Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Nothing for Women Without Women: Raising Voices for Change

By Hanna Hayden, UNA-NCA Director of Membership and Programs

Found on Page 4 of the Final Report on Women’s Economic Empowerment
On April 12th, the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security hosted a conversation with Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women.

Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka, one of the most influential African woman leaders and a global champion for women and girls, discussed some of the leading barriers for women’s equality in an evolving international landscape. These include issues of gender equality in both the public and private spheres, and major factors both driving and stalling progress towards women’s economic empowerment. She also addressed thoughts on effective actions for change.

Dr. Jeni Klugman, Adjunct Lecturer of International Development at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and Managing Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security facilitated the conversation.

The direction of this conversation was influenced by the 61st Commission on the Status of Women in March 2017 that focused on “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work,” and the final report of the High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, also released in March. Both the report, and the two weeks of CSW establish that significant progress has in fact been made since the 1995 Beijing Declaration, and gender equality is more present in international dialogue, but significant work remains.

The importance of continued work on gender equality is not just evidenced as it stands on its own as Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the successful inclusion and equality of women is central to each SDG. We cannot fight poverty, end hunger, or achieve peace and just societies without the inclusion of women. Reduced inequalities, good health, and economic growth require the engagement and success of women. If we are to make significant progress on the 2030 Agenda, we must use a gender lens, a gender-sensitive approach, to all of the work that we do.

Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed the universality of the SDGs and our approach to gender equity: “We don’t need to change women and girls to fit the world, we need to change the world to recognize that women and girls exist.”

Of course progress has been made since Beijing, but just because we’re talking about it doesn’t mean that we have achieved gender equality. The illusion of progress is and must be broken by the data that shine a light on continued inequalities. Progress towards gender equality must also remain universal, a key foundation of the SDGs. There is no way to ignore that only two countries don’t guarantee paid maternity leave – the US and Papua Guinea.

Other shameful facts on gender inequality include:
  • 155 countries have one or more discriminatory laws, preventing women from doing certain jobs or fulfilling contracts, lacking wage protections, containing discriminatory property, inheritance laws, and family laws.
  • Only 22.8 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995 [UNWomen].
  • Globally, there are 38 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of June 2016, including 4 chambers with no women at all [UNWomen].

So what can we do? Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka and Dr. Klugman highlighted some actions and efforts we can make and some that have already seen positive contributions.

The use of data for name-and-shame campaigns has had a great deal of success, because no country benefits from being portrayed negatively on the world stage. Some countries have been pushed to action by reports demonstrating high rights of poverty and low rates of education for women and girls.

In July 2017, in a High Level Political Forum on Eradicating Poverty and Promoting Prosperity in a Changing World, 40 countries will voluntarily self-report on their progress on the SDGs, particularly on goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, and 14.

This work to enact change and develop protections on a legal level must simultaneously include a bottom-up approach that works to change the culture. While Malawi has banned the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting, the culture still supports it and the practice continues. Legal measures and protections must be in place at the government level, and the culture of discriminatory practices must be addressed on the local level with native leaders.

To make the most progress, we must talk to boys and girls about the importance of gender equality. Even when seemingly presented with the same opportunities, cultural norms and expectations get in the way of a young girl’s ability to succeed. Without including boys in the conversation, there is no interruption of the cycle of sexism and discriminatory practices that diminish women.

Globally, financial inclusion for women sits around 56% where in some countries it is in the single digits. The last few decades have shown the expansion and success of microcredit, and the prevalence of mobile networks significantly advances women’s economic empowerment. Access to digital technology, particularly through growing mobile banking, allows women more access to and control over their own finances, and spending for the household.

This is also a great opportunity for businesses and the private sector to invest in the informal economy. Companies that make even a small investment in women have seen a massive impact on their communities. In South Africa alone 23,000 women have been brought out of poverty through a strategic partnership between UN Women and Coca-Cola. Coca Cola’s endeavor to raise 5 million women out of poverty by 2020 (5By20) shows how the private sector can advance their bottom line while supporting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

Perhaps one of the largest areas where governments and the private sector need to step up is providing increased education and opportunities for women to move from the informal to the formal sector. Women make up the bulk of the informal economy and unpaid work, which is why women are the face of poverty. There’s a huge need for more training education, skill building, and entry points to renter the labor force. For women to achieve economic independence, we need to give second chances and alternative opportunities to women that face significant obstacles to financial freedom. For women who were married as children, have incomplete or no education, that left work to have children, who missed chances for promotions or where they were otherwise seen as a liability, governments and the private sector have the unique opportunity and responsibility to bring women back into the fold of the formal economy. According to UN Women, “If women played an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as US $28 trillion, or 26 per cent, could be added to the global annual Gross Domestic Product by 2025.”

It’s not just about employing women, but providing the infrastructure to support women through education, legal protections, economic empowerment, and political inclusion. There is established and growing evidence that women's leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. Women demonstrate political leadership by working across party lines through parliamentary women's caucuses - even in the most politically combative environments - and by championing issues of gender equality, such as the elimination of gender-based violence, parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reform [UNWomen].

It is unfair to put the burden of gender equality on those women who do rise to positions of power. We also need men that are in power to put forth a gender sensitive agenda and hold space for conversations of gender equality. Achieving gender equality requires that boys and men demonstrate zero tolerance for sexism. If men removed the glass, women wouldn't have to break through it.

At the end of the day, women are resilient, and will continue to organize for equality. Organizations of women in the informal sectors have the power (and have show that power) to influence governments and companies to work for change. It is the organization and agency of resilient women like Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka that raise the voice and plight of women worldwide. 


  1. Thank you for posting this Hanna Hayden. There is so much good work being done, and sooo much more to do. Seeing articles like this informs and empowers, and in so doing advances gender equality.


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