COMMENTARY: Empowering women and girls in the Caribbean for long-lasting change

“Raise a son, and you will raise a man, raise a girl and you will raise a nation”. A World Bank report underlines the truth of this adage. It shows that increasing female labor market income contributed to a 30 percent reduction in extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean.

There are many examples of how women are accelerating and driving growth in the Caribbean. An ILO report noted that the Caribbean is a world leader in terms of the share of women managers. Over 40 per cent of all managers are women in eight out of 11 countries in the region. At the time, Jamaica reported the highest proportion of women managers in the world at 59 per cent. However, while there is progress, women do continue to face challenges due to their gender.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day, we want to take the opportunity to reflect on what the region has achieved on the path towards empowering its women and girls and what still needs our urgent attention and action.

 

The good

The region has made remarkable progress in some areas. Take the example of girls’ education. In many countries in the Caribbean, most children, both boys and girls, now attend primary school. And gender gaps in secondary and tertiary enrollment have been reduced. In fact, in many countries in the Caribbean, girls are more likely to graduate than boys.

Our Country Gender Scorecards, which track countries’ progress towards gender equality, provide insight into the strong school performance of girls. They show that girls complete secondary school at higher rates than boys in Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. A similar pattern can be observed for post-secondary levels of education. In fact, although the education achievements of girls are encouraging, the region has to avoid a reverse gender gap and strive for parity in education achievement.

The Gaps 

Nonetheless, there are many areas in which women continue to face significant challenges. Even in areas of seeming progress, there is ample room for improvement. The talented girls who work hard to complete their education often do not get a chance to reach their full potential. Once out of the education system, they are confronted by challenges such as lack of childcare support, harassment, and sometimes even violence. Men in the Caribbean are more likely to be employed and, as in the broader Latin America and Caribbean region, they usually make more money than women. Women in Dominica and Jamaica, for instance, earn roughly 85 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Higher educational completion is not reflected in political representation and decision-making either. Apart from positive exceptions such as Grenada, women in the region remain largely underrepresented in parliament and top management positions.

Moreover, COVID-19 has resulted in a significant setback in equality between men and women. Recent phone surveys conducted by the World Bank and the UNDP show that the effects of the pandemic continue to reverberate. In most countries, an increasing caregiving burden combined with labor market disruptions led to a perfect storm for women workers. Women were hit far harder by job losses, partly due to the sectors they worked in, and suffered stronger reductions in working hours. The pandemic has also been widely documented to setback any progress made on eliminating violence against women. We have seen a significant increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the start of the pandemic.

In Haiti, the challenges for women and girls are especially pronounced. Women there are at exceptionally high risk of dying while giving birth and have higher chances to face physical and sexual violence. Moreover, although women’s economic participation is high, most working women find themselves in precarious forms of employment offering little stability, benefits or pay.

The opportunity

We should use the recovery from COVID-19 to put women and girls at the center of policy solutions and ensure that we close gender gaps with impacts that will last beyond the pandemic.

One such area which could bring dividends now and, in the years to come, is advancing the participation of women in entrepreneurship and catalyzing the presence of women-led businesses in the economy. Compared to men, women entrepreneurs in the region face greater challenges in obtaining financial resources and starting a business. Enhanced opportunities for women-led businesses, including in male-dominated sectors, could be a game-changer for the region and catalyze jobs creation, innovation, economic growth and poverty reduction.

To do this, we have to narrow gaps in women’s access to finance. Compared with men entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs are often disadvantaged in access to finance, which is key for the survival and expansion of their business. Governments can use a variety of financial solutions to support women-led firms, such as grants, fee reductions, cash transfers, and loans on flexible terms.

Closing the gap in access to digital technologies will also be critical. In the context of COVID-19, digital provision of financial services expanded, and many companies shifted to home-based work. Providing women with mobile phones, distributing free sim cards, providing financial support to access reliable mobile internet, and offering digital literacy training can help ensure that women reap the benefits of these developments.

At the World Bank, we are dedicated to promoting women and girls’ equality through our operations and knowledge sharing. Gender equality is at the core of our engagement in the Caribbean, and many tailored solutions are already underway. Let’s ensure that future generations of talented girls will have even more progress to celebrate on International Women’s Day.

Lilia Burunciuc, is the World Bank Country Director for the Caribbean and Ximena de Carpio, is the Manager of the World Bank Poverty and Equity Practice in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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