UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet delivered the opening address at the Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment organized jointly by UN Women and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), on 4 October 2011.
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Thank you, Minister Oda and Ms. Biggs. We are delighted to join CIDA in hosting this global conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all and say how much I look forward to hearing your ideas and expertise in addressing this critical and very timely issue.
This conference is taking place at a time when the world is facing simultaneous economic, food and energy crises. In countries worldwide, women are taking on more and more work, paid and unpaid, to cushion the impact on families and communities, with little to show for it in terms of economic security or personal well-being. To change this downward spiral it is vital to empower women economically. This meeting is an important step in fostering dialogue and action among expert analysts, policymakers, practitioners and innovators to make this a reality.
The themes of this conference are also very much linked to UN Women’s Strategic Plan for 2011–2013, which addresses (i) women’s legal status and rights; (ii) women’s economic opportunities; and (iii) women’s voice, inclusion, participation and leadership.
Empowering women economically is an essential part of realizing rights. The Beijing Platform for Action commits governments to “pursue and implement sound and stable macroeconomic and sectoral policies that are designed and monitored with the full and equal participation of women, encourage broad-based sustained economic growth, address the structural causes of poverty and are geared towards eradicating poverty and reducing gender-based inequality.”
Member States have reaffirmed these commitments in successive high level meetings on the MDGs, on Financing for Development and on Aid Effectiveness. At the MDG Summit in 2010 they stated that “Women are agents of development,” and stressed that “investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity, efficiency and sustained economic growth.”
Empowering women economically also makes good economic sense. The World Bank and others have shown that increasing women’s access to quality education, good jobs, land and other resources contributes to inclusive growth, sustainable development, and long-term prosperity.
Despite these realities, progress on women’s economic empowerment has been slow and uneven across regions and countries. Limited access to land and property, housing, credit, technology, markets and extension services has undermined women’s livelihoods and restricted their ability to benefit from growth they help to generate.
The structural constraints to women’s economic empowerment have been largely neglected in macroeconomic analyses and policies, which have tended to focus somewhat narrowly on economic growth. Recently, however, the ongoing impact of the global financial and economic crisis has generated calls across a wide spectrum of policy makers for a reorientation of macroeconomic policy towards employment-led growth — calls now echoed by mainstream financial institutions such as the IMF. Feminist economists especially have also reiterated the need to align this goal across monetary, fiscal, and trade policies.
Gender equality cannot continue to be an after-thought in trade policies and negotiations. There must be concrete measures in trade agreements, policies, and strategies and programmes to address the constraints women face in empowering themselves economically.
Although women have increased their share of employment globally, in many parts of the world they are disproportionately concentrated in informal sectors. Such work is generally precarious, poorly paid and not covered by labour legislation or social protection. Occupational segregation and wage gaps persist.
While women are found in a range of entrepreneurial activities, many tend to be concentrated in micro, small and medium businesses as a result of their responsibilities for unpaid work, limits on mobility, lack of collateral and limited financial skills. We need to create a climate that is conducive to increasing the number of women entrepreneurs and the size of their businesses by giving them greater access to financial instruments, providing training and advisory services, facilitating networking and information-sharing,
Women play a critical role at each stage of the value chain; from production of raw materials to marketing, distribution and support to the final consumer, women are, workers, managers, entrepreneurs marketing agents or as consumers. With less access to capital or training however, they are typically located at the low end of these chains. For example, a global company may choose to buy paprika from local women farmers in Africa, and then ship it abroad for processing to paprika powder. Training in paprika powder processing techniques and provision of technology would enable these women to move up the value chain and realize the benefits of the value added.
The private sector has a critical role to play. Firms should be encouraged to revisit their full value chain to identify where women are located, and what kind of support they might need to be able to add value to their products. They can invest in and support ICT solutions such as mobile phones and computerized services for example, that enable rural women to access market opportunities and business networks.
Financial institutions also have a role. Building on the success of microfinance in empowering poor women, they should explore how they can increase women’s access to a range of financial services, including savings instruments, remittance transfer services, credit and insurance. This is particularly important for women-owned small- and medium-size enterprises, as they transition from microfinance to mainstream commercial banks.
UN Women is partnering with the UN Global Compact to promote the Women’s Empowerment Principles which offer a seven-step blueprint to empower women in the workplace and the community. This initiative is bringing to business the strong case of how much women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses contribute to the economy — reinforcing the realization among leading firms that empowering women is essential to their growth, competitiveness and profits.
One particular concern is the unequal distribution between women and men of paid and unpaid work. Recognizing this the MDG Summit outcome committed to investing in infrastructure and labour-saving technologies, especially in rural areas, reducing women’s burden of domestic activities, enabling girls to attend school and women to pursue paid work opportunities.
Currently, 2.7 billion people rely on open fires and traditional cooking stoves to provide food and earn a living. Some of you here have already partnered with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to create a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. The Alliance’s 100 by ’20 goal calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient cooking stoves and fuels by 2020.
Finally, while women have an increasing presence in public life, they remain significantly underrepresented in decision-making position, particularly in economic decision-making. It is widely recognized that women bring critical perspectives and priorities, and a diversity of skills and competencies, which makes policy and budgetary decision-making more responsive to the needs and priorities of all groups. Together I am sure we can ways to significantly increase women’s leadership and participation in economic decision-making bodies at the highest levels.
So I encourage you all to share your insights, experiences, good practice examples and lessons learned from your own work. We urgently need to identify practical actions for accelerating women’s economic empowerment to ensure that women genuinely participate in and benefit from growth and development.
UN Women stands ready to carry forward your recommendations to accelerate women’s economic empowerment, and to transform the words on paper into bold action to make gender equality a shared and living reality.
I wish you very productive discussions and an excellent outcome.