Girls are attending school in greater numbers than ever before, and women are increasingly entering the labour force and leading businesses.
Industry Opinions

Unleashing the Economic Power of Women

Girls are attending school in greater numbers than ever before, and women are increasingly entering the labour force and leading businesses.

Although we should celebrate this progress, much work remains in order for a girl born today to have the same opportunities as a boy.

Research from the World Bank and others shows that unleashing the economic power of women can contribute to global growth. Moreover, it is the right thing to do.

Fortunately, more countries recognize that economies can reach their full potential only with the full participation of both women and men.

The World Bank Group is supporting countries in achieving this goal in important areas, including the removal of discriminatory laws, investment to close gender gaps, broadening access to finance, and stepping up efforts to prevent gender-based violence.

Encouragingly, our 2020 Women, Business, and the Law report – which measures how laws and regulations affect economic opportunities for women in 190 economies – highlights the progress being made.

Since 2017, for example, Nepal, São Tomé and Príncipe, and South Sudan have taken large strides to remove legal gender barriers. Likewise, Saudi Arabia changed its laws in order to protect women from employment discrimination and to prohibit employers from dismissing a woman during pregnancy or maternity leave.

And the United Arab Emirates amended its legislation to introduce equal pay and increase female representation in corporate boardrooms.

Governments are also taking steps to ensure that women and men can balance parenthood with work. In the last two years, Fiji has lengthened paid maternity leave, and – along with Cyprus – introduced paid paternity leave. In addition, the United States recently adopted legislation to introduce paid family leave for federal employees.

Gender-focused policies and programs can further enable girls and women to realize their economic potential. These include targeted investments aimed at encouraging girls to stay in school longer so that they are empowered with the education and skills they need to participate in the labour force as adults.

With World Bank support, for example, the Bangladeshi government provides girls with secondary-school educational stipends and has introduced a life-skills curriculum. These measures have reversed the gender gap in secondary education so that girls now outnumber boys in the classroom.

It is no less important to boost women’s mobility and encourage them to seek paid work. Here, success requires reducing harassment in public transport, taking working mothers’ needs into account when setting bus or train schedules, and ensuring that journeys are safe, well-lit, and accessible.

In Lebanon, the World Bank aims to help increase women’s use of public transport by supporting efforts to revamp the transport sector with their needs in mind.

Broadening women’s access to finance is also critical. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank Group’s private-sector lending arm, estimates that, globally, women-led businesses face a credit gap of $1.5 trillion.

The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), based at the World Bank, is designed to help address this funding shortage and help remove other barriers women entrepreneurs face.

Backed by the governments of the US, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, among others, the scheme aims to support 115,000 women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises in over 50 countries, and to crowd-in more than $2.6 billion in private- and public-sector funding.

Together with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and Ivanka Trump, I participated in the recent We-Fi Summit in Dubai, where we discussed with government ministers from the Middle East and North Africa region how to unlock opportunities for women, including through improved access to finance.

Leveraging technology, including by shifting more cash transactions to digital channels, can give women greater control over their own resources.

Such innovations can deliver other benefits, too: a 2016 study in Kenya found that providing women with access to mobile money services increased household savings by more than one-fifth and helped to reduce extreme poverty among women-headed households by 22%.

The private sector has been leading the way in mainstreaming digital financial services. In Egypt, financial services provider Fawry, an IFC client, enables more than 2.5 million transactions per day and recently launched the country’s first female e-payment agent network, with the aim of increasing women’s access to e-payments.

But, in addition to discriminatory laws and lack of access to capital and assets, girls and women in many parts of the world also are shackled by norms that suggest a girl is of less value than a boy.

Gender-based violence is one of the most pernicious manifestations of this deep-seated bias. Today, shockingly, one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence.

The good news is that countries are making progress in preventing and responding to gender-based violence. Work funded by the World Bank and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative in the Solomon Islands, for instance, shows that such violence is no longer accepted once communities, supported by faith leaders and government service providers, speak out against it.

And as best practices emerge regarding how to help survivors of violence, practitioners must join forces to share the lessons learned. Providing women’s networks with social support, violence risk training, and confidence-building programs also can help.

This International Women’s Day, I would like to reemphasize that the World Bank Group stands ready to join forces with all stakeholders working to empower women and unleash their economic potential.

David Malpass is President of the World Bank Group.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.