- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009




President Obama’s announcement last Tuesday that he will create a new White House Council on Women and Girls was just the latest sign of an encouraging trend.

The State Department soon will name its ambassador-at-large for women’s issues, and one of my first actions as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was to create a new subcommittee to focus on global women’s issues. This means that, from the Oval Office to the State Department to the Senate, women across the world have more champions in American government than ever before.

This wave of women’s advocates arrive in Washington not a moment too soon. Today, the globe is being roiled daily by an unfolding economic crisis. It’s up to all of us to ensure that this economic crisis does not become a global women’s crisis, too.

At moments like these in developing countries, women are asked to bear the brunt of the hardship. When food is scarce, economists have found that women and girls are pressured to forgo their share altogether so that men and boys have enough to eat. In the same way, we must now make sure that women workers aren’t pushed aside as businesses downsize and that daughters aren’t taken out of school as families search for extra income.

We must help women not just to survive this downturn but to continue marching toward equality.

Regrettably, there are reasons to believe women in the developing world are being hit even harder economically than their counterparts in advanced economies. While a good proportion of the jobs lost in America and Europe have belonged to men, one study says that 60 percent to 80 percent of export manufacturing jobs in developing countries are held by women. Unfortunately, these jobs are very sensitive to dips in demand from America and other developed nations.

Women have to contend not only with an economic crisis, but also with discrimination. A UNICEF study found that women in the Middle East and North Africa earn around 30 percent as much as men do and women in Latin America and South Asia earn 40 percent as much. In some countries, outdated stereotyping leads to women being fired first: Men are seen as the legitimate breadwinners when jobs are scarce. During Asia’s financial collapse of the 1990s, South Korea laid off women at 10 times the rate of men.

As often happens in this situation, women are pushed outside the formal economy, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation. The economic migration, dislocation and desperation that come with a global downturn also leave women more susceptible to predatory human traffickers - a human rights abuse that can and must be prevented.

It’s not just working women who face discrimination - also at risk is the promise of the next generation of girls. Regrettably there is reason to worry. For example, in Uganda, studies have found girls are more likely to drop out of school when household incomes decline. While boys stay in school, girls prematurely enter the work force - and lose their chance to use education to live up to their full potential.

Unless we renew and redouble our investment in the education of girls, we will be sacrificing tomorrow’s prosperity to deal with today’s crisis.

These are the precise issues that led me to create a subcommittee on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to deal with global women’s issues. It’s time that we rethink our investment in the potential of more than half of the global population. We must look again at our international instruments and policy and strengthen the ability of women to make their own decisions and compete equally.

It is common knowledge that a small investment in a girl’s education reaps enormous rewards for an entire society - whether she becomes a doctor or learns to read. World Bank Chief Robert Zoellick has said, “Investing in adolescent girls is precisely the catalyst poor countries need to overcome poverty.” Mark Parker, the chief executive of Nike, put it this way: “Every global company should invest in the girl effect.”

How profound is the “girl effect?” A single year of secondary schooling can translate into an increase of 10 percent to 20 percent in future wages. That’s a significantly return for a small investment.

In Kenya, for example, 1.6 million girls have dropped out of high school. If they could finish their secondary education, they would make 30 percent more money and contribute $3.2 billion annually to the Kenyan economy. In Pakistan, the female literacy rate is as low as 3 percent in some areas bordering Afghanistan, posing massive societal challenges in efforts to bring stability and prosperity to the region.

I am proud of the accomplishments of my own daughters and my wife. I want all women to have the same opportunities they had to get a good education, pursue their passions in a safe environment and live up to their full potential.

Even as markets plunge, empowering women is one investment that is guaranteed to show enormous returns. If we keep faith with the enormous potential and promise of our young women, they will do things their mothers and grandmothers, and fathers and grandfathers, only dreamed of. And all of us will be better off.

John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, is chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was his party’s presidential nominee in 2004.

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