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Diffuse water pollution: an invisible and growing threat

22 March 2017
by Guest author

Hannah Leckie, Water Policy Analyst, OECD Environment Directorate

On 22 March each year the world turns its attention to the global water crisis on the occasion of World Water Day. Water policies around the world are in need of urgent reform. Water – an essential natural resource on which all life depends – has become a global garbage can.

You wouldn’t think you could kill a freshwater ecosystem or an ocean, would you? But the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems has been degraded more than any other ecosystem. And more than 400 dead zones have been identified in the world’s oceans. Pollution is a major driver of such damage.

The effects of water pollution imperil not only ecosystems, but also human lives and economic growth. At least half the world’s population suffers from polluted water. Millions of people die each year due to water-related diseases. Pollution hotspots occur in all parts of the world, including OECD countries, where current pollution costs exceed billions of dollars each year.

The situation is set to worsen. Population growth and climate change are placing increasing pressure on the ability of finite water bodies to process wastewater, nutrients and other pollutants before they lose their life-supporting function. This will, in turn, increase risks to human health, economic development and ecosystems.

While we have seen decades of regulation and investment in wastewater treatment plants in OECD countries, with substantial gains for the economy, human health, environment and social values, there are still significant problems stemming from water pollution. Emerging and developing economies are yet to make such progress.

The most difficult part of the job remains to be done: addressing invisible and indirect sources of water pollution. Known as “diffuse pollution”, examples include urban storm water runoff into rivers; sulphur dioxide emissions to the air from fossil fuel combustion causing acid rain and acidification of lakes; and nutrients and pesticides washing off land into surface water or through the soil to groundwater.

Controlling diffuse sources of water pollution is particularly challenging. The reasons, as the OECD report on Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions puts it: the complexity of controlling multiple pollutants from multiple sources; their high variability in space and in time; associated management and regulation costs; and limited political acceptability of regulatory measures.

Valuable policy options are emerging in a number of countries and these deserve greater attention, adaptation, replication, and scaling up. In Korea, the government has set periodic phosphorus and dissolved oxygen reduction targets and has assigned pollution load limits using water quality modelling. Denmark and Norway have implemented pesticide taxes to control the toxicity of pesticides used. In the United Kingdom, a novel Government Support Package was developed to attract private financiers and reduce insurance liabilities to deliver the Thames Tideway Tunnel project – a major construction project to intercept and treat London’s sewer overflows. The Lake Taupo nitrogen cap and trade scheme in New Zealand is a policy that gives farmers the ability to buy and sell their established nutrient allocations without going over the overall catchment limit. In Germany, the water provider for Munich has established a voluntary payment scheme with local farmers to encourage the adoption of more sustainable organic low-cost farming practices and avoid a high-cost upgrade of drinking water treatment facilities.

Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters presents a risk-based policy framework that can assist policy makers and stakeholders through the myriad of decisions required to establish new, or alter existing, water quality management regimes. Central government has a critical role to play in the transition to more effective management of the risks from diffuse water pollution. This includes strong over-arching regulatory frameworks, stakeholder engagement, and money allocated to initiate experimental projects. In doing so, government sends the right signals to local authorities, stakeholders and investors, and minimises the cost of water quality management for society as a whole.

If we are serious about cutting water pollution, many other sectoral policy frameworks need to be aligned. For example, policies that support agriculture production, fossil fuel use and irrigation can lead to harmful and costly impacts to water quality.

Improving water quality is a critical element of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, fulfilling an essential role in reducing poverty and disease and promoting sustainable growth. Without significant attention to this invisible and growing threat, the future deterioration of water quality poses a major risk to freshwater ecosystems and the people that depend on them. To pretend otherwise would be to sell the citizens of the world – and the environment – down the river.

Useful links

To learn more, join the OECD Green Talks: LIVE on “Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions to Diffuse Pollution”, 13:00 CEST, 6 April 2017. Register today to join the livestream.

Access the report Diffuse Pollution, Degraded Waters: Emerging Policy Solutions

Read the OECD Council Recommendation on Water.

For more information on OECD’s work on water, see:



Addressing the imbalance between investment protection and people protection: Making globalisation work for all

14 March 2017

Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

We are facing a backlash against globalisation. This has gone hand in hand with a push back against investment treaties and trade agreements: just watch the election campaigns and the downfall of TTIP and TPP negotiations.

Nowadays, at the OECD many policymakers talk about “Making globalisation work for all”. If we really want to achieve this, policymakers have to take another critical look at the following.

A number of people have argued that investment policy today is marked by an imbalance between investor rights and investor responsibilities. I would frame it slightly differently.

We have developed investment protection of foreign investment because of states with failing policies and inadequate legal systems to safeguard investor rights. In regions where courts are dysfunctional, corrupt, politically biased or incompetent, foreign investors want extraterritorial protection. Fair point.

A related issue is that some people are victims of foreign economic activities. They also lack protection and remedy because of the exact same reasons: failing policies and weak legal systems. However, they do not have access to extraterritorial protection of their rights. So there is a fundamental asymmetry between investment protection and people protection. There is hard protection of investments and soft protection of people. Why do we protect investments with hard law and protect people with soft law? We have no credible answers.

This imbalance is fuelling two trends: a declining support for investment protection, which even undermines trade policy in general and free trade agreements in particular, and on the other hand societal and political pressures towards mandatory legislation on responsible business conduct, such as the recent due diligence law in France and the modern slavery act in the UK. It has also led to discussions in the UN on a binding treaty on business and human rights.

This topic will not disappear from the agenda. The imbalance will haunt policymakers for decades.

There should be at least two responses in my view: first, strengthening access to remedy for people, for example by strengthening the National Contact Points for responsible business conduct under the OECD Guidelines, and second, making investment protection more responsible. The inclusion of aspirational provisions on corporate social responsibility and cooperation in this field will not do the trick. It will only lead to accusations of “greenwashing” investment treaties.

Are there feasible options? Yes there are. We have seen recent precedents to make investment protection more responsible. Not all of them are easy or without controversy, but worth exploring.

One option is to exclude sectors that are considered as not responsible. There is a precedent for this approach: the TPP exemption of tobacco products from protection. This is controversial and the question remains whether this the way forward: will the coal sector be excluded in the future too?

A second option could include a provision ensuring that only those investors that comply with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are assured protection under such a treaty. This would be very complex from a procedural point of view, but not impossible.

A third option, which is more easily conceivable, is to exclude protection for investments that are linked to corruption and egregious human rights violations. This would be nothing more than “codifying” the “clean hands doctrine” that is already accepted by several arbitration tribunals. In the cases Metal-Tech Ltd v the Republic of Uzbekistan and World Duty Free Company Limited v The Republic of Kenya (2006) the tribunal excluded jurisdiction because of corruption related to the investment.[1]

A fourth feasible option worth exploring is to include a provision that specifies that material breaches of the OECD Guidelines – for example severe human rights violations  –  are taken into account by a tribunal when deciding on the merits of a claim or on potential damages awarded.

Of course these ideas are controversial and complex. It takes investment policymakers and treaty negotiators out of their comfort zone. As a former investment negotiator myself it even makes me uneasy, but we have to explore these options further. This is not impossible: precedents are available. Doing so requires political will and action is urgent. Why? Because we must respond to the backlash against investment and trade policy and make globalisation work for all.

Useful links

OECD Conference on investment treaties: The quest for balance between investor protection and governments’ right to regulate 14 March 2016, Paris

The growing pains of investment treaties OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Insights


[1] Metal-Tech Ltd v Republic of Uzbekistan (2013):  para110 iii ‘clean hands doctrine’165 &166; 236,237; 243; 372; World Duty Free Company Limited v The Republic of Kenya (2006):


Women in the Judiciary: What solutions to advance gender-responsive and gender-diverse justice systems?

10 March 2017
by Guest author

Towards Gender Equality Before the Law. Agenda

Kate Brooks, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

In recent decades, the number of women in the judiciary has significantly increased worldwide. In many countries around half of law students are women, and 2014 data shows that women in OECD countries make up more than 54% of professional judges. But women are still vastly underrepresented in top-ranking judicial positions including on High Court benches and other senior roles in the legal profession. What are the obstacles to women’s legal leadership? How can we overcome them?

In 2015 the UK’s only female Supreme Court judge, Baroness Hale, criticised all-male appointments. Hale has been a strong advocate of improving diversity, questioning whether an element of positive discrimination may eventually be needed to redress gender imbalance. Increasing gender balance on high court benches helps to preserve the legitimacy of the courts as representative of the societies that they serve and enables courts to understand the real-world implications of their rulings. Enhancing gender diversity in the justice system helps maintain public confidence, reduces barriers to women’s access to justice, such as stigma associated with reporting violence and abuse, and ensures a more balanced approach to enforcing the law. A higher presence of women jurists is vital to ensuring the implementation and safeguarding of equality rights. Courts that operate free of gender bias and other forms of discriminatory practices can be powerful drivers of social change.

The under-representation of women in high-level courts partly relates to horizontal gender segregation in the judiciary in OECD countries. Usually, women tend to be better represented in family and other first-instance courts, resulting in fewer women being promoted into upper courts. On average, women hold 45.9% of Presidencies in Courts of First Instance, 28% in Courts of Second Instance, and 18.6% in Supreme Courts (CEPEJ 2016).

The barriers faced by women in the judiciary are similar to those encountered in other areas of public life. In addition to challenges in balancing work/life commitments, persisting gender stereotypes, lack of development opportunities and gender bias in promotions; stringent requirements for judicial appointments and selection methods tend to impede women from becoming top judges.

Since women are often successful at gaining entry into the legal profession but progress slowly into senior posts, re-visiting the corporate culture and working conditions, and introducing mentorship schemes are necessary considerations. Regardless of government policies, leadership and independent monitoring of outcomes are essential components to ensure a more diverse judiciary.

Note: Data not available for Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States‌
Source: European judicial systems Efficiency and quality of justice, CEPEJ STUDIES No. 23 (Edition 2016, 2014 data)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life provides a range of options to enable equal access to leadership opportunities- including in the judiciary. It includes measures to strengthen institutional capacities for effective governance and the mainstreaming of gender equality across all policy areas. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

On March 10 high-level government officials and non-governmental experts will share their experiences and views on how countries can better respond to the needs of women and girls by linking gender equality perspectives with improved access to justice. The event is open to the public.

Useful links

OECD Event on Gender Equality before the Law

 Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Women in Public Life; Gender, Law and Policy in the Middle East and North Africa

Female breadwinners sweep the crumbs, too

9 March 2017
by Guest author

Valerie Frey and Lucy Hulett, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

It’s 11:00 on Saturday morning. Both you and your partner had exhausting weeks at work, and so far the day has been spent preparing and cleaning up breakfast, wrangling children out of pyjamas and into real clothes, and running to the store for yogurt and bananas. Your kids are finally playing quietly with Lego bricks in the living room. At last, a break!

Do you:

(a) Relax on the couch with an iPad?
(b) Go tidy up the bedrooms?
(c) Gather laundry to toss a quick load in the washing machine?
(d) Start meal prep for the week ahead?

If you answered b, c, or d, odds are good that you’re a woman. But don’t just take the word of two working parents. Survey data tell us so.

In every OECD country, and indeed throughout the world, women do more unpaid housework and childcare than men. Norwegians nearly equally share unpaid work, but women there still do thirty additional minutes of childcare and chores than men every day. In countries like Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Turkey, women do more than three times as much unpaid work as their partners. Recent OECD research finds that Mexican women spend especially long hours on childcare and chores, spending over six hours each day, on average, while men spend fewer than two. Inequality in unpaid care work is even worse in developing countries.

Women do most of the unpaid childcare and housework in the OECD
Proportion and total minutes of unpaid labour per day carried out by men and women, select OECD countries

Source: Chapter 1 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)

This unpaid work burden takes its toll. Women are less likely to engage in the labour force when they put in long hours cooking, cleaning, and caring for kids. When women do work, they’re more likely to work part-time and earn less than their male counterparts. This reflects some women’s preferences to stay home after becoming parents, but it also reflects deep-seated gender norms, stereotypes, and sometimes discrimination on the part of employers, who may anticipate that women are less committed to their jobs.

Less time on housework means more time for paid work

Source: Chapter 4 in Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017).

Young couples may start out sharing laundry duties, but gender gaps in unpaid work widen when men and women become parents. Childbirth represents an important milestone, as it is the time when many couples revert to more “traditional” roles: mothers are more likely to opt out of the workforce or reduce their hours to care for kids, while fathers are more likely to be employed, across OECD countries, than men without children. The gender gap in the employment rate between men and childless women is a relatively small 4.8 percentage points, on average, across the OECD. This gap more than quadruples, to nearly 23 percentage points, when comparing men to women with at least one child under age 14.

An old-fashioned economist might claim, “Ah, but this is a natural and efficient division of labour – women and men specialise in household and market tasks!” This argument may have made sense fifty years ago, when many men’s education and earning potential outpaced women’s, but that is no longer the case. In most OECD countries, young women now have higher levels of education than men. And while the gender wage gap is relatively small in young adulthood, it widens around childbearing age as the so-called “motherhood penalty” takes effect.

Even when women earn more than their spouses, they still do the majority of unpaid housework and care. Theorists point to this as evidence that gender norms outweigh economic efficiency as high-earning women do more housework to conform to gender norms at home, if not in the labour market.

Unpaid work is unbalanced even in couples where the woman earns a higher income
Minutes spent in unpaid work, per day, according to women’s income relative to their partner’s income

Source: Chapter 5 in Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnerships in Families (OECD, 2017).

But there is hope. Policymakers, employers, and families are starting to take action.

Governments increasingly recognise the importance of couples equally sharing childcare and chores. About two-thirds of OECD countries now offer paid paternity leave around childbirth. A growing number of countries reserve (or award “bonus”) days for fathers within parental leave schemes. As a new OECD report details, Germany went even further by introducing the Parental Allowance Plus (ElterngeldPlus) and Partnership Bonus (Partnerschaftsbonus), which provide financial incentives for both parents working part-time and sharing caregiving when children are young. Other countries, including Australia, Portugal, and Slovenia, have run awareness campaigns to promote men’s work-life balance and equal sharing at home.

Workplace policies matter, too. Many employers now offer flexible work options and care-related leave, but workplace cultures often stigmatise fathers who take up such benefits. These measures must be accompanied by employers’ normalisation of men’s leave-taking and by better efforts to evaluate employees based on actual output, rather than “face time” on the job. Hours are a poor proxy for performance and typically disadvantage women.

Of course, policies can only go so far in promoting equality at home if gender stereotypes persist in society. Although fathers’ leave-taking and working part-time are steps in the right direction, they will likely produce only slow changes in unpaid work behaviour.

So how do we keep our daughters from making the dough and sweeping the breadcrumbs?

Perhaps the most important step is to teach your sons to clean and teach your daughters not to. Early gender socialisation, at school and at home, has long-lasting effects. A strong predictor of an adult’s behaviours and expectations is their parents. Across countries, adult children tend to mimic their mothers’ and fathers’ division of paid and unpaid labour.  Children with working mothers expect women to work outside the home, and children with dads who do housework expect that, too. By “dropping the ball” and encouraging their partners to pick up the slack, mothers can relax on the couch safe in the knowledge that they are doing their bit to encourage gender equality in future generations.

Useful Links

OECD Gender Data Portal

Dare to Share: Germany’s Experience Promoting Equal Partnership in Families (OECD, 2017)

Building an Inclusive Mexico: Policies and Good Governance for Gender Equality (OECD, 2017)

Statistical Insights: Large inequalities in longevity by gender and education in OECD countries

9 March 2017
by Guest author

OECD Statistics Directorate

Click for more Statistical Insights

While differences in average longevity, or life expectancy, between countries are well-documented, inequalities in longevity within countries are less well-understood and are not fully comparable beyond a handful of European countries. A recent OECD working paper (Murtin et al., 2017) fills this gap by analysing inequalities in longevity by education and gender in 23 OECD countries in 2011.

Measures of inequalities in longevity show that, on average, the gap in life expectancy between high and low-educated people is equal to 8 years for men and 5 years for women at the age of 25 years; and  3.5 years for men and 2.5 years for women at the age of 65. Cardio-vascular diseases, the primary cause of death for the over 65s, are the primary cause of mortality inequality between the high and low-education elderly.

Key findings

Figure 1 shows the longevity gaps between high and low-educated people at the age of 25 and 65. At age 25, life expectancy is 48.9 years for men with low education, 52.6 years for those with medium education and 56.6 years for those with high education. The corresponding figures for women are 55.5 years, 58.3 years and 60.1 years respectively.

Longevity gaps differ markedly across countries. High-educated 25 year-old men for example can expect to live more than 11 years longer than their low-educated counterparts in Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, while the gap is  less than  5 years in Portugal, Turkey, Italy, New Zealand and Mexico. In the case of women, inequalities in life expectancy are relatively small in Austria, Israel, Portugal and Italy, but amount to over 6 years in Latvia, Poland, Belgium and Chile.

Large inequalities in longevity by education persist even at older ages. At 65 years, life expectancy for men, on average in the OECD, is 15.8 years for those with low education, 17.1 for those with medium education and 19.2 years for those with high education. The corresponding figures for women are 19.6, 20.8 and 21.9 years. In relative terms, i.e. expressed as a share of the remaining lifespan, gaps in longevity are larger at 65 than at 25.

While differences in average life span (i.e. longevity or life expectancy) between groups of education and gender are large, this masks wider differences in life span within groups when other factors, such as genetics and exposure to risk factors are taken into account. Indeed, combined, education and gender, only account for around 10% of the total variation in lifespan.

Breaking down mortality rates (measured as the probability of death in a given year) of people aged between 65 and 89 years by causes of death (circulatory causes such as heart failure, neoplasms or cancer, external causes such as accidents, and other causes) reveals that circulatory problems are the leading cause of death for both gender and education groups (Figure 2). Indeed they account for about 40% of total mortality, with neoplasms and other causes of death accounting for between 25% and 30%. Circulatory problems are slightly more prevalent among the low-educated, for both men and women.

Focusing on low-educated older men, circulatory problems are the most frequent cause of death in high-mortality countries such as Latvia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, where they account for around half of all deaths, as compared to around one third of deaths in Canada (28%), the United Kingdom (30%), Norway (37%) and Turkey (31%). Conversely, other causes of death are relatively more prevalent in low-mortality countries.

Circulatory problems are also the main factor explaining the mortality gap between education groups at older age. For elderly people, circulatory diseases contribute to 41% of the difference in mortality rates between low and high-educated men and 49% between low and high educated women.

Addressing the risk factors underlying circulatory diseases, in particular smoking, seems as an efficient way of reducing both average mortality rates and inequalities in longevity across education groups. According to Mackenbach (2016), smoking accounts for up to half of the observed inequalities in mortality rates in some European countries; also, while its contribution to inequalities in longevity has decreased in most countries for men, it has increased among women.

 The measure explained

Longevity is statistically defined as the average number of years remaining at a given age. It is calculated as the mean length of life of a hypothetical cohort assumed to be exposed since starting age until death of all their members to the mortality rates observed at a given year. Mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths in a particular population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit of time.

Estimates of life expectancy by education are drawn from data compiled in different ways in different countries. Two main approaches (study design) can be distinguished:

  1. A “cross-sectional’ (unlinked) design implies that information on the socio-economic characteristic of the deceased is drawn directly from death certificates, as reported by relatives or public officials, while population numbers for the same population categories (the denominator of mortality rates) are drawn from the most recent population censuses. An obvious drawback of this “unlinked” design, which is still used by most countries reviewed in the accompanying OECD working paper, is that it can only be implemented when death certificates include information on the occupation and education of the deceased. In addition, even when this information is included in death certificates, it may be affected by (large) recording errors;
  2. A “linked design” implies that socio-economic information on the deceased is retrieved by individual data linkage to the most recent population census or administrative register records. While both types of data are used in this study the “linked approach” is generally associated with higher quality data. Beyond these differences, a number of data treatments are implemented to correct for statistical biases and anomalies that may arise when calculating mortality rates based on a small number of deceased with specific age, gender and education characteristics.

The measure of inequalities in longevity described above have two specific features that may affect cross-country comparisons: first, life expectancy is disproportionately affected by mortality rates at very young ages compared to mortality rates at older ages; second, measures of life expectancy by education are also affected by the fact that distributions of education vary across countries and time. Alternative measures of inequalities in longevity have been examined, and they all show very large correlations across countries. In other terms, accounting for differences in the size of the various educational groups or using average mortality rates rather than life expectancy measures, does not change the assessment of countries’ rankings significantly. There are also significant cross-country differences between these measures of inequality in longevity and more traditional measures of inequality in, for example, income: longevity inequality are lowest in Italy, where income inequality is relatively high, and highest in many Eastern European countries, where income inequality is relatively low.

Where to find the underlying data

The underlying data can be found online at the following address:

Useful links

Mackenbach, J.P. (2016), Health Inequalities in Europe, Erasmus University Publishing, Rotterdam

Murtin, F., Mackenbach, J.P., Jasilionis, D. and M. Mira d’Ercole  (2017), “Inequalities in Longevity by Education in OECD Countries: Insights from New OECD Estimates”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, 2017/2, OECD Publishing, Paris .


Gender-balance in Parliaments: An indispensable condition for more democratic and sustainable societies

8 March 2017
by Guest author

Kate Brooks and Eleonore Komai, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life is unique and innovative as it covers executives but also parliaments and judiciaries with clear, timely and actionable guidelines. It represents an important commitment of member and partner countries that wish to join the OECD community towards the realisation of a whole-of-government approach for more gender-sensitive and inclusive public institutions. Notably, it calls on its Adherents to “consider measures to achieve gender balanced representation in decision making positions in public life by encouraging greater participation of women in government at all levels, as well as in parliaments, judiciaries and other public institutions”.

Women’s representation in parliaments remains a global issue. On average in 2016, women constituted 23% of parliamentarians over both upper and lower houses combined, with the Pacific, Arab States and Asia having the lowest representation (16.4%, 18.2%, and 19.2% respectively)[1]. However, it must be noted that many countries in these regions have made substantial progress over the past ten years.

Numbers do matter. Parliaments are powerful political institutions where most policies are voted on. They shape important aspects of people’s social, political and economic present and future lives. Parliaments should thus reflect the perspectives and interests of society in all its diversity. A truly inclusive society would have a truly inclusive legislature.

Amongst OECD countries, women’s representation in lower houses and unicameral legislatures is heterogeneous both in terms of percentage and progress. While Iceland reached 47.6% of female parliamentarians in 2016 (39.7% in 2013), some countries such as Chile lag behind with women’s parliamentarians accounting for 15.8% in 2016. In addition, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, New-Zealand, Italy, Austria, Luxembourg, France and Greece have experienced a drop in women’s representation from 2013 to 2016.

For young women, adolescents and little girls to aspire to leadership roles in public life, they need to see women leaders. Specific measures, such as quotas, have been implemented to tackle the issue of gender balance in parliaments. Quotas aim to ensure that women represent at least a critical minority. They can take the form of reserved seats, legal candidate quotas or political party quotas and can be legislated or voluntary[2]. 10 of the 35 OECD countries reported having implemented legislated quotas in 2016. Effectiveness largely depends on context.

Share of female parliamentarians in OECD countries, 2013 and 2016
Percentage of women holding seats in lower houses and unicameral legislatures

Data is for 1st December 2016 and 1st December 2013. Bars in light blue represent countries with legislated quotas in 2016
Source: Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) PARLINE database, Quota Project

It is important to point out that gender balance in parliaments, as an important step towards gender equality, is not sufficient in itself. Gender balance does not ensure equal participation or equal access to leadership and decision-making roles among others.

Barriers to women’s equal representation and access to political life – be they structural, functional or cultural – find commonalities among countries but are also specific to local settings. Strategies and efforts to tackle gender inequality within parliaments can start with global strategies and international commitments, but need to be supported by concrete measures and continuously adapted to specific realities and experiences. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

Useful links

International Women’s Day at the OECD:

Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law

OECD work on Gender equality

Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.



Gender equality in West Africa: Actions speak louder than words

8 March 2017

Julia Wanjiru, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

Respect of the fundamental rights of women and girls remains a serious, sometimes life-threatening, concern in many developing countries. Several decades of gender debates, special events and development goals dedicated to the empowerment of women, add up to only modest improvements on the ground.

Let’s look at a few examples from West Africa.

Child marriage. Seven West African countries rank among the top 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. In Niger, three out of four girls marry before their 18th birthdays, contributing to the fact that Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world (7 children per woman in child-bearing age). Nigeria is among the top 20 countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriages, with 1.2 million married girls. By depriving its girls of the chance to develop their potential, the region is collectively losing a huge amount of human capital.

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C remains a widespread practice in West Africa, even though its prevalence varies considerably from one country to the next—ranging from 2% in Niger to 97% in Guinea. Many initiatives are working against this practice and some countries have passed laws to formally forbid female circumcision (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, etc.). However, law enforcement has trouble cracking down on these deeply rooted traditions and mentalities. According to WHO estimates, more than 3 million additional girls worldwide are cut each year—mostly by elderly women.

Educational gaps. Huge strides have been made in getting more girls into schools, but when it comes to assessing educational outcomes, the results are much less impressive. The net school attendance rate for girls from 2011-2014 was about 50% for the poorest performing countries like Chad, Mali and Niger. These countries also have the lowest literacy rates for girls (15% in Niger and 34% in Mali—far below sub-Saharan Africa’s 2015 average of 69%). The gender gap is progressively closing, but no country in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary education.[1] The most persistent barriers to girls’ education are: early marriage and early motherhood, traditional seclusion practices, the favouring of boys when it comes to family investment in education and the gendered division of household labour.

Ensuring equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys in Africa will take time, massive educational efforts and profound changes to existing ways of thinking. Those changes might be supported by more exposure to external influences; the diaspora and media sources like TV series and movies can help accelerate these changes.

The legal frameworks, policies and strategies are hard to find, but they do exist. Since the mid-2000s, almost every West African country has created a national gender policy or strategy. Regional organisations like ECOWAS, UEMOA, CILSS and the African Union have all adopted gender policies and they are increasingly mainstreaming gender issues in different policy sectors. But, in practice, gender is still considered mostly as an afterthought and gender policies are often not implemented effectively. Ministries in charge of gender issues have usually very large portfolios— ranging from youth, sports, CSO, employment and drug control. They are often understaffed, under-funded and not taken seriously. Budgets allocated to gender-specific issues within sectoral policies remain tiny; disaggregated gender data is missing. To make some decisive progress, strong political will must come from the very top level, including from key ministries such as economic affairs, budget and strategic planning.

The weak implementation of gender-focused policies is, however, not just a funding problem. There are many other obstacles and risk factors: strong individual and institutional resistance to gender initiatives, deep-rooted cultural issues and traditions, general under-representation of women in the public sphere, illiteracy, etc.

Much of the gender debate seems to take place in a bubble, with gender experts mostly preaching to the choir. We cannot make headway on gender equality by having discussions that are mostly made up of women and gender experts. Moreover, women’s affairs are often associated with charities and are promoted for example, by African first ladies and many other famous female ambassadors—sometimes very successfully but a large number of initiatives are also instrumentalised for political ends. How many of their male counterparts are active in promoting gender equality? As long as the gender debate remains solely a women’s issue, it won’t move far.

It should not be forgotten, that gender is not just a matter of achieving equal opportunities for women and men. Gender equality is an economic development issue. Here again, the message is not new, but it still has not been sufficiently brought to the attention of all policy-makers. How can a country voluntarily deprive itself of the human potential of half of its population? The economic cost is enormous.

To reduce gender inequality more effectively and achieve sustainable development, we need to get more men on board. We also need to invest more in the education of girls and boys. Everywhere in the world, education has been a key driver of gender equality. An educated girl is better equipped to defend her interests and choose the life she wants. Education can also raise boys’ awareness of gender issues and make them less prone to seeing gender equity as a loss of privileges for themselves. Men could become true allies in building a society based on equal rights and opportunities.

But education alone is not enough. How many educated women and men still face pressure from their communities to conform? Girls’ education, beyond a certain level, is still seen by many as a “waste of time.” A 30-year old unmarried woman is not a “respected woman,” no matter how successful she might be in her professional life; she is seen as having failed to fulfil her “true mission” to be a wife and mother.

In order to change these deeply rooted prejudices, more effort must be made to target opinion leaders and traditional chiefs who set the agendas within their communities. The chiefs could play a much more active role in helping their communities move away from gender stereotypes, or at least, to not deepen them.  For example, Muhammadu Sanusi II, the Emir of Kano in northern Nigeria (population around 15 million), just announced a proposal to outlaw forced marriage, make domestic violence illegal, and impose minimum financial conditions upon men who want to marry a second wife. The proposed law does not exactly promote gender equality, but Kano state is taking a concrete step forward in a way that will make a difference in the lives of millions of women and children.

This year, International Women’s Day will again be marked by declarations of good intentions and statements—including mine. What should count, though, is not the number of commitments we make, but the true progress we achieve on the ground. At the end of the day, African girls and women will need to tell their own stories, fight for their own rights and work to achieve equal representation. If men were ready to help them, things would move much faster.

Useful links

Maps & Facts:

Women in parliament: Senegal ranks 7th worldwide but West African women remain under-represented

Au Sahel, au-delà de la Journée des droits des femmes, des fillettes interdites d’enfance  [Girls robbed of their childhood in the Sahel] Laurent Bossard, Director, SWAC Secretariat in Le Monde

International Women’s Day at the OECD:

Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law

OECD work on gender

[1] UNESCO (2015): Gender and EFA 2000-2015: achievements and challenges,