This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring how challenges to gender equality affect efforts to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. The full series is available here.

The Economic Burden of Gender Gaps

Economic development is held back by gender inequality worldwide. And for women to contribute to the engine of economic growth, ultimately, investing in women’s health must be a priority.

For centuries, women have faced social, cultural, political and legal barriers that have limited their capacity to contribute to both local and global economies. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is still entrenched in many countries. The 2016 World Bank report, Women, Business, and the Law, confirmed that 90 percent of the 173 countries analyzed have at least one legal regulation that hinders women’s economic opportunities.

Women face many obstacles to achieving equal economic rights. Harmful societal practices contribute to these barriers – most notably child marriage, through which girls or young women often take on household and maternal responsibilities at a young age as opposed to pursuing education, which would permit them to thrive economically. In some countries, laws can discourage economic inequality. For instance, there are 18 countries in which the husbands or male guardians can legally prevent women from working a formal job. Even in the rapidly growing economy e of India, many women require the formal affirmation of such male figures to enjoy economic opportunities.

The disproportion of male to female participation in the labor force is strikingly evident. In low and middle-income countries, women make up only 38.4 percent of the labor force. These disparities have a profound influence on economic productivity. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in some countries with low gender equality indices, gender gaps have been estimated to be responsible for as high as 27 percent per capita GDP losses.

Many leading world organizations, including the IMF, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Economic Forum, have proved in research that female participation in the labor force is crucial to economic growth. Reducing the gender gap can have multiple economic benefits, including an increase in workforce size and greater diversity of the talent pool. Economic empowerment of women can also encourage:

  • Secondary education of girls
  • Lower fertility rates, resulting in decreased maternal and neonatal mortality
  • An increase in the proportion of household income controlled by women, which has been proven to change spending in ways that benefit children, and
  • Bolstering of broader gender empowerment, beyond economic participation

Furthermore, a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute asserts that advancing women’s equality can contribute to $12 trillion in global economic gains, an opportunity global economies cannot afford to squander.

Combatting the Three Epidemics as a Means of Women’s Empowerment

Poor health for women, particularly as it relates to the HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria epidemics, can greatly exacerbate the cost of gender inequality on economic growth. The three diseases contribute to gender inequality by increasing the physical and societal burden placed on women. Health problems, and especially contracting a pandemic disease – such as malaria – demonstrably inhibit productivity and can prevent females – along with males — from attending school or maintaining a job. Women face higher rates of HIV and TB in areas heavily burdened by disease. Additionally, because women are typically the household caretakers, they are frequently responsible for tending to sick family members. Not only does this exposure place them at a higher risk for contracting disease, it also holds them back from pursuing education or work outside the home.

The Global Fund’s Role in Supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment

Addressing the three diseases can have a positive impact on women’s economic empowerment and gender equality more generally. The Global Fund strategy addresses the empirical fact that women do not enjoy the same rights, opportunities and access to health services as men do, and are therefore at a greater risk and disadvantage when seeking treatment and care. Through supporting treatment and prevention programs that are tailored to the needs of women and girls, the Global Fund has prioritized reducing gender gaps in its strategy.

As an example, because there is strong evidence that girls going to and staying in school reduces their vulnerability to contracting HIV, the Global Fund contributes to programs in high burden countries that aim to keep girls between the ages of 14 and 22 in school.

Furthermore, the Global Fund encourages female leadership in the design and implementation of programs. The Global Fund engages in Country Coordinating Mechanisms (CCMs), a national committee of representatives from government, the private sector, technical partners, civil society, and people living with disease that submits funding applications to the Global Fund on behalf of each implementing country. Forty percent of decision-makers in the Fund’s CCMs are women.

While there is still so much more progress to be made in increasing women’s economic opportunities and reducing gender inequality, the Global Fund is increasingly addressing these issues through financing gender-conscious disease interventions.  As such, it is providing solutions related to a basic, two-step dynamic of global economic prosperity: Economic development requires breaking gender inequality. And breaking gender inequality requires breaking the greatest epidemic threats to women and girls—HIV, TB and malaria.