Development and discrimination

Winning the battle
OECD Development Centre*

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer”, wrote W. Somerset Maugham. Could it be that some traditions, however rooted in great histories and cultures, are now trapping countries in poverty? This certainly appears to be the case when it comes to the influence of social and cultural norms on the status of women.

For many people, especially in the developed world, discrimination is mostly a moral issue and must be resisted as a matter of principle. What is often overlooked, however, is the economic impact of preventing women from participating actively in the economy. If the issue is starting to attract attention in OECD countries and has been written about in these pages (see references), it has been sorely neglected in poorer parts of the world, where discrimination and repression often have deep cultural and religious roots. Yet, the success with which developing countries integrate female workers into the labour force will be a key factor in building their competitiveness in the global economy!

The first step is to understand the causes. That is why the OECD Development Centre has developed a new tool, the Gender, Institutions and Development Data Base (GID–accessible at, whose aim is to determine and analyse obstacles to the economic development of women. The GID covers a total of 162 countries and comprises a comprehensive array of 50 indicators on gender discrimination from various sources. Its true value-added is the innovative inclusion of institutional variables that range from intra-household behaviour to social norms that determine endemic discrimination in poor countries. Examples are young (mainly forced) marriages, genital mutilation, and restrictions on inheritance as well as property rights.

Take the breakdown of discrimination by region and levels of development. The GID shows that persistent discrimination and repression are most marked in southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean and North African region (see graph). Some of the richest countries in the world, such as Saudi Arabia, show a high level of discrimination. On the other hand, there are also quite a few countries in Latin America that are much poorer and where the level of gender discrimination is considerably lower. In other words, merely raising incomes or spending more money will not be enough.

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What the GID shows is the important influence social institutions have on the economic role of women. The more discriminatory the social institutions are, the lower the rates of female participation in the workforce, for example. Add to this the fact that women without ownership rights cannot easily take on an entrepreneurial role, and the problem becomes clear.

The depth of discrimination against women can also be calculated according to religious affiliations. Underdevelopment and strong attachment to customs and religious beliefs can go hand in hand, of course, but what really matters is how rules and norms are applied and become institutionalised. For instance, while according to our research social norms discriminating against women are less important in Christian and Buddhist countries, some predominantly Christian countries in Africa and Latin America might still have a few customs that affect women’s rights.

Conversely, some Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco, have changed within the overall institutional framework, granting women more rights with respect to marriage, authority over children, divorce, freedom of movement, dress and access to property than in the past. This suggests that persistent discrimination can be removed without undermining religious customs or beliefs.

From Morocco and Tunisia to some states in southern India, efforts are under way to change the institutional frameworks that limit women’s employment and skills, and thereby their contribution to growth. These efforts are paying off: in Tunisia, 30-50% of judges, physicians and schoolteachers are now women. In India women have risen to the highest levels of politics and business in recent years. However, these are relatively isolated cases, and there have been setbacks. Even in India, there are strong pockets of resistance, particularly in the north of the country and among migrants to major cities, with women being murdered in some states over disputes about dowries. In short, change remains a daunting challenge for most.

Some development experts have called for more funding, to build schools, for instance. The trouble is, many shiny new classrooms would remain empty because girls of 12 and over are simply not allowed to attend them. Extra spending, while badly needed, will generate real returns only if the fundamental causes of discrimination are dealt with, too.

That may mean institutional and legal reforms, as well as better enforcement of existing laws. For instance, the police in India have been accused of failing to investigate the killings over dowries and in Kenya, the local judiciary has reportedly not applied laws designed to give women equal treatment with respect to property inheritance. Clearly, investing in institutions and training to improve enforcement will be vital if other initiatives in promoting gender equality are to work.

Fighting gender discrimination must involve men, too. Too many reform programmes fail because of their overly heavy focus on women’s needs, overlooking the fact that societies based on persistent discrimination generate advantages that men will not sacrifice easily. Engaging men in reform, providing incentives and perhaps even financial compensation are important. Such a debate is now taking place in Kenya in view of reforming discriminatory inheritance laws there.

Some countries are not willing to change, but many countries are. Most have signed up to the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and, more recently in 2000, agreed to the UN millennium goal of empowering women and combating discrimination. Helping countries that want to fight discrimination is therefore not only important, but an international commitment as well. The question is where to begin, and how?

Investing in high quality data is a good starting point. Thanks to the likes of the GID, we are now at least coming to grips with the scale of female discrimination. Too often we have had to rely on anecdotal evidence or data from household surveys that are not set up to measure female discrimination. Sometimes discrimination starts before girls are even born: a recent article in The Lancet reported that an estimated 10 million women in India were “missing” from the population figures due to selected abortion in the last 20 years. More effort needs to be put into collecting such data.

In the meantime, lasting change has to be coaxed from within the communities themselves. That is why donors must work with workers’ unions, businesses, associations and teachers, for instance. These local allies can help build pressure for change, as well as garnering wider public support and dispelling inevitable fears of change among ordinary people. Only by using people with knowledge of local laws, customs, etc, can persistent discrimination be ironed out. With local help, donors can encourage the creation of women’s associations, and provide free training to those who manage them. Reading courses could be financed, and micro-credit schemes set up for women in all activities, from farming and crafts to services.

Building local networks can help break down stubborn social attitudes and mindsets, while enabling donors to tailor their strategies to particular circumstances. In rural communities, for instance, women face extreme workloads, while high costs in communication and trading act as further barriers to development. Targeting investment on labour-saving technology, including communications, would bolster local efforts to fight discrimination even in remote areas.

Encouraging greater openness can also help tackle the prejudice and distrust that underpin persistent discrimination. Donors could finance cultural, educational and professional exchanges, on condition that recipient governments guarantee a large female participation. They can invest in wider access to international media, too, though the local media can also be encouraged to promote gender issues, as can the likes of street theatres and publicity campaigns, perhaps backed by home-grown movie stars, singers and other celebrities.

There is more OECD countries could do at home, too, to further the economic chances of women in the developing world, particularly through their policies on trade, investment, and migration. Buying products with a high female labour content can help, especially as some studies show that women’s working conditions in the export sector tend to be far better than those in businesses aimed at the domestic market. Governments can promote more foreign direct investment, too–multinational enterprises tend to follow corporate governance rules that discourage gender discrimination. And they could encourage more tourism to developing countries, both to generate welcome revenue and foster greater openness.

Reducing gender disparities may not be easy, but it is feasible. For the UN goal to be met, donors must find ways beyond money to harness the tremendous changes that are taking place. With coherent, sensitive and inclusive strategies, the kind of wasteful discrimination that denies women their rights and blights the development potential of whole countries, can one day be removed for good.


Forsythe N., Korzeniewicz R.P. and Durrant,V. (2000), “Gender Inequalities and Economic Growth: A Longitudinal Evaluation” in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 48(3).

Jütting, J., Morrisson, C., Dayton-Johnson, J. and Drechsler, D. (March 2006), “Measuring Gender (In)Equality: Introducing the Gender, Institutions and Development Data Base (GID)”, OECD Development Centre working paper.

Jütting, J. and Morrisson, C. (2006), “L’égalité entre les sexes est un outil du développement”, Le Monde, 13 January 2006.

Klasen S. (2002), “Low Schooling for Girls, Slower Growth for All? Cross-country Evidence on the Effect of Gender Inequality in Education on Economic Development”, The World Bank Economic Review, Vol. 16.

Mörtvik, Roger, and Roland Spånt (2005), “Does gender equality spur growth?” in OECD Observer, No. 250, July.

UNDP (2005), Report of the UN Task Force on Education and Gender Equality, New York.

World Bank (2001), Engendering Development: Through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources and Voice, Washington.

*The authors would like to thank Silke Friedrich and Jennifer Davies for their valuable assistance in preparing this article.

©OECD Observer No 254, March 2006

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
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