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Three ways to change the economy to make it work for women

Posted by Francesca Rhodes Gender Policy Adviser

2nd Mar 2017

A garment factory in Vietnam where men and women work 12 hour days, 6 days for $1 an hour producing some of the world’s biggest fashion brands.  (Credit EleanorFarmer /Oxfam)

Women's economic empowerment is an issue that is gaining an increased amount of attention, yet it still seems to be an increasingly distant goal. Here Francesca Rhodes looks at three key changes needed to address a broken system.

Around the world, women are disadvantaged compared to men across virtually every economic measure and are more likely to live in poverty. On average they are less likely to be in paid work, and when they are, earn less in more insecure roles. The implications are huge - women in developing countries could be $9 trillion better off a year if their pay and access to paid work were the same as men's.  Many donors and governments have pledged to address this in recent years, and have championed 'women's economic empowerment' - an agenda that aims to increase the amount and quality of opportunities for women to thrive.

the global economy is failing to support gender equality

Despite these efforts, progress slowed down last year. It will now take 170 years for women to be employed at the same rates as men and have equal pay and seniority. This is 52 years longer than previous estimates. On the other hand, another global trend has been accelerating at an extremely fast pace - extreme economic inequality. Eight men now own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6bn people on the planet, and wealth is accumulating at the top whilst the incomes of the poorest are staying the same or falling. So whilst the global economy is failing to support gender equality, it has proved very good at increasing the wealth of the richest, the majority of whom are men.

This is no coincidence since traditional economic theory has always ignored gender as a factor which shapes people's opportunities, and the current economic model - neoliberalism - has pursued policies based on women's low paid and unpaid work increasing profits for others.

To start to fix this broken economic model, and make the economy work for women, Oxfam is calling for the following three changes:

1. The creation of decent work, with fair wages needs to be prioritised in policy making and by businesses.

For too many women, working long hours is not a route out of poverty and their work exposes them to harassment or violence.  In Vietnam, Oxfam has interviewed women working in garment factories who, despite working 12 hours a day, six days a week, struggle to meet their basic needs with the wages they receive. However the garment industry is one which generates large profits for some of the richest people in the world. One worker interviewed, Tham, earns less than $1 an hour. She said:

'My working hours and salary are unfair. The thing I find unfair is that with the same amount of work, my salary has decreased...We, as workers, cannot do anything to influence management. In case of urgent orders and difficulties the overtime and salary are decided by management. We only follow those decisions.'

Women's economic empowerment requires the creation of decent, quality work opportunities with fair pay, and an increase in women's decision making power. Setting and enforcing minimum wage levels to ensure workers are lifted above the poverty line, improving regulations and social protection measures such as parental leave, and addressing violence against women in the workplace are all measures which can improve the quality of work that women do.

2. Unpaid care work needs to be recognised for its value, and policies must reduce and redistribute responsibility for it.

Unpaid care work is estimated to be worth $10 trillion globally each year, but it is often not counted or acknowledged as part of the economy. Women's unequal responsibility for this work means they have less choice about how to spend their time - on work, education or leisure. In Uganda, Oxfam interviewed Florence, who described how this inequality affected her life:

'My brother-in-law's wife and I used to do most of the work. We would work a lot, just the two of us, to produce food for the entire family. There was nothing like division of labour.'

Economic policies often make this inequality worse such as austerity measures which reduce public services. There are currently 57 million unpaid workers filling in the gaps caused by inadequate healthcare provision, the majority women who have given up work to fulfil this role.

Governments and international institutions must include unpaid care work as a key component of their economic development strategies, and ensure that there is increased investment in the infrastructure, services and changes to social norms that will reduce and redistribute women's unequal share.

3. Women's voices and priorities must be heard in decisions made about the economy

In order to be equal in the economy, women need to be able to shape their own interests, and for policies to be shaped in line with their priorities. Women's collective action - in labour or social movements, is one of the most important factors in bringing about changes towards women's rights. However labour rights have often been constrained in order to keep wages low. Domestic workers, 80 percent of which are women, are one group which face particularly high challenges in organising for their rights, because they are often informally employed. In Kenya, Oxfam and partners have supported domestic workers in Nairobi to organise together. One member, Margaret explained the benefits of this:

'If these organizations are formed and employers know there is a strong organization, they wouldn't mistreat people, because they know they will be taken to the authorities. Domestic workers will be like the other workers if they are put on the same level as other jobs.'

Women' s rights organisations and movements are essential to challenging deep seated discrimination across society. However they have seen their share of donor funding fall by over half in the past five years. Providing increased and accessible funding for these organisations should be a key part of the women's economic empowerment agenda.  

Governments should also implement gender budgeting, to analyse tax and spending policies for their effect on gender equality. Supporting women's political leadership, and making government policy as accountable to the poorest as to the richest in society, will also lead to fairer policies.

Women's economic empowerment is on the agenda this year - at the Commission on the Status of Women, through the UN High Level Panel, at the G20 and the High Level Political Forum on the SDGs in July. Governments and all actors need to urgently start achieving this through building a more human economy - one which works for women and men alike, and for everyone not just the richest.

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Photo: Oxfam interviewed men and women working in a garment factory in Vietnam who work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and still struggle to get by on the $1 an hour they earn producing clothes for some of the world's biggest fashion brands.  (Credit: EleanorFarmer /Oxfam)

Blog post written by Francesca Rhodes

Gender Policy Adviser

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Francesca Rhodes