Changing the care-less economy

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Rosalind Eyben, from the Institute of Development Studies and former Chair of the OECD DAC Network on Gender Equality, highlights how development policy has failed to address women’s unpaid care work.

When, twenty years ago, I became Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) working group on women in development (now the Network on Gender Equality), a key issue was the impact on women of the economic policy reforms – structural adjustment programmes – that donors had been encouraging partner countries to adopt.

Writing at that time, Diane Elson explained that because the economy has conventionally been understood in relation to making money, much of the work that takes place outside the market economy is ignored. This includes not only unpaid work in family farms and businesses but also the feeding, caring for and ensuring the well being of families and neighbours. (more…)

It’s just a human

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide.

On March 26 1911, the New York Times described how 141 workers, mainly girls, died in a fire in the Triangle Shirt Waist factory. Almost a century later, it described a similar tragedy in Bangladesh.

“The factory had only one main exit, and workers had to scramble through a lone narrow stairway to escape, while others jumped from windows”, said fire official Rashidul Islam. He could have been talking about New York, where one of the journalists described the distress of a veteran police officer trying to identify the dead bodies. The reporter asked him if one of the corpses was a man or a woman, but all he could say was that it was just a human. (more…)

Putting women and children first

My mum's Norwegian! Photo courtesy of C. Olsen

You’ll feel rage but not despair, and be astonished but not surprised on reading State of the World’s Mothers 2010, the latest annual report from NGO Save the Children, with its country rankings of the health, education and economic situation of mothers, women and children, and the stories behind the statistics.

Rage at figures like these: every year 8.8 million children die before reaching age 5 and 343,000 women lose their lives due to pregnancy or childbirth complications. Practically all of these deaths occur in the developing world, where 50 million women give birth at home each year with no professional help.

Rage at families denying women and children care, even when it is available. Often, it’s because men don’t want another man to examine a female patient. Often it’s due to ignorance. An Egyptian woman tells how her mother-in-law refused to let her go to hospital because severe bleeding after childbirth was “normal”.  

Egypt is one of several countries where the birth of a child isn’t celebrated immediately. Ceremonies like  Egypt’s el sebou’, practiced by Muslims and Christians alike, recognise a grim truth: many babies do not live very long.  The first four weeks of life are the most dangerous, accounting for 41% of infant deaths.

Despite the depressing situation (57 countries have “critical shortages” of health workers, 36 of them in Africa) there’s optimism too. What astonished me is the way terms and ideas I’ve encountered so often that they’ve become meaningless suddenly become real again. Here for instance: “Increased investments in girls’ education are essential… to empower future mothers to be stronger and wiser advocates for their own health and the health of their children.”

Concretely, this is because educated girls tend to marry later and have fewer, healthier and better-nourished children. Mothers with little or no education are much less likely to receive skilled support during pregnancy and childbirth, and both they and their babies are at higher risk of death. They are also more likely to respect harmful traditional practices such as delaying breastfeeding for up to 24 hours after giving birth.

Relatively minor investments pay huge dividends – “leverage” as we’d say here at the OECD. In Bangladesh for instance, female community health workers with limited formal education and only 6 weeks of hands-on training contributed to a 34% reduction in newborn mortality. Women with a few years of formal schooling can master the skills needed to diagnose and treat common early childhood illnesses, mobilise demand for vaccinations, and promote improved nutrition, safe motherhood and essential newborn care.

Some of the techniques are incredibly simple, low tech and low cost, or even no-cost, as when mothers of underweight, preterm babies are taught “kangaroo care”. The mothers serve as human incubators, keeping their babies next to their skin for warmth, and encouraging them to breastfeed frequently. A review of 15 studies in developing countries found kangaroo care was more effective than incubator care, cutting newborn deaths by 51% for preterm babies who were stable. Up to half a million newborns could be saved each year if kangaroo care were used everywhere.

Finally, as you’d expect, the Scandinavian countries top the rankings, along with Australia and New Zealand.  At the other end of the scale, every mother in Afghanistan is likely to lose at least one child.

Useful links

The OECD Education Directorate conference on the economic crisis and early childhood education and care is here.

The Lancet monitors progress between 1990 and 2010 on maternal, newborn and child survival in light of the Millennium Development Goals.

The OECD Family Database provides data on “family outcomes and family policies” with over 50 indicators for all OECD countries on everything from breastfeeding to participation in elections. 

Doing Better for Children looks at the state of child wellbeing in OECD countries.

Gender Aid at a Glance provides statistics on Official Development Assistance focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment 

Work on gender at the OECD Development Centre

educationtoday OECD’s “education lighthouse for the way out of the crisis”.

Wikigender is designed to help participants “share and exchange information and best practices on gender equality”

The article on kangaroo care is published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology. This issue is on “Development and use of the Lives Saved Tool (LiST): a model to estimate the impact of scaling up proven interventions on maternal, neonatal and child mortality”.

HIV/AIDS kills more young women than anything else

HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) worldwide. That’s the stark message coming from UNAIDS as it launches the Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV.

Violence against women and girls is the key driver of the epidemic. The risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence, or fear they might experience it,  may be up to three times higher than among those who have not.  These women are less likely to have safe sex, go for HIV testing, share their HIV status and get treatment.

Their inferior social status puts women and girls at risk too.

The infection rate among young women (15-24 years) is three times higher than that of young men in some countries where men are encouraged to have more than one sexual partner and it is common for older men to have sexual relations with much younger women.

When they do get infected, women are likely to face barriers in accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care services because benefiting from services often requires time, money and the possibility to travel that men are not prepared to grant.

Women and girls can find themselves in a double bind. They have to stay at home to look after the family, including HIV/AIDS victims, thereby limiting their chances of earning money and increasing their autonomy.

The death of a partner, whatever the cause, means that many women lose everything and have to adopt what UNAIDS euphemistically calls “survival strategies that increase their chances of contracting and spreading HIV”.

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, is more direct: “Driven by poverty and the desire for a better life, many women and girls find themselves using sex as a commodity in exchange for goods, services, money, accommodation, or other basic necessities.”

Lack of education is also responsible.

The cheapest way to inform people about HIV prevention is through written material such as posters and leaflets. Illiterate women can’t take advantage of this information, which is one reason why they are four times more likely to believe there is no way to prevent HIV infection.


Useful links

WHO site on gender inequality and HIV

Women and health : today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda a new WHO report reviewing evidence on the health issues that particularly affect girls and women throughout their life

The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS

The Finnish government analysed HIV/AIDS related strategies and key interventions of 25 development partners funding the HIV/AIDS related activities

OECD statistics on aid to HIV/AIDS control in official development assistance programmes

Wikigender was initiated by the OECD Development Centre to improve knowledge on gender equality-related issues around the world and facilitate information exchange

Where is the best place to live if you’re a woman?

What do Iceland, Jamaica, Slovakia and the Maldives have in common?  They are among the countries with the highest possible ranking in educational attainment for women in the Global Gender Gap Report 2009 recently released by the World Economic Forum.  This is just one of many sources of pertinent info that can be found on wikigender,  a site started by the OECD Development Centre to facilitate exchange and improve knowledge on gender equality-related issues around the world.

Have we really made progress in closing the gender gap?  How do countries compare in women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival?  Have a look at the report and send us your reactions.  You can post them to the blog or send directly to [email protected]