Women’s economic empowerment: a bigger picture

Chiara Capraro | Nov 13, 2016
Atsede Hayluu, aged 52, from Kebele 07, member of Sebeta self help group set up by Siiqqee
Our new Policy Manager for Women's Economic Rights, Chiara Capraro, blogs about why women’s economic empowerment needs a bigger picture approach.

A woman somewhere received a small loan to…buy a cow, set up a tea shop, open a beauty parlour. Fast forward a year or two later and she has a successful business, she can buy enough food to feed the family and is able to send her children to school. She has also repaid all her loan instalments. She is much more confident than she used to be, her husband sees her in a new light and their relationship has changed. The community also appreciates her and other women much more; they see them as fully contributing members of society. This woman, somewhere, is now economically empowered, benefitting her family and wider community.

How many times have you heard this story? Is this the true story? Is it the whole story?

Work done by women is invaluable but invisible

Women’s economic empowerment is a very complex story and often the way we tell it obscures a number of crucial facts. First of all, women are already working. Due to their assigned gender roles, women are disproportionately responsible for taking care of children, the ill and the elderly, and for doing domestic work. They fetch water and fuel, cook and clean.

Globally, on average, women spend at least 2.5 times more than men on unpaid care and domestic work, and it has been calculated that in Africa women walk collectively 40 billion hours a year to fetch water. Patriarchal norms around what constitutes valuable work ignore the contribution women make to the economy. Their work goes largely unrecognised, even though no economic activity nor social relation would be possible without it.

Secondly, because of the time they spend on unpaid care and domestic work women’s access to the labour market is different from men’s. Women tend to work less during their life time, often part time, and are disproportionally represented in low paid and precarious jobs such as domestic workers or in manufacturing for export, such as garments. Even when women bring income home, they might not be able to control it and decide how to spend it. Gender relations within the household means that often men will control all decision making.

Globally, around 47% of women are in paid employment compared to around 72% of men, with great regional variations. Those women who work do so in difficult circumstances: in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia over three quarters of women workers do not have access to living wages and social protection measures such as paid maternity and sick leave. Women also represent 43% of the workforce in agriculture but own less than 20% of land globally.

Women’s responsibilities for unpaid care and domestic work also mean they have less time available to pursue training or education, to join a trade union, to get involved in politics and ultimately for rest and leisure.

From opportunities for individual women to changing the way the economy works

Finally, the overall direction of an economy matters for individual women’s opportunity and choices. There are clear links between economic empowerment opportunities for individual women and how the broader economic works at national and international level.

One of such links is with fiscal policy, the way in which governments decide to raise and spend money through taxation and budgets. Given the low value placed on unpaid care and domestic work done by women, policy makers fail to take it into account. Public spending on critical areas for gender equality and women’s rights such as care services, water and sanitation infrastructure, services to prevent and contrast violence against women is wholly inadequate.

For example, UN Women’s analysis of selected national action plans for gender equality has shown financing gaps of up to 90%. Inadequate public spending on goods such as public transport and low carbon energy also has an impact on women’s opportunities. For example, women may not be able to take up paid employment without a reliable public transport service to use. Not only funding is inadequate but it is also subject to cuts in times of economic downturn or when government prioritised reducing deficits.

In fact, conventional economic doctrine sees spending on care services as ‘consumption’ rather than investment and does not take into account that when services are cut it is women who pick up the slack. In turn, this puts women at a disadvantage in the labour market, pushing them in low paid, precarious work. Given the fact that many countries, North and South, are implementing similar policies this creates common challenges for women globally.

Of course, macroeconomic policy can also work in favour of gender equality and set in motion a virtuous cycle. Economists have calculated that investing 1% of GDP in child and elderly care sector in South Africa, would generate double the number of jobs that the same investment in the physical infrastructure would generate. And 55% of these jobs would go to women.

Too often, our efforts on women’s economic empowerment concentrate on skills and opportunities for individual women, without looking at the bigger picture. We talk about including women in the economy, without recognising and valuing how they already contribute and ensuring the whole economy, and society, values and supports their contribution.

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