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(Embargoed until 3 December 2002, 0001 GMT)

Gender Inequality Remains a Major Obstacle to Development

More women than men live in poverty, says new report

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK, 3 DECEMBER 2002 — Despite strides towards gender equality since the mid 1980s, more women still live in poverty than men, and the gap has widened over the past decade, according to The State of World Population 2002 report released today.

The disparity between men and women is fuelled by continued gender inequalities in different walks of life, says the report, People, Poverty and Possibilities: Making Development Work for the Poor. That includes access to social and legal institutions, resources, employment and earnings, as well as social and political participation. These inequalities add to women’s poverty, the report warns, and could lead to serious consequences, not only for women themselves, but also for their families and societies at large.

Reducing the gender gap in health and education can significantly reduce personal and household poverty and generate national economic growth, according to the report, issued by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

The effects could be most felt in the poorest countries, where weak economic performance is strongly tied to gender inequality. Comparing East Asia and South Asia between 1960 and 1992, the report points out that South Asia started with wider gender gaps in health and education and closed them more slowly. If gender gaps had closed at the same rate in the two subregions, South Asia would have increased its real per capita annual growth in Gross Domestic Product by 0.7 to 1.0 per cent.

Women in many countries work longer hours than men, says the report, and at least half of women’s total work time is spent on unpaid jobs. Women’s production is a crucial factor in determining the quality of life and directly affects the health, development and overall well-being of their families. Yet women’s voices are seldom heard in debates on financing and development. The invisibility of unpaid work not included in national accounts leads to lower social entitlements to women as compared to men. This inequity in turn perpetuates the gender gap in accessing needed resources.

Reproductive health problems are among the main insecurities associated with poverty, says the report. Poor women have more unwanted children since they have less access to reproductive health services and information. The possibility of a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV/AIDS, compounds the risks facing women. And gender inequality often deprives women of the ability to refuse risky practices, which leads to coerced sex and sexual behaviour, keeps women uninformed about prevention, and puts them last in line for care and life-saving treatment. Women represented half of all HIV-positive adults in 2001, up from 41 per cent in 1997.

Successful developing countries have invested in universal health care, including reproductive health, and education, says the report. They have also taken measures to reduce gender inequality and remove obstacles to women’s participation in the wider society. Other countries should make similar investments if they are to achieve the desired economic growth, says the report. Effective reproductive heath initiatives for the poor should also be based on listening to their opinions and involving them in designing and delivering the programmes targeting them. This is especially important for women, who have the most to gain from population and reproductive health services.

Improving women’s education has proved to contribute the most to reducing the rate of child malnutrition, even more important than improvements in food availability. Mothers’ education delivers improved nutrition. Closing the gender gap in education also helps women to reduce fertility and improve child survival. In countries where girls are only half as likely to go to school as boys, adds the report, there are on average 21.1 more infant deaths per 1,000 live births than in countries with no such gender gap.

It is more urgent now than ever to protect and improve women’s health, including their reproductive health, and provide them with the information and services to do so, says the report. It is also crucial to narrow the gender gap in education, to improve women’s access to economic resources, increase their political participation, protect them from violence and enable them to achieve their rights to sexual and reproductive health and self determination.

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UNFPA’s State of World Population report has been published annually since 1978. Each year, the report focuses on questions of current interest and concern for the future. The report is available online, at www.unfpa.org. For more information contact Micol Zarb, +1 212 297 5042, or zarb@unfpa.org.

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