Why Women’s Economic Empowerment Matters
by Geena Whitman Research Assistant Centre for Business, Society and Global Challenges
Oxford Brookes University
“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Hilary Clinton
The world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030; one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations in 2015. Based on current trends, it would take 257 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity, despite the fact that women’s equal participation in the economy would add $28 trillion to the global economy (approximately 26% of global GDP). The movement towards women’s empowerment isn’t about strengthening women, women are already strong; they raise households, lead communities and influence change whilst still being restricted a seat at the table. Women’s empowerment is about changing the way the world perceives, and values that strength, alongside ensuring women are afforded the same opportunities and privileges that men are. Investing in women’s empowerment, more specifically, their economic empowerment, sets the world on a direct path towards gender equality, healthier households, poverty eradication and truly inclusive economic growth. Whilst economic empowerment specifically relates to a person’s ability to work to create wealth, it indirectly links in with family planning, access to schooling, and the financial inclusion and political representation of women, all factors which contribute and enable women to break the barriers barring their seat at the table.
Family planning, the ability to control and plan your fertility, represents an immense extension of human freedom, allowing women to decide freely the amount of children they want, when they want them and how they want them. Growing rates of contraceptive methods has resulted not only in improvements in health-related outcomes such as reduced maternal and infant mortality rates, but also improvements in educational and economic outcomes, particularly for girls and women. Currently, more than one in ten married or ‘in-union’ women worldwide have an unmet need for family planning (i.e. they want to stop/delay childbearing but are unable to access the correct contraception); with this being as many as one in five women in Africa. Access to family planning not only ensures women can prevent an unwanted pregnancy, it also allows couples to have smaller families and to space the gap between children more efficiently, ensuring they are less vulnerable to extreme poverty, children are healthier and better educated, and women are able to re-enter the labour market if desired. Availability of family planning also has important incentive effects, by increasing parent’s investments into girls not yet fertile, such as daughters and granddaughters, including investment in their health, education and general well-being. The more access we have to family planning, the more opportunities we are given outside of potential motherhood.
Educated women have a better chance of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and raising the living standards for their children, families and communities. Children born to literate mothers are less likely to die before the age of five than to illiterate mothers. They are more active in the formal labour market, have less children, marry at a later age, and engage more actively in civic spaces. However, less than 40% of all countries provide girls and boys with equal access to education, twice as many girls as boys will never even enter the school playground, and over two thirds of the 774 million illiterate people in the world are female. Keeping women in school keeps them away from early marriage, with girls who have completed seven years of education marrying on average, five years later than their uneducated peers. It’s no secret that the more educated a person, the higher salary they can command, with every extra year of education estimated to increase a women’s earning power by 10-20%. Educating women from a young age, keeping them in school for as long as possible and allowing them to access all breadths of academia (from social sciences to STEM) creates a society in which women are active citizens, engaged in innovation and at the forefront of decision-making processes.
Women in Work
Throughout the world, women and girls bear most of the burden of unpaid household and care-work, are more vulnerable to insecure employment and receive lower pay for the same work as men, as well as a systemic under-valuing of feminised jobs (such as caring, teaching and nursing). In the 50 countries across the world where women are more educated than men, they still earn 39% less than their male equivalent counterparts. In the UK, PWC estimates a 16.4% gender pay gap, with women disproportionately more represented in part-time precarious employment and working outside the labour market (such as in unpaid labour). UN Women estimates that 57 million people (majority being women) supply full-time, unpaid work (such as caring for elderly relatives) that fills the gaps caused by weak healthcare provision globally, in which the total net contribution of this work to the global economy is $10 trillion per year. Comparatively, the global automotive industry contributes $4 trillion to the global economy annually. Investing in ‘feminised labour’, and reversing the under-investment in social services such as nursing and childcare allows more women to present in the labour market, earn a decent living and be valued for the work they provide. It also encourages more men to enter this field of work, diversifying the labour market and moving towards gender neutrality in these sectors. Opening up access to typically male dominated fields to women provides a diversity of perspective in innovations in these areas, and provides women with equal access to the same opportunities as men are provided.
When household income is controlled by women, either through their own earning or cash transfers, a greater proportion is spent on the health, education and well-being of children. At a macro level, financial inclusion for women has a significant impact on the overall economic growth and community development, due to the productivity gains from human capital investment. Despite this, women are disproportionately more likely to be ‘unbanked’ than their male counterparts, with only 65% of women globally having access to a bank account in comparison to 72% of men (with an even larger gap being found in regions such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East). This means that women have less security around their income, are less likely to be able to accumulate savings, and have a reduced access to loans to either fund their household, or start-up their own business. Globally, women are less likely to receive capital investment than men, due to societal assumptions around women’s ability to manage money, and business. By increasing access to finance for women, by the provision of bank accounts and removing social stigmas around lending to women, you don’t just increase the amount of women starting up their own businesses, you also increase the investment going to the next generation, investments in their health, education and well-being. This investment in the future generation leads to significant productivity gains for the country on a macroeconomic level.
Despite women making up over half the global population, we make up less female heads of government than we did five years. Amongst the 193 countries worldwide, only 10 of these countries are headed by a women; New Zealand, Namibia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Estonia, Croatia, Norway, Ethiopia, Taiwan, Lithuania. Interestingly, the rate of women’s representation has increased significantly in the past two decades, rising from 11.8% representation in national parliament in 1998 to 23.5% in 2018. This still does not mean the 30 percent benchmark, often the level of representation required to achieve a ‘critical mass’. Furthermore, a recent UN Women study found that almost 50% of people globally believe that men make better political leaders – a social judgement that places an invisible barrier, and an affront to fairness and a real meritocracy. Globally, we have a real problem with women taking the lead, both in business and in parliament. The full and equitable participation of women in politics is essential to building and sustaining strong, diverse and vibrant democracies. Women’s participation results in huge gains in gender equal policies, greater responsiveness to citizen’s needs (as women tend to be more involved with the local and wider community), and increased investment in the social sectors – sectors that are globally underfunded and undervalued. This provides the global economy with a more sustainable future, ensures we have healthier and happier citizens, and means that women and men are represented equally at all levels of public and private life.
Normalising women in education, in business and in positions of power and decision-making in the public sphere helps reduce these unconscious biases and stigmas that are held in private. Women’s economic empowerment is one of the most essential tools we have to ensure sustainable and inclusive economic development and growth across the world. Investing in the power of women, in every aspect and every step of their life, means a healthier, happier and more equitable society for all.
'It began with an interview with a woman called Rashida'.
Through the eyes of a documentary maker and photographer
The Journey Rohingya women by Shafiur Rahman
NB: Shafiur's work will be exhibited in The Glass Tank during the Festival
I had no intention to document the Rohingya crisis. It all happened unexpectedly - without plans and without finance! I was in Cox’s Bazar in December of 2016 on a project unrelated to the Rohingya. I happened to be there on the 16th of December a national holiday in Bangladesh. The day is a remembrance of when, forty five years earlier, the painful liberation war of 1971 had ended. A genocide had unfolded the previous 9 months and finally the nightmare had come to an end for the Bangladeshis. Today, that day is known as “Victory Day”. I had nothing to do on that particular day, and so I decided to take a drive to see “what the fuss was about” with the Rohingya pouring in from Myanmar.
What I saw and what I heard deeply unsettled me.
Though I was born in Bangladesh, I live in Europe. I am familiar with the haunting TV news imagery of Syrian and other refugees, walking hundreds of miles, with their children in tow, along bleak roads and across borders of barbed-wire. I had been to The Jungle in Calais. I had myself filmed desperate refugees in Libyan prisons, and in Italian and Maltese detention camps. And yet in December of 2016, in the cold of Bangladesh’s winter, I was completely unprepared for what I saw and I was overwhelmed.
Naturally, as a documentary maker, I wanted to bear witness. The next month, in January 2017, I travelled to the camps again. And I have done so over two dozen times in the last 36 months! The January trip was even more shattering and transformative.
It began with an interview with a woman called Rashida. We were outside her hut of plastic sheeting and bamboo poles. It was a painful interview and in it she described the slaughter of her 12 year old daughter. She recounted how the body of the dead child had to be retrieved secretly at night and then buried quietly. Her eye was still black where one soldier had hit her. She looked distraught. Inside her hut, I met adolescent and young women who had all survived massacres and had been raped. They spoke to me on camera and they insisted they would speak without the veil.
From this group of women, I started to document the lives of six of them over a period of six months. And indeed I have remained connected with them over the last three years. During this time, all manner of personal disasters unfolded for these young women. One was trafficked. One was raped. One got married to an abusive husband. What was clear was that Bangladesh was a refuge only in name. For young refugee women, the camps are unsafe. I vividly remember the moment I asked some of them what they would like me to buy for them as a little token of thanks. I couldn’t believe the answer. They wanted a burqa. Without the burqa even going to the toilet was difficult for them.
I was beginning to despair about finding anything redemptive in my entire experience. I was beginning to think that these women will never get over the deaths of their loved ones and/or their own personal trauma. There was no therapy for them. No family support - because they were all dead. Nothing. Yet over time they showed a resilience and energy that surprised me. For the mothers in the group, I could see that the endurance and the will to survive perhaps came from their love for their children. For the unmarried young women, I can only conjecture that it came from healing together and helped in some small way by a sewing collective which promoted togetherness and gave them some hope.
When people started to learn about their suffering, they wanted to help. A sewing machine was purchased and delivered to one of the women and then another, and then several more. In time 80 women had sewing machines and they taught each other how to use them and started to make some clothes.
Their sewing provided income which gained them some amount of control over their lives. One young woman who was under pressure to marry someone not of her choosing was able to say no because she had become the breadwinner of the family.
Now something truly inspirational for anyone to witness is how these women are finding hope through creating clothes together. That these women could ever smile again after what they have lived through is difficult to believe but see for yourself.
web site: www.srdocs.net
Testimony Tailors: testimonytailors.com
In Conversation with a Youth Resilience Builder by Geena Whiteman
The Oxford Human Rights Festival is about celebrating culture, encouraging debates and discussions and highlighting the work of activists, organisations and individuals across the world in building resilience. The OxHRF has been fortunate enough to conduct interviews with young pioneers across the world, heading up their own organisations and initiatives to make positive change, boost resilience and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Over the next few days we will be posting stories of young activists, the work that they do and what resilience means to them. If you want to check out the work that their organisations do, we have attached their websites for your further information.
Name: Michael Afolami
Organization: Peace Actor Network
What challenges is your organization aiming to combat, and is this a local, national or international initiative?
We are working to create an atmosphere of lasting peace in communities, where human potential can flourish. Our work at Peace Actor Network is based on the idea that humans and their actions and activities produce resultant effects in their immediate environments. Our organization is aiming to fix attitudes that fan the embers of conflict. Recently, our organization had gathered that a community that was in a ceasefire with its warring neighboring community might resuscitate the buried disagreement. As our usual practice, we identified the kingpin of the threatening party and interviewed him. Through the interview, we established a relationship with him and built his trust in us, such that he confided in us what their intentions were, and we were able to stop the looming catastrophe. To us, what we do is making communities less fragile and strong enough to prevent the outbreak of conflict. At the national and international levels, the peculiarity and somewhat objective common characteristic of fragile states is that they are prone to conflict. This is exactly the challenge we are aiming to solve: making communities less prone to conflict. At the moment, we only have a local reach with strong vision to enlarge our network of peacebuilders throughout the nation and even beyond in a time not too long.
What does resilience mean to you, and how does your organization build the resilience of those you work with?
At our organization, we perceive conflict as the greatest threat to humanity, and that is what we are fighting against. We do not necessarily need to wait for it before we act. Instead, we take preemptive measures to stop conflict in all dimensions while also building capacity of the people to deal with it – I mean, minimize its scope and impacts – in the event that it occurs. This is what resilience means to us. In light of this, we are leveraging peace education, capacity building and community development to create a community of people that are conscious enough to shun attitudes that lead to conflict.
Which of the 17 SDGs do you think is most important for building resilience around the world, and why?
Peace, justice and strong institution. First thing to note is that a peaceful atmosphere is a prerequisite for building resilience that is sustainable. This implies that you cannot build resilience in conflict, and this is the truth: that resilience is the capacity of a people to avert conflict, violence and disaster, and their ability to manage one in its eventuality. Rather than entirely viewing peace in this regard as the absence of violence, it is important to look at peace in its positive state. Here, peace is assumed to be shaped by attitudes, institutions and structures. These attitudes, institutions and structures are embedded in a number of goals that describe, among others, the level of a community’s resilience. For instance, the political culture of a state; its levels of corruption and human capital; equity in health, education and other infrastructure; flow of information; and the acceptance of the right of others, all determine whether a state is prone to conflict, or whether it can handle one when it occurs. Justice would mean the respect for the rule of law, human rights and dignity, and these are the major drivers of resilience of a people. Judicial independence, balanced democracy, are some institutions and systems that reinforce justice. Effective governance is necessary to increase the levels of human capital, enhance free flow of information and enforce less corrupt systems across governance, media, and lifestyle. In a nutshell, building resilience depends on the people's level of right, positive attitude, and availability of strong institutions in countries and communities.
People & Planet guest blog
As I was enjoying a cigarette break from by business essay last fall I was forwarded an email from the National Autistic Society. It was about their annual Autism Uncut film festival which had just opened for submissions. For some reason I immediately felt inspired so I sat down and scribbled a rough idea for a short film and went upstairs to go on with my assignment. Of course, it got difficult for me to focus on homework so I started digging into the autism topic on the Internet.
Now, I won’t dive into the details but you can see my two and a half minute film above. If you want to find more information about autism or if you want to help, then please click on the link in the video’s description which will take you to The National Autistic Society’s page. Even though the short film didn’t the attention I was hoping for the fact that I did it made me feel like I was helping. I recently took the opportunity to get involved in the 2018 Oxford Human Rights Festival which I think is a way of contributing to various issues on a larger scale
Throughout the semester members of the student committee will take turns to write a blog. It might be about organising the Festival, it might be about something else they are doing in or away from Brookes, it might be thoughts on our theme of home. Check in regularly to find out!