Gender equality is not, as some skeptics would have it, about ignoring the inherent differences between women and men. Rather, it is about embracing these differences and ensuring that the same rights and opportunities are afforded to all, regardless of their gender. As Secretary Clinton often pointed out, empowering women and girls is not just the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do. After all, it is hard to imagine how a society can move forward while leaving half its population behind.
The evidence is compelling. According to the World Bank, poverty tends to be lower in countries with greater gender equality. Countries with more gender equality also rank higher on the UN human development index. Reducing the gap between women and men can increase economic productivity, improve health indicators, and make laws and institutions more representative. In fact, the 2010 UN Human Development Report shows that inequalities between women and men can stem a country’s progress in health, education, and standard of living by up to 85 percent.
For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization finds that when women farmers have the same access as men to resources such as land, seed, and fertilizer, their crop yields can increase by 20 to 30 percent, overall agricultural output can increase by as much as 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world can decrease by as much as 150 million. Increasing women’s labor participation and access to markets leads to greater productivity and consumption. And when women have greater control over household income, they tend to invest their earnings in their communities and the education, health, and nutrition of their children, resulting in better educated and healthier citizens. It is difficult to argue that when women are allowed opportunity, the benefits are felt throughout society.
In terms of governance, women elected to positions at the local and national level not only ensure a more representative government, but they also increase the attention paid to gender equality in legislation and budgets; however, according to the World Economic Forum, women currently hold less than 20 percent of all national decisionmaking positions. While this number certainly represents a gain over the years, it is hardly representative of the population at large. There is also a significant correlation between “state security” and “women security,” meaning that countries with greater gender inequality are more likely to be involved in conflict and resort to higher levels of violence, both internally and externally. Put simply, the way a nation treats its women can oftentimes be a predictor of that nation’s security. The passage of landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security highlights the integral role women must play in conflict management, resolution, and sustainable peace. Yet, less than 8 percent of the hundreds of peace treaties signed in the last 20 years included women in the negotiation process, even though women endure much of the violence and poverty caused by armed conflict and often bear the burden of rebuilding communities once the conflict has ended.
While the world has made progress toward greater gender equality, a long road still lies ahead. Women and girls today enjoy greater access to education and general health services, but this needs to be accompanied by equitable employment opportunities, access to finance, ownership of productive assets such as land, adequate family planning and reproductive health services, access to justice and legal services, and a voice in society as well as the home. Though an important step, it is not enough for women to just be elected to public office – once in this position, women must have the skills and confidence to lead alongside their male counterparts. In post-conflict situations, women must have a seat at the table not only when peace is being negotiated, but also when a political transition is being planned. Women have a unique and important perspective to offer that is all too often left out of decisionmaking processes. However, there are a number of initiatives in place to help empower the world’s women and strengthen their voice and agency.
Over the last few years, the United States has gained strong momentum in the policy arena to ensure that advancing gender equality is more than just a numbers game. It involves thoughtful, data-driven analysis of the societal consequences of large gender gaps and the benefits to women and men in reducing those gaps. It involves a number of policy tools and spans across U.S. government agencies to ensure that our reach is as meaningful as it is broad. To name but a few, we have seen the implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security; the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally; USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy; and the establishment of the White House Council on Women and Girls. These tools, which are the products of long and thoughtful collaboration, provide the foundation necessary for the long road ahead.
In a time of economic uncertainty, many Americans are understandably eager to tighten the purse strings when it comes to foreign aid. But the foreign aid budget is just one percent of the United States’ entire national budget—a mere drop in the bucket. Yet, such a small investment can have immense impact for those less fortunate, those trapped by circumstance, those looking for a brighter future. The United States is entering a new phase in its foreign policy, one where words about promoting gender equality and advancing the status of women and girls are being translated into meaningful action. And by helping to secure stable livelihoods for women and men, bringing vaccines and medical care to far reaches of the globe, educating girls and boys equally, and supporting governance principles that are fair, just, and accountable, we are working to make the world a safer place for all its citizens. So let us be sure we continue to march forward and seize upon the current momentum, for the women of the world have waited long enough.