Women can be the game-changers in Latin America

ANDEAN HIGHLANDS: Women can be a major force for change in Latin America, but the lack of jobs, especially among the indigenous like these Quechuas in Peru, remains a big challenge.
ANDEAN HIGHLANDS: Women can be a major force for change in Latin America, but the lack of jobs, especially among the indigenous like these Quechuas in Peru, remains a big challenge.

Latin American women have emerged as a major force for change. More than 70 million have joined the labor force in recent years. Two-thirds of the increase in women’s labor force participation in the last two decades can be attributed to more education and the fact that women marry later and have fewer children.

Education and economic empowerment are closely linked. By supporting girls’ and women’s education, Latin America has closed the schooling gap and succeeded in lifting millions of families out of poverty.

In fact, today, more women than men get an education in many countries.

Between 2000 and 2010, women’s earnings contributed to about 30 percent of the reduction in extreme poverty and inequality in the region. Women play a vital role in driving growth needed to end extreme poverty and build resilient societies. In fact, for Latin America to make the transition from a middle-income to a high-income region, both men and women need to push the frontiers on equal opportunities. But to get there, it needs to tackle three main issues.

▪ First, rates of violence and teenage pregnancy remain high, and nearly one in three Latin American women has experienced some form of violence by a male partner. While most countries have laws making domestic violence a criminal offense, more needs to be done to enforce these laws. Its negative impact on productivity costs Chile up to 2 percent of its GDP and Brazil 1.2 percent.

It takes innovative initiatives to make a difference. In Peru, for example, violence against women and girls went down by 9 percent, when giving cash transfers directly to mothers. The reason is that the cash gives them more control over their lives, making them a less likely target for men.

In Rio, the World Bank is working with the government to upgrade the urban transport system and make it safer for women through improved lighting, women’s restrooms in all metro stations, and services such as women’s police stations, women’s clinics and family courts in some of the major terminals. A similar initiative is under way in Ecuador.

▪ Second, across the region, women and girls often do not have the same opportunities and, like women in other parts of the world, they struggle to make decisions about their own lives. Despite earning higher degrees, women in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru are paid far less than men, particularly in top professions, where the gap is even widening.

From the Quechua-speaking girl in Bolivia struggling to complete secondary school, to the poor mother in a slum outside Lima who cannot afford good medical care, or the working girl in Rio who isn’t on equal footing for higher-paying jobs, significant gaps remain.

Across the developing world, more than one third of young women are unemployed, and many are discouraged from starting their own businesses or cannot get the credit to do so. It makes a critical difference that in Colombia, for example, more than 1,300 women from regions with high levels of violence are receiving training and support to start small companies.

▪ Finally, leadership and role models can make a difference. I remember my first meeting with my management team when I became Indonesia’s minister of finance. I was the youngest person and the first woman ever to hold that job. Everybody else in the room was male. I knew then that I had to work harder than any man to prove to them that I was capable. I am sure many women in Latin America who have pushed through the glass ceiling have had similar experiences.

The region has a record number of female elected heads of state and with 26 percent the second-highest number of women parliamentarians. In Brazil, the World Bank is working closely with the Women’s Caucus to help women participate more actively in politics.

This is progress that will not only bring more diversity and different experiences into policymaking, it is also a personal success to which I can relate.

No country can achieve its potential until all its people are able to achieve theirs. Latin America has many good lessons to share about promoting more equality for women and girls. It should keep its momentum to close the gaps that remain. The region has the men, and certainly the women, to get this job done.

Sri Mulyani Indrawati is managing director and chief operating officer of the World Bank. She was finance minister of Indonesia from 2005 to 2010.