ECOSOC high level segment ministerial roundtable breakfast on "Decent work and women’s economic empowerment: Good policy and practice"

Demonstrating their strong joint support for gender equality at work, the Director General of the ILO, Mr Juan Somavia, and the Executive Director of UN Women, Ms Michele Bachelet, co-sponsored the Ministerial Roundtable Breakfast on “Decent work and women’s economic empowerment: Good policy and practice” on 6 July 2012.

Over 80 Ministers, Heads of Delegations and representatives of agencies attending ECOSOC heard of good policies and practices from a distinguished panel comprising: H. E. Dr Naomi Shaban Minister for Gender, Children and Social Development, Kenya, H.E. Mr Heikki Holmas Minister for Development Cooperation, Norway, H.E. Dr A.K Abdul Momen Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, H.E. Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti Permanent Representative of Brazil to the UN and H.E. Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of India to the UN.

The lively exchanges from the floor and detailed information from panelists provided a large number of successful policies, practices and programmes that have, even in the face of the ongoing jobs crisis: (i) generated large scale employment for women; (ii) enhanced productive capacity, labour and social protections, especially for women in the informal economy; and (iii) increased women’s representation in leadership positions in public economic decision making, and within employers’ and workers’ organizations.

The Director General of the ILO, recalling the MOU signed between UN Women and ILO and the seriousness with which the UN system as a whole looked to eliminating in gender inequalities through tools such as the newly adopted System-Wide Action Plan on Gender Equality (SWAP), highlighted some highly successful policies and deliverables: the participatory gender audit, women’s entrepreneurship for development tools (WED), the Maternity Protection Resource Package, gender-responsive youth employment policies, the normative framework exemplified by the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No 189, for which an Office-wide implementation plan was underway). Aware that gender inequalities persist across all regions, the bottom line for the ILO is that decent work without sex discrimination counts: investing in women helps not only the individual, but also their families, enterprises, local economies and creates more equitable societies.

The Executive Director of UN Women recalled the challenges in this 21st century globalised world: women endure the glass ceiling and the leaky pipe syndrome in formal employment and career paths, and from the point of view of informal work have consistently less access than men to assets, inputs and services, in particular to rural employment opportunities. Increasing women’s access to and control over land and other productive assets, education, financial services, technology and secure urban and rural employment would boost their productivity, increase agricultural output, and food security and lead to sustainable economic growth and development. Increased education for girls and young women was of course an important first step, but required sustained active policies that generate more jobs and secure employment for women, so that their potential in the world of work is not squandered. Women’s economic empowerment is not just about higher income levels, but about choices, women’s ability to make and take decisions and have control over their lives. Women’s economic empowerment should be seen by policy leaders and decision-makers as a win-win. Closing the gender gap is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

H.E. Dr A.K Abdul Momen stressed his country’s good policies and programmes, commencing with the overall political commitment of the current female Prime Minister to empowering people. Education, training, skills for employability and decent jobs for women and men had paid off, and there were eight million Bangladeshi migrants working abroad. Having a conducive environment was a crucial element of gender equality. The Government, through the National Women’s Policy, implemented a quota system so that institutional discrimination against women would not persist. The supply of free equipment to female schoolchildren and the stipend to encourage young women to continue in education rather than enter into early marriages worked well. The policy creating National Information Centres across the country required gender parity in management structures. Interest free loans for women entrepreneurs was another successful strategy to empower women. Gender responsive budgeting ensured that all government entities were accountable for taking gender concerns into account.

According to H.E. Mr Heikki Holmas, the Norwegian seriousness in promoting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the past had led to Norway’s current status as a wealthy nation, as they tapped into the potential of the whole population. Richness was built on rights, not the other way around. Successful Norway policies included the work/family balance leaves and facilities (e.g. affording kindergarden places as a right for all children up to their first birthday, and the take-it-or-lose-it parental leave for men). Trade unions supported gender equality in the national policy debate and in bilateral negotiations. Norway has legislation that mandates publically registered companies to have at least 40% representation of each sex in company boards, leading to increasing women’s participation in corporate decision-making. But Norway continues to have gender pay gaps. Norway’s research attributed some structural causes to the large number of women compared to men in part-time work, and the fact that most women worked in the public sector, where remuneration was lower than the private sector.

H. E. Dr Naomi Shaban agreed that having a favourable policy framework was key and cited the Kenyan 2010 Constitution (in particular its affirmative action clause) as the basis for empowering women. International treaties, when translated into domestic legal jurisdictions, also played a role. She listed a number of successful practical measures: collateral-free loans to individual women and to women’s groups from the Women’s Enterprise Fund; gender mainstreaming to boost women’s income earning opportunities in the many national funds, such as the National Development Fund for People with Disabilities and the Youth Enterprises Fund. Kenya was one of the many countries offering mobile banking and financial services to rural areas, which had witnessed a major take-up by women.

The Brazilian experience, outlined by H.E. Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, ranged from political commitment from the current, first, female President, to the large number of female parliamentarians (voted to office without a quota system), to gender analysis and tracking in the National Plan for Employment And Decent Work, right down to dedicated social protection programmes (Bolsa Familia; Mi casa mi familia) which had acted as counter-cyclical stabilizers during the economic downturn. Brazil had weathered the crisis better than many nations due to its commitment to empowering women as wage earners, service providers and consumers.

India’s successes, in the opinion of H.E. Ambassador Manjeev Singh Puri, rested on women being represented in politics, in government and in the private sector, where, for example, the banking and financial sectors had seen a major increase of female employment and of services offered to female consumers. The statutory quota for women in government posts had met its aim of greater equality for women, and the places reserved for women (33% by law but about 50% in practice) in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS ) had promoted women’s participation in the workforce by setting equal wages for men and women; allowing childcare facilities to be provided on worksites; and requiring provision of work close to participants’ homes; women also have to be included in the monitoring and management of the scheme, giving them voice as part of the empowerment approach.

During the debate the point was made that women’s economic empowerment could not be achieved without respecting women’s reproductive rights, as girls having babies at a very young age and being forced into early marriage could not become productive actors in the economy. Ignoring this challenge meant that there would be no hope for sustainable development.

The Executive Director of UN Women noted that the exchanges showed how more work was needed to measure dependent care work which could be better shared between men and women, and with State support such as occurred in Chile. The post-2015 agenda required a strong gender equality message with both mainstreaming and women-specific targets and indicators for measuring achievements regarding inequality and gender.

The ILO Director General concluded that the various national experiences shared a number of key elements for success:

  • political leadership by women for women and men (at all levels);
  • policies that create a conducive legal and practical framework for economic start-ups for women especially young women;
  • international labour standards that breathe life into national law and practice on non-discrimination, and well crafted constitutional and statutory rights;
  • programmes such as Bolsa Familia and the MGNREGS which maintain purchasing power through social protection floors;
  • innovative financial services and credit facilities specifically targeting women;
  • State-provided facilities to re-balance the division of labour in households;
  • Giving voice to women whose injustices are often unheard or unheeded – including through representative organisation for labour and business; and
  • Gender responsive budgets and resource allocations that that recognize the overall importance to development of women’s economic empowerment.