On International Women's Day, Recognize Women's Vital Role in Fighting HIV/AIDS and Poverty

It’s undeniable that we have made huge progress in gender equality and human rights. Between 1990 and 2009, school-life expectancy for girls in East Asia and Pacific increased 38%; 104 women made the Forbes 2012 list of billionaires. And what’s more? Aung San Suu Ki, the Burmese Peace Nobel Laureate is not only released from house arrest, but is also running for a parliamentary seat and has been granted honorary Canadian citizenship. Has the role of women in developing nations been recognized?

Despite significant effort made to close the gender gap, few women can gleefully say that society has stopped marginalizing them based on their gender. Currently, only 30% African girls complete secondary schools. Although organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested more in educating women, it is not widely understood that such investment brings back tremendous benefits.

Rural girls are the major agricultural working force in rural Africa and South Asia. More girls dropping out from school means more girls resorting to low-paid, exploitative employment, often under the form of paid sex, increasing the risk of HIV/AIDS.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that with rural women given the same access to land, education, services, technology, etc. the number of hungry people would be reduced by 100-150 million. The UN Chronicle reaffirms investment in educating girls as “the best solutions to reversing the relentless trend of poverty.” Preventing girls from dropping out of schools will give dividends to poverty alleviation and directly improve the feasibility of the UN reaching its Millennium Development Goals. Unfortunately, policymakers in developing countries have yet to recognize that with $32 per pupil each year, the benefits reaped from future wages and healthcare are between three and 26 times higher, that girls are the “vaccine” against HIV/AIDS and poverty.

Two other challenges facing international women are the lack of reproductive services and women’s representation in politics.

Women’s reproductive health is crucial in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and in developing communities and families as economic forces. Nearly 20% women in developing countries report that they would like to stop having children but reproductive services are unavailable. In Libya and Sierra Leone, maternal mortality accounts for 40% of the death of girls age 15-24. The lack of reproductive services further denies young women education and economic independence. Delaying childbearing allows women to earn education and employment that enable the success of their future children.

Although women have the right to vote in most countries, gender inequalities in political representation remain a challenge across the world. Gender quotas should be considered, especially at the local level of politics. In India, village councils with gender quotas for village chiefs are associated with less bribery, better immunization coverage, and safer water. In Norway, as the Time reported, a 40% quota for business women on corporate boards in 2003 has resulted in more corporate transparency, “breaking up back-room deals and old boys’ networks,” dismissing skeptics’ concerns of shareholders’ democracy being compromised by incompetent women.

Improving gender equality requires governments and institutions to look at women’s capacities in economics terms and to invest in girls’ access to education and reproductive services. Only by investing in both halves of the population equally can developing nations effectively reduce poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons