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Women's rights are getting the attention they deserve

March 13, 2017

At long last, International Women's Day got the attention it deserved, as women around the world last week took time off, in some cases missing work, to rally for women's rights.

The outpouring of support comes just as Congress is busy limiting American women's access to health care and preparing to slash family planning and other foreign-assistance programs vital to advancement of women in developing countries.

At its heart, women's equality is a matter of fundamental equity and justice, but for those who do not find that argument convincing, let them recognize that human progress - past, present, and future - is inextricably tied to the status of women. As Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D.,Calif.), the House majority leader, told a noontime rally on Capitol Hill on March 8, "When women succeed, the world succeeds."

Much of America's economic growth over the past half century is attributable to the expanded participation of women in the labor force.

In 1950, just one-third of women worked outside the home. Today, nearly six out of 10 women are in the labor force and nearly half the workforce is female. Without that infusion of women into the workforce, American families would be far poorer today, and America's role as a world power would be substantially diminished. Indeed, the education of women and their greater participation in the workforce has helped to propel economic advances all around the world, including in developed countries.

It is no coincidence that the world's poorest nations also rank very high in terms of gender inequality. We've made substantial progress in reducing the number of people living in severe poverty in recent decades. But virtually all that progress has occurred in countries where girls are completing elementary and secondary school and where women are economically empowered.

In nations where girls do not get the same education as boys, where the status of women remains low, and where contraceptive use is discouraged, poverty and hunger stubbornly persist. Child marriage practices, in particular, are a great inhibitor to economic progress, as they rob girls of their education and their ability to decide for themselves how many children to have and when.

If concerns about poverty and hunger are not enough to convince Congress to refrain from cutting foreign assistance programs that help girls and women, let them also understand that gender inequality and the poverty and hunger that attend it are closely associated with political instability and conflict.

In the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, the three countries ranking highest for gender inequality (Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria), are among the most conflict-ridden nations in the world. In the long run, the education of girls and the empowerment of women will do more to promote political stability and curb terrorism than American troops on the ground.

Demographers project that between now and 2050 the population of the world's least developed countries will more than double. Unless more is done to address gender inequality and improve access to contraception in those countries, the world's migrant crisis will be far larger.

Foreign policy experts are already warning of a "global migrant crisis," as growing numbers of people are fleeing conflict, climate change, and severe poverty. The United Nations estimates that there are 65 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world at present, many of them living in refugee camps. But the migrant crisis stands to get much worse in the decades ahead. That's because the world population will increase by 2.3 billion - from 7.5 billion to 9.8 billion - by 2050. Most all of that increase, an estimated 97 percent, will occur in developing countries, with the fastest growth occurring in the least developed countries.

President Trump champions an "America First" policy that would slash funding for the State Department and international programs by 30 percent or more. But until true gender equality becomes a reality, it would be far more sensible to champion a "Women First" policy, both at home and abroad.

 

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on March 13, 2017 on Philly.com

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