Investing in women's opportunities leads to more returns than one

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Muzghan SadaatAfghanistan's Muzhgan Sadaat was 10 when she started playing volleyball. She's broken taboos in her society to excel in the sport and land herself a spot in her country's first-ever women's volleyball team. - Syed Omer Sadaat / UNDP Afghanistan

A few years back, I came across a fun little quiz published on the Gates Notes blog titled, “How much do you know about the state of the world?”

Clicking through the questions that ranged from putting a number on how many people in rural Viet Nam have access to electricity, to the rate of worldwide HIV infections, it dawned on me that perhaps the real purpose of the quiz was not to test my knowledge at all, but to show how easily we accept pessimistic misconceptions about the state of the world.

We may be inclined to believe that the world is the same as it was a few decades back - because gross inequalities still exist - but this kind of thinking fails to acknowledge just how far we’ve come.

And it’s pretty far.

1.9 billion more people across the globe have access to running water compared to the early nineties. And while thirty years ago, a third of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day, now it’s fewer than one in six.

These achievements have not come about through sheer coincidence; they have come about by design. And one such design that is helping to implement yet more global change both now and in the future is the UN’s 2030 Agenda in which we outline a plan of action in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted by all member states, the SDGs are a universal call to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by the year 2030.

Between 1990 and 2015, Asia has seen incredible levels of growth - on average six per cent a year. Despite this, one of the biggest economic constraints for the region are the structural inequalities that are holding back half of Asia’s population.

Women in Asia are, on average, 70% less likely to be in the labour force compared to their male counterparts, and accepting this status-quo stymies growth and human development, leading us along on a path of lost opportunities. Closing the gender gap, on the other hand, could generate a 30% increase in the per capita income of the average Asian country within one generation.      

And it’s not just economics either.

Every society benefits from having women in a more equal role: regardless of whether this society be rich or poor, and regardless of its predominant religion or culture. Over and above the obvious benefits of empowerment and agency women that women gain through education, numerous studies show that the benefits accrue to the entire community. One example: households with educated mothers have lower maternal mortality, lower infant mortality, children that are more likely to attend school and have better nutrition.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where women’s access to opportunities such as education had already been hard-fought and won by champions for equality before my time.

These opportunities for both personal and social growth need to be inclusive and available to all women across the world. To do this, we need to support investment in women and girls’ futures through schools and training, to enable women to earn their own income and attain their own assets, such as land and property.

In my previous role in Djibouti, I noticed how the income earners in families were usually men. I was left wondering what women would do if divorced, or if their income earners developed a disability or died, transforming their position in society to one of greater uncertainty. It can be devastating if they don’t have the skills to be self-sufficient.

Many men understand that gender inequality has an impact on them too, through their mothers, wives, daughters or other family members. One young woman who inspires me is Malala Yousafzai, a global advocate for women’s education and the youngest-ever Nobel laureate. Her father recognised that despite living in a conservative area of Pakistan, her education and the education of other young women was important to his country’s development. Her success is her own, but also a testament to his incredible support.

The historic Agenda 2030 – signed by every single UN member state – represents humanity’s most ambitious vision, to date, of a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous world. And it rightly observes that this ‘achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities.’

I look at how far we’ve come and I believe creating equal opportunities for women and girls will go a long way in delivering the world we want by 2030.

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