We need to wage war on the economic marginalisation of women

With the World Economic Forum estimating it will take 170 years to close the economic gender gap, what can be done to unlock more opportunities for women in Africa and across the globe?


When my uncle Jack died from AIDS, he left nine orphans. It was 1997, at the peak of the epidemic.

In the two decades since, comprehensive action around research, prevention, treatment, advocacy, and legal protections, underpinned by substantial investments has seen the global rate of incidence of HIV nearly halve.

Across the world, poor children are at higher risk of dying. Unless we urgently get more money into the hands of women, who spend more on the wellbeing of their families, children will continue to die. The economic marginalisation of women, too, is a lingering epidemic; and it threatens the growth and stability of the global economy. Unlike AIDS, this epidemic remains at its peak; funding remains flat and indicators deteriorate. Where is the comprehensive action?

The call for gender equality is far from new. The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was set up in 1946 and was followed by the proclamation of the United Nations Decade for Women from 1976 to 1985. In 1977 Gloria Scott took up her position as the World Bank Group’s first adviser on women in development. And 1979 saw the declaration of the “Women’s Bill of Rights”, aka the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Fast forward to 1995, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Hillary Clinton, then the US first lady, declared that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”. There was no surprise that advancing women’s rights was a central theme of the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration.

The year 2010 brought a shiny new UN entity focused on accelerating progress towards gender equality, UN Women. Not to be outdone, the G20 delivered a pledge to reduce the gap in labour-force participation followed in 2015 by the establishment of Women 20 (W20) as an official engagement group.

The objective of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. This goal cannot be achieved without the economic empowerment of women. Forty years after Gloria Scott joined the World Bank, as he launched the first HighLevel panel on women’s economic empowerment, none other than UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon declared himself a feminist.

Meanwhile, evidence on the importance of economically empowering women continues to pile up. What better source to quote than the IMF, bastion of market-based ideologies? The IMF tells us that not only would fully harnessing the skills and talents of women increase overall economic productivity; greater control of household resources would increase growth prospects as a result of increased spend on children, and empowered women will lead to crucial changes in policy choices.

The need for change

If all this made an apparent difference to the state of the world’s women, perhaps the rhetoric wouldn’t seem so tedious to those of us who live it. But it doesn’t. Not only do critical gender gaps persist, they are in fact widening. In 2016 the World Economic Forum estimated that it would take 170 years to achieve economic parity, an increase of 63 years from the previous year.

That means that women will not have equal labour force participation or wage equality in my lifetime, and not even in my daughter’s lifetime. I am the woman at the recent march wearing the sign: “I can’t believe I am still protesting this shit.”

Official development assistance (ODA) has steadily risen from US$36bn in 1960 to US$143bn in 2016. However, an inconsequential 2% of aid invested in economic and development sectors has a principle focus of gender equality. Why is the development community not practising what it preaches?

Women’s economic empowerment languishes in a black hole: in the gap between the familiarity of gender equality investments in the social sectors and the comfort of economic development investments in the “hard core” economic and productive sectors.

Pressed by short election cycles, policymakers face real political exigencies deciding how much and where taxpayers’ money should go, and demonstrating results. There is increasing pressure to deliver short-term results in rigid frameworks. But we know these projects do not deliver transformative change. Transformation will require longer-term, flexible and catalytic interventions that unleash the entrepreneurial energy that can trounce deep-rooted structural causes of gender inequality.

Development professionals should help policymakers by simplifying the message. Promoting economic growth for poor people is good for the global economy.

The 10 poorest countries in 2016 were in Africa. Yet the energy and dynamism of the African woman entrepreneur is striking. Can you contemplate the sheer effort it takes to live with the bad roads, unreliable electricity, heat, dust and bias every day? I see thousands of women living it and contributing to the “Africa rising” narrative. Yet the pallid plot persists of the poor woman as victim to be saved. And with that plot comes the copy and paste solutions that are neither sustainable nor appropriate.

What next? Empower these women and get out of the way. The ticking clock to 2030 calls for radical new models that maximise the impact of ODA investments, and fast.

ODA alone cannot, and should not, meet the cost of achieving the SDGs estimated to run in to trillions of dollars. Every dollar of ODA spend will have to work hard for visibility of impact. This means delivering through multi-stakeholder partnerships that bring additional sources of funding to the table.

Investing in the right places

It also means less spend on interventions that result in incremental improvements and more investment in innovative business models that channel the energy and investment of the millions of people most directly involved. Overall, ODA investment is better spent on developing and rolling out specialist content, frameworks, delivery channels, and policy change that have the potential to bring about large-scale and sustainable transformation.

To move these ideas forward, there is a need to tear down silos and balance investment across the sectors supported to deliver mutually reinforcing interventions. Eliminating the scourge of gender-based economic inequality should be a shared responsibility for people working on gender, in trade and in economic development. Moreover, they should be equipped, incentivised and held accountable for making adequate investments into women’s economic empowerment.

Measures of success must be premised not only on short-term results to keep things on track and satisfy the demands of the taxpayer, but should include a credible timeline for future results that correspond to the effort required to do away with entrenched systemic barriers.

Building on success

Many have made valiant efforts to foster women’s economic empowerment. Now it is time to support the recommendation of the UN secretary general’s HighLevel Panel: invest in scaling up existing promising initiatives. I humbly submit the International Trade Centre’s SheTrades initiative as holding sufficient promise to warrant a glance.

Helen Odhiambo, from Kenya, is one of the million women that ITC and its partners, including the private sector, are working with to connect to markets. Since joining SheTrades, her company has drawn the attention of investors who are helping her to commercialise her digital healthcare service delivery platform that sustainable economic growth is impossible without investment in women’s economic empowerment.

aims to make care services more accessible and affordable to ordinary Kenyans. So is Laetitia Kayitesire, a coffee farmer from Rwanda, who has been able to improve the quality of her coffee and secure a better price by exporting to Switzerland. Meanwhile, in Komodo Island, Indonesia, Shana Fatina has connected with new partners to grow her diving adventure company.

Time to act

It is time to wage a war on the epidemic that is the marginalisation of women in the economy. Money in the hands of women reduces the likelihood of household poverty and contributes to a range of positive outcomes including better childhood health and nutrition, and increased education of girls.

It is time to put the money where the mouth is and make the necessary investment to unlock economic opportunities for women that will deliver rewards for generations to come.

Vanessa Erogbogbo heads the International Trade Centre’s Women and Trade programme. The views expressed are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Trade Centre.

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