UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Jacob Silberberg/Panos Pictures
Three girls watch as their teacher points to a chalk board in a school classroom in the village of Koutagba,
South Benin.

Strategic Investments:
The Equality Dividend

-A Poverty of Opportunity and Choices

-Critical Investments, Large Payoffs

-Reconciling Productive and Reproductive Roles

-Accountability for Gender Justice

CRITICAL INVESTMENTS, LARGE PAYOFFS. Investments that enable girls and women to reach their full potential offer a double dividend, because of women’s dual productive and reproductive roles. In addition to their often unpaid vital contributions to household, community and national economies, women bring forth and are the primary caretakers of the next generation. Investments in the education, reproductive health and economic opportunities of women and girls have immediate, longer term and intergenerational payoffs. These three investment areas represent critical and synergistic elements in the development of the human capital of women, and, by extension, of their children.(5)

The East Asian “economic miracle” of unprecedented growth from 1965 to 1990 offers an example of how these elements can work together. Gender gaps in education were closed, access to family planning was expanded and women were able to delay childbearing and marriage while more work opportunities increased their participation in the labour force. The economic contribution of women helped reduce poverty and spur growth.(6) The UN Millennium Project refers to East and South-East Asia as the only regions where there has been “tremendous progress” in the reduction of poverty, hunger and gender inequality.(7)

THE POWER OF GIRLS’ EDUCATION. All girls and boys have the right to education. Education fosters dignity and a sense of self-worth. It offers opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills and enhances life prospects. Along with nutrition, health and skills, education is a pillar of human capital: These essential elements together enable people to lead productive lives and to contribute to their countries’ economic growth and development.(8)

But poverty prevents millions of children, especially girls, from attending school. In the least developed countries, only half of all children complete primary school.(9) While gender gaps in primary education are closing globally, more girls than boys are still out of school.(10) The gaps are wider still within and among countries: In Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, only 69 and 49 per cent of girls, respectively, complete primary school.(11) At the secondary level, even fewer girls are in school—with only 30 and 47 per cent of them enrolled in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, respectively.(12) These gender gaps are evident in literacy rates: Worldwide, 600 million women are illiterate compared to 320 million men.(13)

Secondary, or higher, education for women is particularly strategic. According to the UN Millennium Project, it provides the “greatest payoffs for women’s empowerment”.(14) Secondary education yields higher returns for women than for men, including increased use of maternal health and family planning services and altered attitudes towards harmful practices.(15) Women with secondary education are also more likely than illiterate women to understand the dangers posed by HIV and how to prevent its spread. In Egypt, women with secondary education were four times more likely to oppose the genital mutilation/cutting of their daughters than women who had never completed primary school.(16) Secondary education also plays a more significant role than primary education in reducing violence against women, for example, by empowering women to leave abusive relationships.(17) The social and economic benefits of girls’ education are summarized below:

Girls’ education contributes to economic growth. Investing in the education of girls is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. By one estimate, countries that do not meet the MDG target of gender parity in education are at risk of foregoing 0.1 to 0.3 percentage points annually in per capita economic growth.(18) Economic growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia could have been nearly 1 per cent a year higher had those countries started with East Asia’s smaller gender gaps and made progress in closing them at the rate observed in East Asia between 1960 and 1992.(19)

Educated mothers increase human capital through their influence on the health, education and nutrition of their children. Daughters of educated mothers are more likely to attend school.(20) A mother’s education also translates into higher immunization rates and better nutrition for her children, both of which increase enrolment and improve school performance. Every year of mothers’ education corresponds to 5 to 10 per cent lower mortality rates in children under the age of five.(21)

Education improves a family’s economic prospects by improving women’s qualifications and skills. As better-educated women participate in paid employment, families enjoy higher income and overall productivity increases. In rural economies, the education of women and girls may translate into higher agricultural production. In Kenya, for example, one study estimated that crop yields could rise up to 22 per cent if women farmers enjoyed the same education and decision-making authority as men.(22)

Education improves reproductive health. Educated women are more likely to seek adequate prenatal care, skilled attendance during childbirth and to use contraception. They tend to initiate sexual activity, marry and begin childbearing later than uneducated women. They also have fewer children: Every three years of additional education correlates with up to one child fewer per woman.(23) When women have fewer children, the well-being and development prospects of each child are generally enhanced.(24)

CLOSING THE GAP. Many countries have made progress in girls’ education. But despite the evidence of its power for reducing poverty and stimulating development, the latest estimates suggest that a number of countries will miss the MDG target for eliminating gender disparity in all levels of education by 2015: At least 21 countries will miss the target relating to primary education, and 27 countries will miss it for secondary education.(25) The earlier timeline—to eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education “preferably by 2005” has already been missed by several countries.(26)

In UNFPA’s Global Survey on progress since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 58 of 142 countries reported an increase in public school spending and only 14 countries launched initiatives to promote girls’ education. Of 129 countries reporting, 23 passed laws on equal education for girls and boys, and 16 increased the number of secondary schools for girls.(27)

For poor families, the costs of sending girls to school need to be weighed carefully against the possible benefits, an analysis that often reflects and reinforces gender norms. In societies where women’s life options are typically limited to marriage and childbearing, for instance, a girl’s education may be considered a luxury, especially after her contribution to household chores, agricultural work and child or elder care is factored in. Moreover, marriage may be seen as a transfer of the investment in daughters to another family, with little benefit to the girl’s parents.

To realize the full benefits of girls’ education, countries need to overcome the barriers that keep girls from attending school. Effective strategies to close gender gaps in education focus on poor communities and address specific obstacles. The safety of daughters in school and in transit to and from school, for instance, is an important issue for parents. This can be addressed by adding female teachers, improving security measures, reducing travel times by increasing the number of schools and generally making schools more “girl-friendly”. (Simply adding a separate washroom for girls can make a difference.) Eliminating school fees and other costs can lower economic hurdles: Bangladesh, Mexico, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, among others, have found success with offers of free school meals, subsidies and scholarships.(28) Efforts to improve enrolment at the secondary level are vital, including special efforts to retain married and pregnant adolescents. At the global level, UNESCO’s Education for All and the UN Girls’ Education Initiative promote girls’ schooling.

It is important to improve the quality as well as the quantity of education. Addressing issues such as shortages of teachers, overcrowded classrooms, and the content and relevance of education are essential to enable young people to acquire the skills they need, whether to prevent HIV infection or seek better jobs. Improved quality also demands gender-sensitive curricula to eliminate gender stereotypes that affect how girls and boys are treated in the classroom and what subjects they study. This enables girls to obtain the most from their education and better equips them to transcend rigid gender norms that undermine their full potential. It may, for instance, encourage them to consider a wider variety of jobs, including non-traditional ones.(29) Skills in information and communication technologies (ICTs) can open up a world of opportunities, especially as countries improve ICT literacy levels and rural infrastructure. Several countries have begun programmes for girls and women. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, is offering training in information technology to rural women, especially housewives.(30)

The power of girls’ education for poverty reduction, gender equality and development is unquestionable. But education alone is insufficient in the absence of supportive social institutions and systems that expand women’s opportunities and freedoms, access to resources and control of decisions affecting their lives. Simultaneous efforts to improve women’s reproductive health and economic opportunities can maximize the social and economic dividends of girls’ education.

ESSENTIAL INVESTMENTS IN REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND RIGHTS. Reproductive health is a human right, a building block of human capital and a core aspect of gender equality. It is integral to the well-being of women and their families.(31) Poor women have the greatest need, and as the research presented below shows, they, their families and society as a whole have much to gain from improvements in their reproductive health. Associated problems can push households deeper into poverty.(32) Impoverished women, who typically have the least access to contraception, may find it difficult to determine the number and spacing of their children. This limits their prospects for good health and stable employment and for pursuing better economic opportunities that can raise living standards.(33) A woman’s reproductive health status also greatly affects her children— a country’s future human capital—and therefore has both short and longer-term socio-economic implications.(34)34 Though the ICPD goal of universal access to reproductive health by 2015 was not explicitly included in the MDGs, investments in reproductive health are now widely recognized as essential to their achievement:(35)

Reproductive health care, through family planning services, allows women to delay childbearing so that they can complete their education, participate in the workforce, and acquire skills and experience. Where contraceptives are widely available, women tend to delay childbearing, spend less time pregnant and complete their childbearing years sooner.(36) For sexually active adolescent girls (married and unmarried), family planning can mean the difference between early pregnancy and an education.

Reproductive health problems undermine poverty reduction efforts by eroding productivity. Reproductive health problems are a major cause of illhealth that disproportionately affect adolescent girls and women. They reduce female labour productivity— in some cases by 20 per cent—and cost 250 million years of productive life each year worldwide.(37)

Giving people the freedom and means to choose the number of children they desire results in smaller families, slower population growth and reduced pressure on natural resources. The world’s population is expected to increase from 6.5 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050—assuming continuation of the historical increase in family planning use.(38) Most of this growth will occur in countries battling poverty. Satisfying individuals’ and couples’ unmet demand for contraception is necessary from a human rights standpoint. Reducing unwanted fertility also carries important macro-level implications.

Reproductive health can provide important economic benefits through the “demographic dividend”. When countries undergo demographic transitions resulting from reduced mortality and fertility rates, population structures change. Families become smaller, with a high proportion of young adults entering their productive life, but with fewer children and elder dependents. With the appropriate social and economic policies in place, this can result in increased savings and greater available resources to invest in each child. For nations, this results in greater investments for generating productivity and economic growth.(39) In East Asia, economists credit the demographic dividend for one third of the region’s unprecedented economic growth from 1965 to 1990.(40) Researchers estimate that developing countries can use their demographic dividends to reduce poverty by approximately 14 per cent between 2000 and 2015.(41)

Access to reproductive health care means large savings for public health and other social services. Reproductive health problems are largely preventable: Stronger health systems and better access to services can avert many of these problems and their costly consequences. In Thailand and Egypt, every dollar invested in family planning was estimated to save approximately $16 and $31, respectively, in health, education, housing and other social service costs.(42) The costs to national budgets and economies of the AIDS epidemic and high rates of teenage pregnancy are well-known and documented.(43)


In an increasingly globalized world, where epidemics, HIV/AIDS, environmental problems and migration defy national boundaries, the concept of national security has begun to evolve beyond a concept of security centred on the state towards a more people-centred concept, that of human security. The UN Commission on Human Security defines this as “freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to take action on one’s own behalf”. It remains a distant ideal for much of the world’s population—especially the 2.7 billion who live in poverty and for those whose lives have been disrupted by violent conflicts or natural disasters.

Freedom from fear eludes the millions of girls and women who are subjected to violence and abuse, often within their homes, on a daily basis. Millions of women have never fully enjoyed freedom to take action because others make decisions about whether they attend school, get married, have children or vote. Many can hardly imagine reproductive security—control over their fertility and the means to identify, prevent and manage reproductive risks. Nor are they free from the fear of unintended pregnancy, HIV infection, of dying of, or suffering from, severe injuries sustained through pregnancy or childbirth. Yet reproductive security remains fundamental to the empowerment of women, gender equality, and family wellbeing and to the achievement of the MDGs. See Sources

WOMEN’S ECONOMIC RIGHTS AND INVISIBLE LABOUR. Women are the backbones of their families, pillars of community life, caregivers for the sick and elderly and primary caretakers of the next generation. In addition to managing households and securing and preparing food, many work in farms, factories, marketplaces, mines, sweatshops or offices. Women work more hours on average than men,(44) and do so mostly in the absence of supportive policies, laws, institutions, services, family arrangements and time-saving technologies. Much of their work is unrecognized, invisible and unpaid. Even though women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, they risk dismissal should they become pregnant and generally enjoy less overall income and job security than men. Unequal economic rights disadvantage millions of women in their efforts to improve the quality of their own and their children’s lives. Improving women’s access to, and control over, economic resources can be a key lever for lifting families and communities out of poverty.

Traditional macroeconomic approaches and development programmes have largely ignored the economic contributions of women, partly because data is generally not disaggregated by sex and fails to account for their unpaid labour. In many rural areas, women and girls spend many hours every day fetching water and fuel, although these efforts rarely appear in national accounts.(45) In Zambia, women spend 800 hours a year collecting water and fuelwood; in Ghana and the United Republic of Tanzania, they spend 300 hours gathering wood.(46) Infrastructure improvements, such as access to conveniently located and affordable safe water and sanitation, modern cooking fuels and better transportation, could ease this burden and release girls to attend school and adult women for other productive and community activities. It could also increase their use of health services.(47) But such improvements may be overlooked unless policymakers explicitly address these gender-specific factors and women have a role in community decision-making.

ACCESS AND CONTROL OVER ASSETS. In many regions, restrictions on women’s rights to own, use and inherit property, and to qualify for credit, diminish their contribution to agricultural production and overall development. These restrictions also prevent women from investing in the land that they cultivate. Addressing inequitable inheritance and property rights is one of seven strategic priorities recommended by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Education and Gender Equality.

Rural women are responsible for 60 to 80 per cent of food production in developing countries, but many countries still prohibit a woman from acquiring or disposing of land without her husband’s consent. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, widows have virtually no land or inheritance rights.(48) African countries have begun legislating to grant women equal rights to own or use land and inherit property. This is especially relevant in combating AIDS given that women’s economic vulnerability limits their ability to protect themselves from HIV.(49) Liberia, for instance, has granted equal inheritance rights to girls and women. Botswana’s Abolition of Marital Power Bill now gives women equal decision-making with respect to family assets. Eritrea has trained legal officers to promote women’s land rights. Some countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region, including Barbados, Belize and Costa Rica, have also granted women property and inheritance rights within common-law unions.

Still, access to resources is inequitable. Women represent a third, or fewer, of land owners in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.(50) In these regions, female farmers tend to cultivate smaller plots than men and have less access to agricultural extension services, even where they represent the majority of farmers.(51) In African countries, women receive less than 10 per cent of all loans earmarked for small farmers and only 1 per cent of total agricultural sector credit.(52) When women do obtain resources and financial services, however, productivity can rise. World Bank research in some sub-Saharan African countries found that output could increase by up to 20 per cent if more women had equal access and control over farm income, agricultural services and land.(53)

HARD WORK, LOWER WAGES. Mothers are substantial, primary or sole breadwinners for a large proportion of families.(54) In many poor households, women’s work is essential for the family’s survival. They also tend to reinvest a larger percentage of their earnings into their children and overall family well-being than do men. For example, according to the World Bank, a mother’s control of income has a marginal impact on child survival almost 20 times greater than that of the father.(55) In areas where women earn wages and control resources, household incomes and standards of living rise, and families tend to benefit more than when men have exclusive control.(56)

Women’s share of non-agricultural employment is rising steadily, but not everywhere. In only 17 of the 110 countries with data do women represent more than half of all wage earners, and this is primarily in more developed countries, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.(57) Secondary or higher levels of education would qualify more women for a more equitable share of good jobs. Often the education or training women receive is not well suited to local markets, limiting their economic participation.(58)

When they are employed, substantially more women than men work in the informal sector, which tends to offer lower wages, with less regulation, safety and security.(59) Women represent about two thirds of selfemployed entrepreneurs in the informal sector.(60) Labour laws offer little protection to informal workers, who rarely have access to pension or social security schemes.

Many countries have reformed laws that discriminated against women in employment and unequal pay in the workplace.(61) Nevertheless, women in all sectors are paid less than men—in developed countries, they earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn and, in developing countries, only 73 cents, according to the World Bank. Lower lifetime earnings also decrease retirement savings, leaving older women and widows especially vulnerable to privation in old age.(62)

“The continuing marginalization of women in decision-making has been both a cause and an effect of slow progress in many areas of development.”

— UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan


In Dong Loi, a small farming community in the uplands of northern Viet Nam, an initiative combining microcredit and reproductive health services, established by the Viet Nam Women’s Union with UNFPA support, is demonstrating that women’s leadership can help poor families rise out of poverty. Here, the members of a women’s cooperative have seen their household incomes double in two years, largely through the breeding and sale of livestock purchased with loans. Extra funds allow participants to keep their children in school, buy supplies such as fertilizers and seeds, and even purchase computers or other consumer goods.

“Because of this project, the economy of the entire village has improved,” says group leader Dinh Thi Nga. “Another reason for our success is that nearly every woman in my group is practising family planning.”

The project has taught Dong Loi two important things, Nga adds. “First, women can play important roles in community development if given the chance, and second, in order to do that we need access to credit and training as well as to reproductive health and family planning services. The two are intimately linked to economic development.”

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