As things stand, women’s economic empowerment is unlikely to be achieved

Abigail Hunt Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

Today the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) launches a new report on women’s economic empowerment. As part of our Her Series one of its authors, Abigail Hunt, shares with us her thoughts on the challenges women face and the enablers we should be focusing on.

Let’s start with some good news.

The convening of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment is a step in the right direction. Bringing together the heads of the World Bank, IMF, ILO, UN Women, as well as academic, political, civil society and business leaders, the Panel aims to galvanise progress on a scale never seen before.

This will be vital if SDG targets around women’s economic empowerment have any hope of being met by 2030. As things stand, achieving this agenda in real terms is a long way off.

Deciding to act

To get anywhere, change makers have to genuinely want to make progress. Take, for example, governments.

Political commitment is one of the cornerstones to achieving women’s economic empowerment. This is equally true within global, national and local institutions, as decision-making to secure the commitments needed takes place across multiple levels.

So how does that work in practice?

New ILO figures estimate there are 67 million domestic workers globally, and 80% are women. In many cases, domestic workers face deplorable conditions. This matters because dangerous or stigmatised work, or that with low pay and job insecurity, can be far from ’empowering’.

New ILO figures estimate there are 67 million domestic workers globally, and 80% are women.

The ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No.189) calls for affording domestic workers standard protections on pay, hours, health and insurance. But since its creation in 2011 it has been ratified by only 22 countries.

This suggests a distinct lack of commitment by governments to concretely support women’s economic empowerment. Yet when governments are dedicated, progress is evident.

The Philippines ratified Convention No. 189 in September 2012. The Philippines Domestic Workers Act then became law in January 2013. This mandates both minimum age and wage, daily and weekly rest periods and access to employer-funded social security and health insurance.

This is the kind of leap in the right direction that is needed to improve the empowerment potential of the work carried out by millions of women – yet requires significant political commitment to get the ball rolling.

So once that commitment’s there – what next?

Breaking down single-issue silos

Narrow, siloed approaches are often the norm. Women’s economic empowerment support often focuses on one area, such as increasing women’s financial literacy, or job-specific training.

However, an evidence review found that the most effective support to women’s economic empowerment spans multiple domains. ODI’s new report explores this, and includes an example of a promising savings-led microfinance programme in Nepal. Not only did women’s financial inclusion improve, but savings group campaigns increased community recognition of girls’ education and led to reductions in domestic violence – both crucial ‘building blocks’ of women’s economic empowerment.

These kind of integrated development programmes have an important role, particularly in reaching the many women at risk of being ‘left behind’.

Let’s look at this from another angle.

Ensuring women’s access to better jobs is crucial for women’s economic empowerment. Education is a solid stepping stone towards this. Encouragingly, great strides have been made in girls’ educational attainment in recent years. Yet increasing women’s individual capabilities through education will have limited impact if decent, well-remunerated employment is scarce.

Evidence suggests that in most developing countries young men with higher education will find jobs ahead of young women in highly skilled sectors, where jobs are few. Gender discrimination is a key reason limiting women’s engagement in jobs they want – even when they are qualified.

Therefore, efforts to increase women’s decent work must address education, labour markets, and discrimination – to name just a few.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. But our evidence suggests the most successful strategies to enable women’s economic empowerment work across multiple spheres – which means breaking down silos.

It can’t be done without financial investment

Women’s economic empowerment doesn’t come for free. It requires investment, which evidence suggests can have longer-term returns for women, families and economies.

Women’s economic empowerment doesn’t come for free. It requires investment

Reassuringly, there is an increasing knowledge base on which development programmes are most cost-efficient. Yet new OECD data shows that only 2% of official development assistance to the economic and productive sectors was principally focused on gender equality in 2013-2014, revealing a severe underinvestment in programmes to support women’s economic empowerment. Progress that lives up to the hype will require significantly improved financial resourcing.

However, it’s not just about what donors can do. Governments have one of the most crucial roles to play. Again, the evidence is there. Recent research confirms that sustained investment of just 2% of GDP in 7 countries into care services would address care burdens limiting women’s economic opportunities, create over 21 million jobs and spur economic growth.

Our new report digs into what this looks like in practice. By providing cheap, reliable childcare, Mexico’s Estancias programme supports women to work when they want to. And the centres themselves have created around 46,400 jobs – mostly taken by women.

Crucially, we clearly identified the key to Estancias’ success. Estancias is considered a government priority, which has helped ensure adequate funding to enable its growth.

This goes to show that progress happens when those who say they are committed put their money where their mouths are.

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