Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The global economy isn’t working for women. Here’s what world leaders must do

The World Bank has counted 104 countries that have laws that prevent women from working certain jobs, such as in manufacturing and construction

The World Bank has counted 104 countries that have laws that prevent women from working certain jobs, such as in manufacturing and construction Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Winnie Byanyima
Undersecretary-General of the United Nations; Executive Director, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)
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Gender Inequality

These are restless, exciting and frightening times to be a woman. Every day brings a rousing success or a crushing setback in our fight for equal rights.

In May, after decades of women’s rights activism, Ireland voted by a landslide to repeal the country’s ban on abortions. Meanwhile, a recent crackdown in Saudi Arabia on women’s rights activists resulted in several arrests. The campaigners’ whereabouts and the charges against them are still unknown.

There are many fronts in this fight. One on which I have focused my efforts is the global economic model that is rigged against women. Let’s look at the facts.

Firstly, by some conservative estimates, women contribute around $10 trillion - yes, trillion - to the economy in unpaid care and domestic work. For free. Our economies would crash without it, yet we rarely see it discussed by policymakers.

Secondly, the World Bank counted 104 countries that have laws preventing women from working certain jobs, such as in manufacturing and construction, because of outdated, paternalistic ideas of what a woman can and should do.

Thirdly, at Oxfam’s last check, there were around 2,043 billionaires worldwide. Nine out of 10 were men. At current rates of change, it will take 217 years to close the gap in pay and employment opportunities between women and men. Economic inequality between women and men translates into power inequality. How can we expect an equal world for women when the purse strings are so clearly held by men?

In other words, economic inequality is absolutely a feminist issue.

The prosperity of our global economy relies on the ground-up exploitation of women and girls - and we all keep the system in place as long as we uphold its discriminatory norms.

What’s the result? Girls are left to fetch water and firewood as their brothers go to school. Women cleaning hotel rooms are subjected to sexual harassment. This is closer to home than we think: the women farmers growing the food we eat don’t have enough food for their own families, and the women stitching the clothes we wear work in hot, crowded garment factories, earning poverty-level wages with scant rights.

And the vast majority of the wealth they create are going to a few super-rich men.

Have you read?

The G7 leaders are meeting this week in Quebec. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty more flattering rhetoric about women’s equality. But I won’t be satisfied until I see some action.

I welcome the Canadian government’s initiative to create the first-ever Gender Equality Advisory Council for the G7, which I was honoured to be invited to join. They dared us to push for change. We have proposed a set of concrete solutions to them.

I refuse to accept the idea that we can simply shoehorn women into a global economy that is exploiting them, and then celebrate it as women’s economic empowerment. The G7, as a gathering of most of the world’s richest nations, must now responsibly redesign their economies to work for women, and support a far broader shift in the global economy.

Consider jobs. Rather than helping to make more billionaires richer, the G7 should be working together to ensure decent and safe jobs for all by setting a living wage, so people can live a decent life. Most of the world’s women workers need jobs like these.

Take paid parental leave, and investing in universal, public, free and quality early childhood education and care services. The G7 could supercharge a broader shift to recognize, reduce, and redistribute the unpaid care work with which women and girls are bogged down.

Or take progressive taxation and spending. Making rich individuals and corporations pay their fair share, and using those revenues to boost public schools, healthcare and other social services is a powerful one-two punch against inequality and for women’s rights. When women and girls can access quality education, and healthcare including sexual and reproductive health services, they have greater freedom and choices over their own lives.

This may seem obvious. But we also know which areas require far greater attention. While there is global momentum to change sexist laws, the business of changing ideas and attitudes - the informal laws that dictate what women can and can’t do, like having to care in the home or being unable to own land – is far harder. We must accelerate change here.

Where to start? Women’s rights organizations and movements are already on the frontlines doing this bold work. We must support them and learn from them. The G7 controls a huge portion of aid dollars. By adopting a feminist approach to aid, and by injecting resources into women’s organizations – as Canada is committing to do – it could make breakthroughs in the lives of poor women around the world.

I present to you the blueprint of an economy that works for women. This type of thinking is supported by hard evidence - what’s known as "gender budgeting" at the heart of public policy. Countries from Rwanda to Sweden to Canada are taking strong steps forward. In February, Canada delivered a budget focused on advancing women’s equality. The G7 countries must follow its example, and lock in gender analysis through legislation.

We can build a future that’s far fairer to our daughters and granddaughters. Let’s not just say we’re feminists, but commit to living those principles.

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