There’s no better time than International Women’s Day to think about the kinds of policies that are likely to improve the status of women around the world. Whereas the debate in rich countries today is about gender parity for certain types of jobs, in many countries women still have to fight for access to health care, education, and the right to work. What they need is more economic freedom.
The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report assesses how much latitude there exists in different countries for personal choice, voluntary exchange, and the freedom to compete, and measures the protection of persons and their property. Economic freedom has a positive effect on general indicators of well-being like health, education, and happiness, so it’s unsurprising that the same is true of many indicators of the status of women specifically.
The facts speak for themselves: Women living in one of the 25 least economically free countries are a third less likely to know how to read and write when they reach adulthood, compared to women living in one of the 25 freest countries. Greater economic freedom also leads to higher enrolment levels for women, in terms of both secondary and post-secondary education.
When it comes to health, a woman living in one of the least free countries is four times likelier to have her first child during her teen years, 25% less likely to have access to prenatal and postnatal care, and 20 times more likely to die during childbirth.
Women’s participation in the labour force—a crucial aspect of autonomy and well-being—also depends on economic freedom. For example, the legal recognition of married women’s economic rights (to open a bank account, enter into contracts, and so on) led to increased participation of women in the labour market from 48% to 57% in Namibia and from 46% to 63% in Peru over a ten-year period.
When the results of the Economic Freedom of the World report are adjusted using measures drawn from the OECD’s database on gender equality in order to determine the places where women are the freest before the law, many Middle Eastern and African countries fall in the ranking.
But even where women are equal before the law, social and cultural norms can prevent them from exercising their rights in order to hold property in their name, own a business, and engage freely in trade.
When economic freedom scores are adjusted to take culture into account, using certain results from the World Values Survey, many Asian countries where women have secure legal rights also fall in the ranking. This demonstrates the gap between formal laws that suggest a high degree of equality between the sexes and an extremely unequal culture that limits women’s opportunities to effectively exercise their rights in practice.
Hong Kong, for instance, at the top of the ranking in terms of women’s legal rights, falls to 14th in the ranking adjusted for culture. Japan falls from 15th place in the ranking in terms of the law to 44th place in the ranking based on culture.
Yet formal economic freedom remains important, not only because it makes people from all walks of life richer, but also because it goes hand in hand with nearly all of the humanitarian goals that are not strictly speaking economic. The well-being of women around the world illustrates this connection very well.
Pascale Déry is Senior Advisor in Communications and Development at the MEI, Marie-Josée Loiselle is Associate Economist at the MEI. They are authors of "Viewpoint – Economic Freedom and the Well-Being of Women around the World." The views reflected in this op-ed are their own.