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Ignore the Girl Child, Lose Billions
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By Kim Hak-Su

The Asia-Pacific region loses billions of dollars every year because of discrimination against women. The Economic and Social Survey for Asia and the Pacific 2007, released by the United Nations' regional arm on April 18, has found that employment obstacles for women cost the region US$42-47 billion a year. A further US$16-30 billion is lost every year because of the gender gap in education.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) decided to conduct research on the costs of gender inequality to build a bridge between social and economic policies. We wanted to show that restricting women's access to education, work and health services, which often is seen as a human rights problem, also causes significant economic loss.

For example, the survey has found that if women's participation in India's economy was on par with that in the United States, its gross domestic product (GDP) would rise by 1.08 percentage points a gain of US$19 billion. Significant gains could be achieved in Malaysia and Indonesia, too, though the same cannot be said about China because the female workforce's participation in the country is already high.

Education is another area that can help achieve huge economic gains by removing gender discrimination. In the Asian-Pacific region, enrolment of girls in primary schools is as much as 26 percent lower than that of boys.

The irony is that when you educate a man, you educate just a person, but when you educate a woman, you educate a whole family. Women tend to invest more in children's health and education. So the returns from educating women are obviously much higher.

Denying women total access to health services extracts a heavy toll on the economy too. In some economies in the Asia-Pacific region, one in every 10 girls dies before reaching her first birthday, and one in every 50 women dies during pregnancy or in labor.

It is true that the Asia-Pacific region has made significant progress during the past half a century. The average life expectancy of women rose from 44 years in the 1950-55 period to 70 years in the 2000-05 period. And the infant mortality rate fell from 171 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1955 to 52 deaths in 2000. Also, the adult female mortality rate has dropped by more than 40 percent since 1960 in most of the economies in the region.

Other positive developments in the region include the rising literacy rates among women and their growing participation in politics, with a 50 percent increase in the number of woman parliamentarians since 1997. But much more needs to be done and can be done by taking fairly simple and low-cost steps such as parents not hesitating to send their daughters to school. Local administrations can help a great deal by building schools close to villages, providing separate toilets for girls, and allowing more women to enter the teaching profession. Educating the girl child, after all, is one of the best ways to liberate women from their present state.

To improve health services for women, it is very important that we address the problems of malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality. Providing free lunch in schools for children and special nutritional packages for pregnant women will go a long way in improving their health.

Mobile clinics in remote areas and community-based emergency transport could drastically reduce mothers' and infants' deaths. Women are often denied access to healthcare because of cultural practices and misconceptions. Enacting laws to ensure women enjoy equal rights to proper healthcare is therefore crucial.

Governments in the region should play the leading role, with the public sector acting as a role model, to reduce discrimination against women in recruitment, salaries and promotions. Also, they should pass laws against harassment at workplaces in place.

But perhaps the most important factor in the fight against gender discrimination is changing men's attitude and behavior toward women. It has to start early, in boyhood. Enlightened fathers, husbands and brothers are more likely to respect daughters, wives and sisters.

Professor Amartya Sen, economics Nobel laureate, said at a meeting with UNESCAP staff last month that though social progress could be served by economic growth, the reverse was equally true, that is, economic growth, too, could be spurred by advances in social policy.

Indeed, if financial and social policymakers can see the complementary nature of their interests, there can be a better future not only for women and girls, but also for everyone across the entire Asia-Pacific region.

The author is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

(China Daily April 27, 2007)

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