In the lottery of life, being born female in a poor country places one at a double disadvantage. Women in poor countries have the highest global incidence of poverty of any demographic group, along with the worst health conditions, the least access to education, and the highest likelihood of being victims of violence.
Gender inequality — through workplace exclusion and lower pay — costs the world a staggering 15.5 percent of GDP. Denying women opportunities to develop their potential means that societies forego their contribution. Yet the frustrating reality is that effective solutions to address gender inequality can be difficult to identify.
We need more high-quality studies of how to identify and scale up effective programs.
Child marriage is one unacceptable custom that robs girls of opportunity. From 2011 to 2020, more than 140 million girls worldwide will become child brides — defined by the United Nations as marriage before age 18.
For young brides, the effects are far-reaching: lower education levels and lifetime earnings, higher rates of domestic violence, greater risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, and increased mortality rates for their children.
Laws alone are not enough to address the problem. Consider Bangladesh, where 52 percent of girls are married by the time they reach the legal age of 18. Numerous laws prohibiting child marriage and dowries have had scant effect, with 18 percent of girls — the world’s highest rate — married before they turn 15. Programs by community groups to give adolescent girls life skills and training have had limited impact.
Analysis in Bangladesh suggests that providing financial incentives to delay marriage could be the most effective strategy. Girls in the poorest 20 percent of the global population are more than twice as likely as those in the wealthiest 20 percent to be married young.
A promising program in southern Bangladesh gave cooking oil to parents of unmarried girls. Every four months, participants received four liters of oil, conditional upon a monitor confirming that the girls were still unmarried.
This modest incentive worked: daughters of recipients were up to 30 percent less likely to marry before 16, yielding benefits four times higher than the costs. Promisingly, the program also improved girls’ education levels: daughters of recipients were up to 22 percent more likely to remain in school.
This matters, because one of the key targets of the Millennium Development Goals, which concluded in 2015, was to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education. Good progress was made in the primary sector, but access to secondary and university-level education still remains highly unequal. Differences in enrollment in primary education have decreased in all regions, but Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa lag behind.
Reducing the gender gap in schooling would have benefits that reach the next generation as well. More education for girls means better health and nutrition outcomes for their children.
How we achieve this will vary. Providing free school uniforms, for example, helps in some places, but not everywhere. In Bangladesh, the intervention for child marriage reduction had auxiliary benefits in furthering secondary education. New research shows that, globally, money spent to reduce gender disparity in education yields benefits around five times higher than the costs.
Many well-meaning and even unquestionably good ideas to reduce gender inequality are harder to analyze and quantify. Ensuring that women have equal rights to inherit property, sign a contract, register a business, or open a bank account would all cost little and could have far-reaching benefits. Despite data problems, a panel of Nobel laureates convened by Copenhagen Consensus identified such measures as one of the 19 best development targets to pursue, with every dollar spent producing benefits worth more than US$15.
We do know how to tackle one problem — and we have ample data on costs and benefits. Some 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family-planning methods. The reasons range from a lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities.
Ensuring universal access to contraception would cost US$3.6 billion annually, but would mean 150,000 fewer maternal deaths and 600,000 fewer orphans. Moreover, the demographic dividend from fewer dependents and more people in the workforce would accelerate economic growth. The total benefits are an astounding 120 times higher than the costs.
There are no quick fixes for gender inequality, but one thing is clear: Not all efforts are equally good or supported by sound data. On moral and economic grounds, policymakers should adopt those measures that do the most to empower girls and women.
Bjørn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.