Gender Equality Linked to Economic Growth, U.S. Official says

By Kathryn McConnell
USINFO Staff Writers

Washington – The United States says that countries seeking foreign assistance under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) must provide new information about the effect of gender inequalities on their economies.

Gender inequality can be a significant constraint to economic growth and poverty reduction, Virginia Seitz, a top official with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which administers the MCA, told USINFO.

To maximize the effect of its grants to developing countries, the MCC recently adopted a policy requiring countries applying for grants to include analyses of their existing legal and socio-cultural inequalities in their MCA project proposals.

Countries also are required to state how their proposed projects would correct gender inequalities that impede economic growth and poverty reduction.

Gender is defined as the social roles, behaviors and responsibilities assigned to women and men in a society, according to MCC.

Gender equality can be measured by such factors as girls' completion rates for primary school and women's political and social rights, said Francis McNaught, MCC vice president for congressional and public affairs, in a January public outreach meeting in Washington.

The new policy increasingly is being embraced by leaders of developing countries hoping to receive MCA funding, Seitz, MCC director of social and gender assessment, said.

Many countries are shifting their development planning functions from their finance ministries to their social ministries and employing specialists in gender equality issues, she said.

In some cases, Sietz said, countries are altering their original proposals to highlight how women's issues would be addressed by their MCA-funded development project.

The three-year-old MCA provides development assistance to countries promoting economic freedom, investments in health care and education, and respect for rule of law. As part of its grant process, Seitz said, the MCC provides guidance to countries to ensure their projects are designed to address gender inequalities and do not constrain economic growth and poverty reduction.

MCC also is helping people in developing country judicial sectors understand the importance of women's rights to national economic growth and to increasing family incomes, she said.


One example of where the gender policy, adopted in December 2006, has affected a country's development plans is Lesotho, Seitz said. In 2005, the country submitted to MCC a five-year, $362 million proposal for funds to improve health care and water infrastructures and to develop its private sector.

But MCC held back from approving the grant because Lesotho law categorized married women as "legal minors" with no rights to own property, Seitz said.

Following MCC's urging to give women equal rights, Lesothos's parliament enacted a law ending women's minority status, she said.

It was the first time U.S. foreign assistance had been conditioned on gender equality, MCC head John Danilovhich said during a speech in January. The country awaits approval of its revived grant proposal, submitted in 2006.

Another example is Nicaragua, which in 2005 was granted $175 million in MCA aid. Nicaragua's agreement with the MCC states that the country will consider gender in all its MCA-funded activities. These include securing land rights for individuals, improving transportation infrastructure and supporting small businesses. Women in the country have organized to oversee the implementation of gender in each MCA project component, Seitz said.

Ghana's $547 million compact, granted in 2006, included an initiative to provide women with credit and link women to a national payments system, reducing the need for rural women to keep large amounts of cash in their homes.

Burkina Faso, which received a $12.9 million MCC "threshold" grant in 2005, developed a two-year project to build, equip and support more than 130 schools in areas with low enrollment rates for girls to encourage girls' enrollment and regular attendance in those schools.

Threshold grants are awarded to countries to help them make necessary policy and institutional changes in certain areas in which the country has performed poorly so it can qualify for a longer-term grant.

Burkina Faso's project includes an awareness-raising campaign involving parents and community leaders to fight against obstacles that keep girls from school, such as long walking distances between homes and schools, early and forced marriages, time-consuming household chores and lack of general interest in girls’ education.

More information on the MCC gender policy is available on its Web site.

See also Women in the Global Community.