NOT WHAT IT SEEMS

Nicaragua, the world’s unlikely champion of gender equality

Nicaragua, one of the world’s poorest countries, has made the most progress in narrowing its gender gap over the past 10 years, according to a World Economic Forum report released Nov. 19. The group’s “gender gap index” for the country rose to 78% in 2015 from 66% in 2006, as women there scored big gains in health, education and political representation. The measure for total equality is 100%.

But that doesn’t mean Nicaraguan women are doing great. In fact, when compared with their counterparts around the world, they are doing pretty poorly.

That’s because the index measures women’s position compared to men in their country, not to women in other places, as the BBC pointed out (link in Spanish) when Nicaragua scored highly last year. So even being at the top of the ranking isn’t a sign that women are doing well.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. Most of the poor live in remote areas, where they have little access to basic services.

For example, Nicaragua ranks at the top for gender equality in educational attainment, but still lags far behind many other countries in educational attainment overall. Nearly half of Nicaraguan girls are enrolled in secondary education, above the 42% rate for Nicaraguan boys, but well below other developing countries such as the Philippines, Kenya and Belize. Only 18% of Nicaraguan women attend university or other types of tertiary education, and 17% don’t know how to read and write.

Nicaragua also gets the highest gender-equality score for health and survival. But 150 women die of pregnancy-related issues for every 100,000 live births, according to the World Bank, putting Nicaragua well into the worst half of the world in maternal mortality.

One area in which Nicaraguan women are objectively better off than their counterparts in more developed countries is in politics. Women make up more than 40% of lawmakers, senior officials and managers, a much higher rate than France’s 33% and Japan’s 9%. Still, Nicaraguan women haven’t gained some of the rights their counterparts have secured. The country is one of the few in the world that doesn’t allow abortion.

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