Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vision of Women's Future

Unconcern and deficient resources attached to the issue of women’s economic empowerment, together with unbalance between macro-economic and development policies imply that exact economic empowerment for women remains obscure. In an increasingly globalized and interdependent economy, economic empowerment of women is an issue that needs total commitment and a pull for action.

Substantially and essentially, economic empowerment is central to gender equality. The empowerment of women and the poverty alleviation is an issue that has been enormously neglected. Even though the existence of universal recognition of the value of women’s economic empowerment, expressed through such agreements as the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Millennium Development Goals, advancement of most objectives has been slow and in some cases even been gone wrong way up.

A study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) featured prominently that no country has yet managed to eliminate the gap between women and men’s economic participation. Those countries that performed well in the WEF’s empowerment index generally acted upon better in women’s educational attainment, health and well being and political empowerment rather than in economic participation and opportunities.

Even as economic participation and opportunities are all essential components of women’s overall empowerment, they are only pieces of a puzzle that must include economic empowerment for the portrait to be whole. Regardless of meaningful above-board policy changes together with a many-sided thriving programs and explicit development programs, the all-in-all situation has not improved in the same way as visualized by such agreements as the Beijing Platform for Action, which in 1995 adopted the most clinker-built obligation to put forward women’s empowerment with a across-the-board inventory of recommendations and policy changes that, to a large extent, has yet not been executed.

Consequently and contrary to reason, imbalance prevails in parliaments where a small number of women hold parliamentary seats; women earn less than 78% of the wages that men earn for the same work; poor women represent two thirds of the world’s poor people; the labor force of the informal economy is overwhelmingly female; women provide up to 70% of agricultural labor and produce over 90% of the world’s food; women occupy a paltry percentage of managerial positions; and last but not the least, women constitute two thirds of the world’s illiterate.

There is all the more need for a commitment for research and training activities on women’s economic empowerment focus on the integration of gender perspectives and women’s economic issues in global economic policy and decision-making; a review and analysis of economic programs and projects in order to identify and disseminate good practices; and the establishment of a true measure of women’s economic empowerment that includes data on the gender impacts of economic policies and development projects.

Economic policies are seldom, if ever, gender neutral. Many prominent economists have conducted research that recognize and comment on the often negative gender impacts that are produced by structural adjustment and economic stabilization policies.

Macro-economic policies are formulated and implemented in areas such as trade, fiscal management, debt financing, social welfare and other sectors without a comprehensive assessment of their potential gender impacts.

While some micro-credit and micro-enterprise schemes have been a great deal doing well in lifting individual women and families out of poverty – en bloc they have contributed little in improving end-to-end economic status of women or addressing the gender impacts of existing economic policies. This discrimination of poor women into the micro-credit sector, though it may provide them with more income, does not necessarily address the essential gender inequalities that downgrade women to long-established pursuits such as cooking, dish-washing, sewing, laundering or other chores.

Most micro-enterprise initiatives are actually simple augmentations of the domestic domains. This calls for an urgent need to thoroughly appraise micro-finance and other initiatives thereby making them instrumental in enhancing women’s economic status together with their role within the household, community and their impact on her new function as wage earner.

Such appraisal will determine a record of booming experiences and best practices on which to base future initiatives. This will also ascertain gaps not focused on by these initiatives that would guide future policy advocacy and gender mainstreaming ventures.

The establishment of good practices is a key component of the collection, systematization and dissemination of knowledge on women’s economic empowerment, which is still seriously lacking at all policy levels.

Women’s empowerment has three elements, vis-à-vis, resources, agency and achievements. Determining empowerment is useful because it helps to focus an otherwise insubstantial and somewhat ambiguous concept. This prompts us to questions we must ask from ourselves. These questions are, a) how do we define empowerment? a) who defines empowerment? c) how do we know when women are empowered? d) who gets to decide when women are empowered?

Another crucial component is the creation of a knowledge base on women’s economic empowerment. This is about the establishment of a concrete measure of that empowerment. Ideally, this would use existing and newly created data and indicators to provide a baseline from which to measure improvements and changes in women’s economic status. The World Economic Forum’s report has created an index using a variety of indicators to measure women’s economic and political empowerment and their health and well being in 58 countries. This can serve as a useful reference.

Through and through, the issues of measurement for empowerment are often questionable and conflict-ridden. It is essential that the concept be brought down to earth so that policy-makers and development practitioners have concrete goals to strive for. Measuring empowerment includes developing a gendered statistical system and promoting the collection of sex-disaggregated data, the identification and addressing of gaps in information, including on the informal sector, credit, savings and unpaid community and household work.

We can scrutinize the full range of women’s economic contribution and identify areas for future research and action, which will determine the vision of women’s future.