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As women progress in developing nations, so do those countries' economies

New studies show that it's just 'good economics' to promote the welfare of girls.

By David R. Francis / August 4, 2008

If a developing nation wants to make fast progress, it must educate its girls and give them more equality in jobs and economic opportunities.

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Decades of international and domestic efforts to speed development in more than 100 poor countries shows that, as the title of a recent study puts it, "Girls Count."

More than just counting, helping girls get ahead and out of the limitations that so many cultures have placed on them for hundreds of years is vital to overcoming poverty and growing prosperity.

Even Wall Street, with its interest in international investment, sees this.

"Education, and particularly women's education, is critical" to economic growth, says Sandra Lawson, author of a 15-page paper given clients by the prominent New York investment banking firm, Goldman Sachs. She used for the title of the paper, a Chinese proverb, "Women Hold Up Half the Sky."

"Educating girls and women leads to higher wages," notes a summary of the paper. "A greater likelihood of working outside the home; lower fertility; reduced maternal and child mortality; and better health and education. The impact is felt not only in women's lifetimes, but also in the health, education, and productivity of future generations."

It is just plain "good economics" to promote the welfare of girls, says Malcolm Ehrenpreis, head of a special gender unit at the World Bank that strives to encourage attention to equality for women in the bank's development activities.

Recognition of the importance of women to development got a shove in 1995 at the United Nations-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, attended, and subsequently increased, the efforts at that bank to enhance the welfare of women.

The current World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, announced in April six new World Bank Group "Commitments on Gender Equality."

Women have been making progress in the world's poor countries in schooling and in health, the bank report noted. It also stated that:

•In low-income countries, more than 37 million girls have been enrolled in primary school since 1995. That development improved girls' enrollment rate from 80 percent of boys' enrollment rate in 1995 to 88 percent in 2005.

•By 2004, two-thirds of 181 countries with primary schooling data achieved gender parity in enrollment. Girls' primary school completion gap with boys narrowed to 5 percent from 15 percent in 1991.

•Since 1970, average life expectancy for women has increased by 15 to 20 years in developing countries.

But, says Mr. Ehrenpreis, women are lagging in access to economic opportunity.

Countries with greater gender equality tend to have lower poverty rates, the bank notes. Indian states with higher female labor-force participation are precisely those with faster growth, and this growth lifts people out of poverty.