If there is one takeaway from the World Bank's 2012 World Development Report on gender equality and development, it is this: while gender equality matters in its own right, it also makes for smart economics. In other words, if women and girls are given the right opportunities, they can push up productivity and improve other development outcomes. While the report is a mixed bag and many of the deductions are not new, it is an important one because it underlines the fact (all over again) that despite overall economic progress, there are many women who have not gained anything out of it. With only four years to go for the Millennium Development Goals' deadline, this is not a comforting thought at all. Take for example this finding: while fertility rates have been consistently going down, female and maternal mortality statistics are still alarming. Globally, missing girls at birth and female mortality after birth account for a whopping 3.9 million each year in middle and low-income countries. Almost one million of these deaths are in India. On the other hand, if there is one sector where the gender gap is narrowing at a very fast rate in almost every country, it is primary education.
As far as India is concerned, the good news is of course that today's women are doing much better than ever before. The bad news: this progress is not even. But while this unevenness can be removed through effective and targeted policies, better economic opportunities can also help turn the tide. But unfortunately that is not happening here: between 1983 and 2010, female labour force participation rates have stagnated at below 35%. Behind this cold statistics, the reasons why such low participation can happen are: unequal wages, unsuitable employment opportunities, security of women going out for work and for those who want to start something on their own, there is little access to finance, credit and training. Besides, other than the productive aspect, there is something called the aspirational aspect too, which needs to be met by the State and society. And, there is also an urgent need to beat the 'stickiest' part of this gender inequality: like poverty, it can become an inter-generational issue.
So what do such reports achieve at the end of the day? If nothing else, they are a reminder that good practices of other similar economies must be replicated. For example, on maternal mortality, Turkey has done well by instituting maternal death audits. Malaysia wasn't even a middle-income country when they brought down maternal mortality by an integrated phased approach. The beauty of a globalised world is that there can be an enormous amount of cross-sharing of information. India must use this advantage to retool its policies so they are better tuned to today's needs and are effective in curbing the gender disparities that exist.