Nations that tap female empowerment

On his visit to India, President Obama can take note of a new reform aimed at boosting the value of girls and women in the economy. Many countries now see female empowerment as necessary for growth.

AP Photo
Bollywood actress and Girl Rising ambassador Priyanka Chopra, left, whispers to fellow ambassador and Hollywood actress Freida Pinto at the launch of Girl Rising: Engage India, in New Delhi, India, Nov. 29. Girl Rising is a global campaign that uses storytelling to promote girls’ education and empowerment.

Just days before President Obama’s visit to India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his fourth – and perhaps most vital – reform aimed at economic progress in the South Asian nation. He launched a campaign to save India’s girls. As the father of two daughters himself, Mr. Obama can certainly relate.

Many world leaders are trying to unleash the innate potential of their female populations as one way to revive their economies during a global slowdown. But India’s may be the most urgent. It remains under a spotlight in a global effort to end an abhorrent practice still common in many countries: Pregnant women checking the sex of their unborn child and then, if it is a girl, aborting it.

As fetus imaging technology has advanced, India has lost more than 12 million girls, according to a 2011 British study. This has skewed the ratio of women to men in India to what the United Nations calls “emergency proportions.” It can upset the natural social balance, such as men being able to find a mate. The number of Indian girls born for every 1,000 boys has dropped from 964 in 1971 to 918 in 2011. In some areas, it is as low as 837.

The practice is driven by a traditional preference for male heirs but especially by the cultural legacy of India’s dowry system. A bride’s family still often feels an obligation to give gold, money, or property to her husband’s family upon marriage, or even beyond. For the poor, the price of a dowry demand is seen as too high to justify raising a girl. An estimated 2,000 Indian girls are killed every day in India, either by abortion or soon after birth.

“We cannot call ourselves citizens of 21st century by practicing such a crime and we by our mindsets belong to 18th century when daughters were killed soon after they were born,” Modi said.

Breaking this practice – that continues despite laws against it – is part of a shift by Mr. Modi to boost the economy through what he calls “women empowerment.” His campaign is called “Educate the Girl, Save the Girl.” It is a key addition to the reforms that Modi has initiated since taking office last May, all aimed at turning India into an economic powerhouse on par with China and Japan

Part of the new pro-girl campaign includes a plan to give money to villages if they change their sex ratio back to normal. In some villages, no girls have been born for years. Modi also proposes to launch a trial program to set up bank accounts for girls at birth, with the government depositing money for them as they grow. 

When he was chief of Gujarat state, Modi says he would go door to door and ask parents to promise to educate their daughters. “I would take those girls to school myself,” he said last year.

In announcing this new campaign, Modi made an emotional plea, saying the country faces a “terrible crisis” in not having enough women. “The prime minister of the country is begging you to save the lives of girls,” he said, according to Indian media. “We have to change our thinking and stop believing that boys are superior to girls. We should change our mentality.” 

The prime minister also criticized a perception that boys take better care of their aging parent than girls, noting how many older people with male heirs are in homes for the aged. His government minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, says any society needs girls for their “gentleness and innovation.”

In recent years, economists have advised national leaders to see anti-discrimination efforts toward women as a stimulus for growth. This require a shift from seeing women as victims of social or economic habits to equal players in commercial life. The G-20 group of large economies recently set a goal to bring more than 100 million women into the labor force. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), says unleashing the economic power of millions of women is a potential game-changer for the global economy. “Prejudice does not pay,” she says. Women in the workplace, for example, improve economic efficiency. 

China is trying to persuade urban women not to withdraw from work, which they do at a rate far higher than men. A study by Bain & Company says the lack of women in upper management puts China at economic risk. It is also battling a skewed sex ratio caused by women aborting female fetuses in favor of boys, a practice driven in part by China’s one-child policy. 

In advanced countries such as the United States, the emphasis has been on how to assist women in becoming entrepreneurs or senior managers, not to simply enter or stay in the workforce. A 2014 study by the Kauffman Foundation says that many countries are in search of an “economic tailwind” and, for the US, that boost may lie in more women entrepreneurs.

In the past two years, Japan has cited female empowerment as an economic imperative. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Womenomics” program aims to  raise female participation in the workplace and put more women in corporate leadership positions. The IMF estimates that achieving such goals would raise Japanese income per capita by 4 percent.

To help women stay in the workplace and be promoted, Mr. Abe has pledged to create 400,000 new places in day-care centers by 2018. And he urges employers to see women as worthy investments and to change their business culture. Ms. Lagarde describes Japan’s problems this way: “Companies demand long hours, insist on face time, and tie pay to seniority rather than merit. There are lots of silos and – let me be candid – lots of exclusive ‘boys’ networks.”

She adds there is no magic bullet for solving such problems. As Modi urged in his pro-girl reform, the first change is a mental one, starting family by family, village by village, company by company. Laws, quotas, and government programs may help. But the first step is a new perception of a potential, not only for women but for an entire country.

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