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Business Commentary To build gender equality, focus on economic freedom for women in places where it has been restricted

Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute.

The Trudeau government has made gender equality, at home and abroad, a priority. The Prime Minister raised the issue at the recent G7 Summit in France, and according to reports, the issue will be central to the government’s re-election campaign in the fall.

In May, Maryam Monsef, the federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality, announced that Ottawa would invest $300-million in developing countries and would partner with government, philanthropic, non-profit and private-sector organizations to help increase gender equality.

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It’s unclear at the moment the types of programs this initiative will produce. But if the government is serious about improving the lives of women around the world, I have a suggestion: Invest in programs focused on increasing the economic freedom of women.

Economic freedom means you are largely in control of your own major life choices. You can choose for yourself what type of occupation to pursue, where to live, where to travel, whether or not you’d like to open your own business, with whom you’d like to enter into contracts and where to store or invest the income you earn.

For decades, economists have found evidence that economic freedom is a key determinant of whether a society is prosperous or not. Economically free societies tend to have wealthier, healthier and happier populations. And yet, as important as economic freedom is for human flourishing, in much of the world women don’t enjoy the same economic freedom as men.

In many countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, women cannot own or inherit property, open a bank account, enter into a contract, choose where to live or what occupation to pursue. Women with no (or limited) economic freedom have little ability to control their own destinies, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

Twenty countries in the world require, by law, that women obey their husbands or another male guardian. This effectively means that women in these countries must seek permission from a man before legally pursuing employment opportunities. Thirty-nine countries have unequal inheritance laws, favouring sons over daughters.

In other parts of the world, including parts of Eastern Europe and South America, women’s economic freedom is limited in more subtle ways. For example, as noted in my recent study published by the Fraser Institute, 106 countries have at least one labour regulation that restricts the ability of women to work in certain occupations in the same way as men. Thirty-one countries have laws restricting women from working the same nighttime hours as men. Forty-nine countries forbid women from working in jobs deemed hazardous, and 47 countries restrict women from working in arduous occupations. Twenty-one countries have laws that restrict women from working in jobs that are not “morally or socially appropriate.”

So what can be done?

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Thankfully, reforms that increase the economic freedom of women are often low-opportunity cost endeavours. Achieving gender equality under the law simply requires countries to remove certain laws from the books (as an added bonus, countries will save money that would have been spent enforcing these laws).

Moreover, allowing women the same level of economic freedom as men does not just benefit the female portion of any country’s population, it benefits everyone. A 2014 study by Cuberes and Teiniger estimated that a country loses out on 14 per cent to 15.5 per cent of GDP by not granting women the same levels of economic freedom as men. For a country such as Saudi Arabia, where limits on women’s economic freedom are the most severe in the world, this estimated annual cost is slightly more than $7,000 a person.

If the Trudeau government wants to invest in programs that promote gender equality across the globe, it should focus on expanding the economic freedom of women in places where it’s limited, often severely.

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