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‘Gender is an economic issue’

Gender inequality also means enormous economic costs, says UN's Shamika N Sirimanne, in an exclusive interview with Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2007 15:07 IST

A group of NGOs in Brazil was asking the government to promote breastfeeding. It paid no attention till an academic put a number to it: If you promote breastfeeding you save X million dollars spent on import of baby milk. This made the government sit up and say: Promote breastfeeding and save dollars. In other words put figures to social issues and governments move.

Consequently putting “dollar value” to gender-discrimination has suddenly made finance experts and policy makers sit up. For the first time, a cost is put to gender discrimination. For instance, if India’s female labour force participation rate reached parity with that of the United States, its GDP growth would increase by over 1 per cent.

Handling this for the United Nations is Shamika N Sirimanne, Chief of Socio-economic Analysis wing. In New Delhi to launch the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and Pacific, she spoke to Kumkum Chadha exclusively. Excerpts:

There is a policy shift in this year’s economic survey where gender is an economic issue.

The gender issue has always been discussed in the social realm. It never got much attention in economic or finance ministries. What we wanted to do was change it and say listen, gender inequality also means enormous economic costs. We wanted to give a wake-up call so that the people dealing in finance would sit up and pay attention. That was the beginning of this focus shift. What we wanted to do was quantify the economic cost of gender imbalance.

Sounds innovative but not do-able. How did you actually put a money value, as it were, to gender discrimination?

We looked at the gender disparity in employment and education. Across Asia, even in Japan, women’s participation in the labour force is very, very low: not because they do not want to work but because they lack the right skills and basic education. Add to that the cultural biases in work places. They are the first to be fired and the last to be hired. So it is not a thing of choice but that they are not given a chance. We looked at the cost implications for the region and found they were enormous. The education biases were also huge. This is the first attempt to put dollar values to social issues.

What about health and violence against women?

Both are unfathomable and very difficult to quantify. But we hope to crack this. It affects the family and impacts an entire generation.

It is ironic that you initiated this shift as team leader of the report. As an economist, till recently, you also treated gender discrimination as a social issue?

There is a great deal of interest in the issue but it was not being presented in the right language. We are trained in different disciplines and, therefore, think in a different manner. Unless we are fed information, which we can quickly analyse, it does not get the attention it should.

The road ahead?

Awareness in policy building is needed. Policy makers must take this forward. We will do advocacy work surrounding this report. Making policies is not up to us. It is the work of specific countries and governments. But this report will definitely provide the basis.

In countries like India, gender budgeting is part of policy. What extra will this report do?

Many countries are doing gender budgeting and India, in particular, is doing good work. But we want a broader buy-in as it were. Those pushing for gender budgeting could use this report to get more. Gender imbalances can be addressed with very limited resources. This is not like asking for big dams. It is small money, which can produce big results. In India, gender budgeting has done well but in Africa for instance, it is notional. It means lifting resources from one sector and put it in the sector of gender. That will not help. What we need is additional funding for gender. Only then it is a good idea.

What kind of a political push does this need?

Politicians must commit to address this. More importantly put a time frame to it. Not use them as election slogans. It requires a will for someone to stand up and say I am going to administer this.

Will politically empowering women help?

Yes, it will push this agenda. It should be a necessary condition. While this report’s focus is on employment, in UN’s Millennium Development Goals employment is not listed.

You are right. One of the goals is poverty reduction and it is understood that without employment this is not possible. So, while it is not listed as a goal it is a concern. But what we like to say is the gender is an economic issue. As a social issue it was not receiving its due in the economic ministries.