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Q&A: Africa – High On Political Empowerment, Low On Education

Miren Gutierrez interviews SAADIA ZAHIDI, co-author of Global Gender Gap report

ROME, Dec 3 2009 (IPS) - “It is clear that there are huge discrepancies within Sub-Saharan Africa, but overall the region is doing extremely well in terms of political empowerment,” says Saadia Zahidi, head of the Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in a telephone interview from Geneva.

But what are the pending matters in the region?

The Global Gender Gap (GGG) index ranks 134 countries according to gender equality, and it is designed to measure gender-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in individual countries rather than the overall levels of the available resources in those countries. It looks at four factors: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment; and health and survival of women.

Zahidi discusses concrete cases based on the data dug out for the GGG report, and comments on the emergence of South Africa as a country with one of the lowest gender gaps in the world and other trends in the Sub-Saharan region.

IPS: The surprise this year is South Africa, leapfrogging from 22nd last year to 6th position now. What changed? SAADIA ZAHIDI: The data reveal that South Africa made significant improvements in female labour force participation in addition to gains for women in parliament and in ministerial positions in the new government.

Progress Report

IPS: You have been the co-author since the 2006 GGG index report, could you highlight some trends since then? Some activists feel we have reached a plateau where things are not moving forward. What do you think?

SAADIA ZAHIDI: There are a number of things you can say about the plateau. From the data, looking broadly at 14 sets of variables in 115 countries since 2006, we find that 99 of them made progress, and that 16 stayed the same or regressed. To some amount, this is slightly misleading, since we cannot say that, only looking at 115 countries, the world is improving. Some others, not included, may be regressing. But four years is a fairly decent amount of time. And in the four index categories, there have been improvements in education and political empowerment, while falling behind in economic participation in general.

There is a large set of countries where the reason why the data hasn't been collected is linked with the fact that gender segregated data is not taken seriously into account or not a priority, or they are coming out of an armed conflict situation. If we had taken them into account, I think we may have a very different picture. But we need more data to arrive at more conclusive, clear trends.

We did have a look at 39 countries since 2000, and some like the U.K. (15 in the 2009 GGG index), which was a high performer, remained flat. There was no improvement in some countries; they are resting on their good results. But Turkey (129), for example, which started very low, has jumped 10 points in the past nine years. We are seeing encouraging signs in Chile (64), Japan (75), and South Korea (115), which started from very low positions and are slowly catching up.

In other countries we have seen improvements in one variable only. Whereas in the case of South Africa we have seen clear improvements in both the political participation and in the labour market. But although the index shows a jump, it may have been more of a gradual change over the past two years in terms of labour access, since the ILO (International Labour Organisation) updated its data recently, and we are seeing the change now (in the index).

IPS: But we are talking about a country ranked first for rapes per capita (1.19538 per 1,000 people), according to the Seventh U.N. Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998-2000. How can South Africa be in such a privileged position in the GGG index, while dealing with such realities? SZ: There are several answers to this question. We see a number of comparable situations, where you have improvements in some variables, combined with very poor performances in others.

For example, India (114 in the 2009 GGG index) is a fast growing country that performs poorly in the GGG index (due to poor performance in political and economic participation), with huge problems like female infanticide and selected abortions. This kind of discrimination happens in highly unequal societies, where you have a large section of the population that is poor, then an emerging middle class, and very rich elite.

Another case is Brazil (82), which certainly performs poorly in political empowerment (whereas does very well in terms of education and health access for women).

However, the GGG index doesn’t look at violence against women and other similar gender issues. It looks at women as resources; at how well a certain country invests on those resources (in terms of education and health) and at how those resources are put into productive use. And we measure gaps, not levels.

But if you look at additional information at the bottom of the report, basic rights and social institutional variables are considered, including maternal health, female genital mutilation, polygamy, and the existence of legislation punishing acts of violence against women in a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 is the best score. South Africa ranks 0.42 in legislation punishing violence against women and 0.50 in polygamy, so there are many things that have to improve. However, even the best countries in the world, like Iceland (1) or Sweden (4) still haven’t closed the gender gaps.

IPS: Lesotho, has advanced six positions, from 16th to 10th. Among the top 10 countries there are six European, two African, two from the Asia-Pacific region. Does this say something about Africa in general? SZ: I think that there are huge discrepancies in the rankings across Sub-Saharan Africa. I cannot make a statement about the region as a whole. For example, Chad (133) and Ethiopia (122) are at the very bottom of the global ranking.

But we can say that the region has a clear strength in terms of economic and political participation for women. Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa fares better than the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is almost on par with Eastern and Western Europe. In terms of political empowerment, even if all the rankings are low, the Sub-Saharan region does better than the Middle East and North Africa (the worst), Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America.

However, there is a long way to go in terms of education and health. The region has the lowest overall ranking in the world; and in terms of health it has the second lowest ranking after Asia.

IPS: In the mist of a global economic crisis, the report suggests there is a direct link between low gender gaps and high economic performance. SZ: It depends on how you look at gender. You can look at it as a question of equality and human rights. And it is clear that you should have equal rights for everyone. But a second reason is efficiency. Women are half of human resources. How well a country uses its human resources will affect its performance. And we see a correlation between the GGG index and the Global Competitiveness Index (of the WEF).

Broadly speaking, there are three groups of countries. The first tier includes countries where the basics, health and education, are not given to women. And you cannot have economic and political advancement without them. The second tier includes countries whose population, in general, have access to health and education that have made the investment, but haven’t got the rewards yet because they haven’t invested enough on removing the barriers to economic and political participation. The third tier includes countries that have done the necessary investments in access to health and education, and also in changing the entry levels to the politic and economic spheres. But this is not enough because some barriers still persist and women get stuck at some point. These include countries like Sweden (4), Denmark (7) and the U.S. (31). The last barriers have not been removed.

IPS: But what about South Africa? SZ: There are exceptions, and South Africa is one of them. South Africa is doing quite well relatively speaking. In fact, in terms of education, the score is 99 percent of the education men get, which is extremely high, for example.

Those countries that are narrowing their gaps in education and health, or are close to doing it, are starting to do well in other variables regardless of income or resources. The index does not look at overall levels of development, but at how equitable the resources are distributed. And South Africa, although poorer than Sweden, ranks quite high.

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