a frontier area in which our impact in developing countries could be transformational, along with legal discrimination and inequality at work.
First, in collaboration with key partners, we are investing in knowledge and data on women and girls, because gender-related data in many instances simply don’t exist. This includes pioneering new work on women’s agency and participation, which takes as its starting point the view that freedom from violence is perhaps the most fundamental expression of agency. We are analyzing the costs of violence and systematically reviewing what interventions work and don’t work and why.
Second, we are bringing financing to operations on the ground. Just in the last year, 10 new projects with an exclusive or priority focus on sexual or gender-based violence totaling almost US$19 million have been approved. One new US$600 million loan to Colombia will include protection and support for victims of gender-based violence—with temporary housing, transport, and other assistance.
Third, we are partnering with the private sector and civil society, and we are innovating. Our Latin America and Caribbean and South Asia regional teams are using technology to find solutions through “Hack-a-thons” that have generated new mobile apps and technologies to connect survivors to prevention or support services. The same app has now been made available to World Bank staff.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban last October for advocating education for girls, last week told a spellbound crowd at World Bank Group headquarters, “We girls can change the world.” Empowering women and girls like Malala—now a global icon in the fight for gender equality—has indeed proven catalytic in lifting societies out of poverty and boosting shared prosperity. Ending violence against them and addressing the cultural norms that perpetuate it are vital to this equation.
World Financial Review
IMF: Women, Work, and the Economy