Gender inequality deals blow to mothers and children: UNICEF

A new report from UNICEF says children around the world would be healthier if their mothers had more control over household decisions and finances.

A new report from UNICEF says children around the world would be healthier if their mothers had more control over household decisions and finances.

"Gender equality and the well-being of children are inextricably linked," said Anne Veneman, UNICEF's executive director. "When women are empowered to lead full and productive lives, children and families prosper."

UNICEF's 2007 State of the World's Children report shows that despite progress in gender equality, the lives of millions of females are overshadowed by discrimination, disempowerment and poverty. As well, women and girls are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.

Researchers found that women don't always have an equal say in household decisions such as household spending, health care and visits outside the home.

In fact, in only 10 of the 30 developing countries surveyed did more than 50 per cent of women participate in all household decisions.

Gender gaps in earnings can decrease or limit the resources available to meet children's needs, including health care, nutrition and education.

A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute suggested that if men and women had equal influence in decision-making, there would be 13.4 million fewer undernourished children in South Asia.

UNICEF estimated in the Middle East and North Africa women earn about 30 per cent of the average male income. In industrialized countries, women earn about 60 per cent. Women also work longer hours than men.

While women's education levels are linked to children's survival and development, nearly one out of every five girls won't complete primary education in developing countries.

Women in parliament are influential advocates for children's rights and gender equality. But, as of July 2006, women acounted for fewer than 17 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide.

Initiatives suggested

In light of these findings, UNICEF researched initiatives to improve the quality of life for women and children.

"If we care about the health and well-being of children today and into the future, we must work now to ensure that women and girls have equal opportunities to be educated, to participate in government, to achieve economic self-sufficiency and to be protected from violence and discrimination," said Veneman.

The report suggests seven initiatives to further gender equality:

  • Education: abolish school fees and encourage investment in girls' education by parents and communities.
  • Financing: encourage investment and planning by governments toward gender equality.
  • Legislation: national legislation in property law and inheritance rights should ensure a level playing field for women, alongside measures to prevent and respond to domestic violence.
  • Legislative quotas: ensure women's participation in politics.
  • Women empowering women: grassroots women's movements should be involved in the early stages of policy formation so that programs are designed with the needs of women and children in mind.
  • Engaging men and boys: educating males on the benefits of gender equality can help nurture more co-operative relationships.
  • Research and data: more research on maternal mortality, violence against women, education, employment, wages, unpaid work and time use, and participation in politics.

The report also says the promotion of gender equality will help with other Millennium Development Goals, including reducing poverty and hunger, saving children's lives, ensuring universal education, and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

Sex selection

Some of the information in the report is disturbing.

For example, birth histories and census data reveal an unusually high proportion of male births and male children under five in Asia, especially India and China, suggesting sex-selection through abortion and infanticide in the world's two most populous countries.

Also, more than 130 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation, which can have grave health consequences, including failure to heal, increased susceptibility to HIV infection, childbirth complications, inflammatory diseases and urinary incontinence.

According to a World Health Organization study, 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of physical and sexual violence in 2002.

Other findings of the report:

  • In the developing world an average of 43 per cent of girls of appropriate age attend secondary school. For every 100 boys not attending primary school, there are 115 girls in the same situation.
  • An estimated 14 million girls between 15 and 19 years old give birth every year. If a mother is under 18, her baby's chance of dying is 60 per cent greater than that of a baby born to a mother over 19.
  • Every minute, a woman dies as a result of pregnancy complications. One out of every 16 sub-Saharan Africa women will die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, comparedwith just one out of 4,000 in industrialized countries.