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UN Tallies the Economic Costs of Gender Discrimination
The UN State of World Population Report 2000

Discrimination against women has clear social costs. Girls and women in many countries are denied education and healthcare. Millions are subjected to violence and abuse. They are confronted with biased courts and legal systems. They are denied employment opportunities. But just as important as the social costs are the financial ones, according to a new report by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA.

"While measuring the financial and social costs of inequality is difficult, a clear presentation can help propel policy makers to take action and sharpen priorities," according to The State of World Population Report 2000. Gender discrimination not only harms millions of individuals worldwide but it also cripples national economic growth. The gender gap in education is a case in point. It has been estimated that a 1 percent increase in female secondary schooling results in a 0.3 percent increase in economic growth.

The contribution of women’s education to economic growth has been witnessed in the economies of several East and South-east Asian countries that grew at unprecedented rates from the 1960s through the 1980s, averaging as much as 8 percent per year. This process benefited greatly from early investments in health and education, especially for women, the report says. Birth rates fell rapidly, and in the 1980s these countries were able to invest more in stimulating economic growth. Various analyses ascribe 30 percent of the growth in the "Asian tigers" to changing age structures that resulted from lower death and birth rates. This equals $1,525 per capita in economic advance over a 30-year period, according to the report.

The converse can be seen in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where economic growth is slow and the gender divide in education is the largest in the world. In these regions, fewer than 40 per cent of secondary students are young women.

It has also been found that economic returns on investments in women’s education exceed those for men. One reason is that women who use their skills to increase their income invest more in child health and education, creating a ripple effect from one generation to the next.

The report says better accounting of women’s economic contributions, which are under-counted because they are often in the informal sector, could encourage investment and productivity. One study in Kenya concluded that giving women farmers the same support as men farmers could increase their yields by more than 20 percent. A study in Latin America estimated that ending gender inequality in the labour market could increase women’s wages by 50 per cent while increasing national output by 5 percent.

The costs of gender-based violence are also substantial but difficult to determine since there are almost no studies from developing countries. According to the report, at least one in every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way. The World Bank has estimated that in industrialized countries sexual assault and violence take away almost one in five healthy years of life of women aged 15-44. In the United States, employers pay an estimated $4 billion per year for absenteeism, increased health care expenses, higher turnover and lower productivity. In Canada, annual health-related costs of violence against women are estimated at $900 million.

These estimates include the costs of policing, corrections, compensation for criminal injury, victim assistance and counselling, partial estimates of mental health care, income assistance, safe houses, lost work time and treatment for offenders. The psychological costs of gender-based violence and discrimination are often great. Women suffer disproportionately from depressive syndromes, which are a major source of illness worldwide, resulting in lost productivity, lost wages, medical expenses and other costs.

Inequality also produces other costs in health care. It has been found that limited access to care among the poor has a greater relative impact on women than men, with poor women more likely to die as a result of pregnancy. The economic costs of maternal mortality, which affects over half a million women annually, include their lost contributions to the family, increased mortality among their children, and increased burdens of home maintenance and child care to their survivors. A study in India found that when a woman died, the survival of the household was often challenged because men were unaccustomed to managing domestic affairs.

Inequality between men and women has also helped fuel the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is exacting enormous costs on countries, especially in hard-hit parts of Africa. Women often have less control over when, where and whether sex takes place. For men, cultural beliefs about "manhood" often encourage risky sexual and drug-taking behaviour. In some countries, it is estimated that the pandemic has reduced per capita gross domestic product by 0.5 percent per year. The impacts on the poor and on health systems are even greater. UNAIDS estimates that $1 billion per year is needed for HIV/AIDS prevention and care in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

"One of the keys to sustainable development will be recognizing the costs of discrimination, making it visible to policy makers and families, and designing ways to end it," the report concludes.

Source: United Nations Population Fund Report