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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 31 August, 2014

Column: More power for women will benefit everyone

Significant advances in the fight against poverty and hunger – as well as a reduction in gender-based violence – could be achieved by giving more power to women, writes Jim Clarken.

Jim Clarken

JUDGING BY THE lines outside this week’s Working Abroad Expo, the lean years since 2008 have hurt the young hardest.

But in the years that followed independence, it was women that hurt most; between 1926 and 1936, 1,298 women emigrated for every 1,000 men, fleeing a society that granted them more rights in the Bronze Age.

A woman was allowed to vote. But she had to be a property owner and over the age of 30.

She also had an equal right to work. But that was just a right to ‘appropriate work’, a ‘privilege’ cemented in the 1937 constitution, a document contrived and drafted by men.

Exclusion of women from the democratic process

The conservative shadow that fell over Ireland for the next half century can probably be linked to the exclusion of women from the democratic process so early in the beginnings of the state.

And it is a shadow that still falls over women, worldwide.

Women earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income, yet work two-thirds of the world’s working hours. They are less likely to finish school and to read and write then men – with two-thirds of all children denied schooling, being girls. Women hold just 14 per cent of the world’s governmental seats and own one per cent of the property.

These glaring inequalities don’t just hold women back. Entire societies and economies fail to mature and develop simply because of disparities in how men and women are treated, with some societies treating women in a way more reminiscent of the dark ages.

And it is why it is critical that in the fight against poverty, we focus more attention on women around the world.

Gender equality is key to battling social problems

This may sound like an absurd idea, cooked up by out-of-touch academics in a leafy university town somewhere on the US east coast. But evidence shows that we could make significant advances in the fight against poverty simply by giving more power to women.

If women farmers had the same access to land, tools, seeds and credit as men, they could grow enough extra food to feed more than 100 million of the world’s people.

If girls were allowed to finish secondary school alongside boys, we could drastically reduce hunger. According to a report this week from the UN, a 43 per cent reduction in hunger in developing countries can be attributed to progress in educating women.

Violence against women – the disturbing truth

And if women did not have to face violent partners, they would not have to spend as much time in hospital or nursing bruises and fractured bones at home. A women is still more likely to be disabled or die from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria combined.

Many organisations working in development  have begun focusing their resources on women because of these facts. It is time for governments to do the same.

Some have already recognised this. For example, the Rwandan government’s 30 per cent quota has led to a surge in the number of female MPs. They now represent over 50 per cent of lawmakers in a country that saw its economy grow by over seven per cent last year.

In Ireland, just 14 per cent of our elected representatives in Dáil Éireann are women.

Even doubling that figure could have a significant impact not just on the culture of decision making, but on our economy too.

Jim Clarken is Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland

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