United Nations Places Women’s Economic Empowerment at the Forefront of Human Development

(Photo Source: Meaghan Glennan)

By Jason Rizzo

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer 

Helen Clark has led the United Nations Development Programme since 2009 and has been named as the UN’s “most powerful woman” by Forbes Magazine. In a recent speech, Mrs. Clark highlighted gender inequality as a major challenge facing women’s economic advancement in developing nations today. “In the world of work, there continue to be significant inequalities between women and men in many societies, including in levels of formal participation in the labor market, income, entrepreneurship, access to credit, and inheritance rights and land ownership,” she said in a Keynote speech hosted by a local women’s entrepreneur association in Turkey.

Globally, women earn 24 percent less than men and account for only a quarter of senior management positions. Overall, formal labor force participation is also highly skewed toward men. Last year, 47 percent of working age women were employed, compared with 72 percent of men. When considering unpaid work, however, such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, and water or fuel collection common in developing countries, women are three times more likely to be in charge of such activities.

What are the causes of these economic inequalities facing women today? There are many, which span political, cultural, and social contexts. In many developing countries throughout the world, women are less likely to have access to high-quality education, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. Similarly, access to technology such as a basic Internet connection is more likely to favor men than women. The latest figures from India show that only 39 percent of women are Internet users, compared with 61 percent of men.

Regulatory roadblocks in several countries, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa (link here to Angelina K’s article from March 24 on right to land in SSA), prevent women from owning or inheriting land, or having access to reliable sources of credit. This stifles innovation, makes women less productive (even though they work longer hours), and creates significant barriers to female entrepreneurship.

Entrenched cultural and social norms that assign women disproportionately high degrees of unpaid care work means they are less freely available to devote time to educational activities or paid work. Having little or no immediate access to clean water or reliable energy sources compounds this problem among women in low-income, rural settings. UNDP’s latest Human Development Report shows that in low human development countries, men enjoy 30 percent more leisure time than women.

In enacting its Agenda 2030 and new Sustainable Development Goals (known as SDGs), the United Nations has identified gender equality as both a fundamental right and a significant catalyst for advancing overall human development. Women who benefit from enhanced economic opportunities not only enjoy higher income and contribute to a more robust economy, they also generate a number of “multiplier effects” that interlink other key developmental focus areas.

Women who partake in paid work, for example, have a greater say in household spending decisions, in which they tend to place stronger financial emphasis on children’s health and education. When coupled with higher educational attainment, greater female participation in the workforce also leads to reductions in fertility rates, helping to address problems of high demographic pressure and resource struggles in many low-income countries. Women’s capacity to be actively involved in civil society and political processes also stand to benefit with increased economic empowerment, which in turn contributes to enhance social cohesion and greater political freedoms among women.

In short, women’s economic empowerment is a key component to poverty reduction and human development. In respecting the rights of women and girls to have equal access to education and employment, governments and civil society organizations can contribute to ending gender-based discrimination through enacting informed and targeted policies. For Mrs. Clark and the United Nations division under her lead, “there can be no sustainable development if the tangible and intangible barriers which hold back half the population are not addressed. Women are powerful agents of change – and empowering women benefits whole societies.”