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From left: Kakenya Ntaiya, Rajesh Mirchandani, and Joyce Banda on the CGD Podcast
“When I was five I found out that I had a husband.” That’s how Kakenya Ntaiya’s extraordinary story begins.
As a Maasai schoolgirl in rural Kenya, by the time she was thirteen, Ntaiya was expected, like all girls her age, to go through the ritual of female genital mutilation. As she recounts in this CGD Podcast, it was seen as a teenage rite of passage to be welcomed.
“Everybody’s excited about it . . . because it is what is going to make you a woman and it is going to give you status in the community. You’re going to be considered an adult,” she recalls.
Ntaiya could just as easily be a Malawian, says Joyce Banda, former president of Malawi and now a CGD distinguished visiting fellow, because experiences like hers are “across the board” in rural villages: "85 percent of Africans are rural-based. In most countries, 20-25 percent at the most are urban-based—those that can escape these experiences" (although FGM is not unheard of amongst urban communities).
President Banda’s forthcoming work at CGD will focus on solutions to ingrained cultural practices that take hold before a girl even reaches the age of ten, because, as she says, “by the time [a] girl child goes to school . . . it’s too late. This child has already been disadvantaged.”
The choice: FGM and marriage vs. education and shame
Ntaiya managed to break with tradition. She negotiated with her father that she would undergo FGM, or cutting, only if she could continue in school. The procedure was carried out without anesthetic, she remembers: “No one talks about the pain. No one talks about the trauma.”
That dreadful deal allowed her to finish school; she went on to win a scholarship to study at a US university, completed her PhD, and now runs an international non-profit, the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a boarding school where parents agree to spare their enrolled daughters longstanding cultural practices such as FGM and early marriage.
Resistance to change
"What do those practices do to a country?" I ask my podcast guests.
“It means that the country will never come out of poverty,” says Ntaiya, “because the idea is to keep the people in the rural [areas] the same.”
For President Banda, Africa’s second female president and previously Malawi’s Foreign Minister and Minister for Gender and Child Welfare, trying to tackle harmful traditional practices taught her that it’s not enough to pass a bill. Instead, you have to change people’s mindsets.
“I fought so hard to champion the passing of the domestic violence bill so the Malawian woman has a tool where she can even evict an abusive husband. But they would be beaten and they would swell up and they would pretend they were not beaten, because socially, culturally, there is so much pressure for you to stay in a marriage . . . so you’d rather be beaten, be abused, and not report.”
“Don’t tell the custodian of the culture to eradicate that culture.”
As evidence that cultural norms can be challenged, President Banda points to her work in office to reduce maternal deaths. By engaging traditional village hierarchies (male chiefs) to change ingrained practices and persuade or oblige rural women to go to health clinics to give birth, President Banda says Malawi recorded a decrease in maternal deaths of almost 30 percent.
Ntaiya agrees the same principle could apply to reducing FGM and early marriage.
“When we talk about women and girls’ empowerment,” she says, “and we come in with force and we want to put people in jail and we have this attitude of changing the world in one day . . . it doesn’t work. We have to respect the hierarchy within the community and work with it.”
“You don’t tell the person who is a custodian of the culture to eradicate the culture that they actually believe in. . . . The law without educating people actually doesn’t do anything.”
Apart from President Banda, other CGD experts are also looking into how to reduce harmful cultural practices. Senior fellow Charles Kenny investigates how far laws against FGM can actually move norms in a country in this paper examining evidence from Burkina Faso, while Matt Collin focuses on early marriage.
President Joyce Banda and Kakenya Ntaiya were speakers at the third annual DC Girl Summit, co-hosted by CGD, Girls Not Brides USA, the International Center for Research on Women, the International Womens’ Health Coalition, and the Population Council. You can watch video of the event here.
Listen to the full podcast at the top of this page.
Social psychologists discovered in the 1950s that counter-attitudinal advocacy—e.g., paying people to express a repellant view, but not quite enough to fully rationalize it—is an effective form of persuasion. So I should preface this post by noting that I recently traveled to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on a free economy-class airline ticket to participate in a mock debate where I was assigned, together with Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, to argue the somewhat obnoxious position that international aid donors spend too much money on girls' schooling.
Luckily, I did not persuade anyone, including myself. There was even an audience poll before and after the debate to prove Lucy Lake of Camfed and Caroline Riseboro of Plan soundly defeated our team. But cognitive dissonance is a powerful drug. So while I still think it’s silly to argue we spend too much on girls' education, perhaps it’s reasonable to ask—as I did, not persuasively, in Dubai—whether a concern with gender equality and a cold hard look at recent data would lead anyone to put their marginal dollar into girls' schooling over, say, campaigning for gender quotas (which seem to work well in Indian politics, at least) or even subsidized childcare (which has boosted female labor force participation in Latin America).
A simple decomposition of the gender pay gap in 12 countries
Let’s start with the gender pay gap. The simple and unsurprising fact is that the gap in earnings power between men and women is enormous in many parts of the developing world, and—perhaps more surprisingly—almost none of this has to do with educational disadvantage.
Over the last several years the World Bank has launched a program, known as the STEP surveys, to collect detailed, comparable data on labor market outcomes including not just schooling but also skills. A number of things stand out from this data. (Note that the surveys only cover urban areas in each country.)
First, gender pay gaps are huge—and much bigger than often reported if we step back a bit. There is a tendency in documenting these numbers to rush ahead and focus on pay differentials conditional on being employed. Famously, American women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same hours worked. But particularly in the developing world, the biggest source of income gaps stems from lower rates of labor force participation. Looking at the unconditional gender gaps—i.e., including all the zeros for men and women without a cash income—in urban Ghana women only earn about two-thirds of what men earn. In Colombia it’s only half, and in Sri Lanka women earn less than a third of what men earn.
Second, education explains almost none of this. We can see this using a simple Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition. This simple, descriptive technique estimates the return to schooling in observational data, then given those returns, breaks the gender pay gap into the part that can be explained by education differences between the sexes and those which remain unexplained even if we equalized schooling.
The result in the case of the World Bank data is that in only one country (Laos) does girls’ schooling deficit explain a large share of the gender pay gap. In the other 11 countries it doesn’t. In half of the countries, women’s education actually exceeds men’s on average. And in five of the remaining six countries, education explains relatively little of the earnings gap.
The data and code Blinder-Oaxaca decompositions in the graph is available here (and thanks to Lee Crawfurd for sharing earlier STEP do-files).
Even where education is (nearly) equal, nearly nothing else is
Consider the case of India. As noted in an earlier post, the government’s recent Economic Survey calculated there are still 63 million missing women, and another 22 million "unwanted women" based on the tendency of families to keep having kids if they have a girl and stop once they have a boy. Gender discrimination is acute and deeply rooted.
In their adult lives, those girls—wanted or unwanted—are more than 50 percentage points less likely than their brothers to have a job, and if they do, they’ll earn about 22 percent less. The political sphere is often no better than the economic. Just 66 of India’s 543 national legislators in the Lok Sabha are women.
But rather than girls' schooling being an obvious target for change, education indicators are actually an oasis of relative gender parity in India’s social statistics. According to official statistics, girls’ primary and lower-secondary completion is already higher than boys, and gross tertiary enrollment is at parity. Independent data collected by the NGO Pratham in the ASER surveys finds that girls at age 13 are slightly (4 percent) less likely to be able to solve the hardest questions on a simple mathematics test. While in need of redress, this 4 percent mathematics gap can hardly explain the horrific economic and social disparities we see in other domains.
In a sense, everything in life is stacked against Indian girls except school. (And kudos to the activists who made that true.)
GapGender ratio of children without siblings
India Economic Survey (2018)
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
% enrolled, gross
World Bank, WDI
0%Math test at age 13
% who can do division
-4%Reading test at age 13
% who can read story
0%Labor force participation
World Bank, WDI
-52%Earnings conditional on employment
-22%Seats in the national parliament
By all means, let’s spend more on girls' schooling. It’s a great investment. But the reason women in Sri Lanka earn a third of men isn’t because they’re less educated. They’re not. Similarly, the reason there were more men named “Michael” at Davos this year than all women combined isn’t because there weren’t enough educated women to invite. And the reason fewer than one in five legislators in the developing world is a woman isn’t because there are no women qualified to serve. If donors spend money on girls' schooling programs thinking, “If only girls were more educated, they’d get equality” they’re fooling themselves, and implicitly accepting the status quo.
Thanks to Maryam Akmal and Divyanshi Wadhwa for excellent research assistance.