Achieving women’s economic empowerment: strides and slides since historic 1995 pact

6 May 2015
ITC News

This year marks a critical point in the march towards women’s economic empowerment. It is the year in which we review progress made in the 20 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action; conclude implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and craft a new development agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is therefore a pivotal junction at which to take stock of what has worked and where we can improve to ensure we embed targets in the SDGs to guide us in the realization of women’s economic empowerment from now until 2030.

A scorecard on progress is contained in this year’s report of the UN Secretary- General to the ommission on the Status of Women, which constitutes a review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Drawing on data provided by 164 UN member states, the report identifies four major trends in government action to address gender inequalities since 1995:

  • Increasing gender equality in employment through law and practice,
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  • Supporting women farmers and other women living in rural areas,
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  • Addressing the needs of self-employed women and women entrepreneurs, and
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  • Enhancing women’s voice in economic governance.


Key findings and initiatives

While women are joining the workforce in increasing numbers in many countries, their wages are between 70% and 90% of men’s wages in most cases. At the current rate of progress it would take more than 75 years to reach equal remuneration for work of equal value. Legal reforms undertaken to address the issue include minimum wage legislation and policies to improve work and life balance, such as family-conscious working hours. The provision of childcare facilities has also been recognized as an important enabler of women’s labour market access.

A recognition of the different roles and responsibilities of women and men regarding land ownership and management has contributed to a targeting of efforts in support of women farmers. This includes increasing women’s access to agricultural extension services, machinery and technology. In some countries this has been complemented by legislation recognizing women’s equal rights to land and land-based resources during marriage – including upon the dissolution of marriage and after spousal death – and by issuing landholding certificates to women which are often held jointly with their spouses.

Key initiatives adopted by governments to support self-employed women and women entrepreneurs also include facilitating access to credit, grants, loans and microfinance programmes; skills training and knowledge for business development; and extending support to entrepreneur business associations.

Still, the pace of change has been slow. Women need to rank among the parties involved at multiple levels in economic policy decision-making processes for real reform to be effected. Increased support is necessary for women’s business and professional associations, research and advocacy groups and non-governmental associations working on gender equality.

Making a difference

Research reveals that women reinvest up to 90% of their earnings in their families and communities. Therefore, a key driver of change has been the realization that increasing women’s economic participation contributes to the improved health and well-being of future generations. This is critical in situations where paid employment in the public and private sectors is limited – as is the case in the majority of countries in which the United Nations is active – and as a means of tackling the feminization of poverty.

Furthermore, women-owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries currently represent almost 40% of all SMEs, thus representing a critical mass of development agents. Women entrepreneurs also create a virtuous cycle for female participation in business as nine out of 10 women who receive training in business skills pay it forward by teaching and mentoring other women.

This success loop can foster employment creation as women-owned SMEs provide jobs for some of the most vulnerable groups in society, including young people and other women. Boosting female entrepreneurship rates can therefore have a proportionately greater impact on ending poverty – the unfinished business of the MDGs that remains at the heart of the SDGs.


‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ is being considered as one of the SDGs. How will we know what to do, and indeed who should do what, to achieve economic empowerment? This is where the Beijing Platform for Action comes into its own as a rich source of agreed language. It includes a section entitled ‘Women and the Economy’ with strategic objectives that include:

  • Facilitate women’s equal access to resources, employment, markets and trade (strategic objective F2),
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  • Provide business services, training and access to markets, information and technology, particularly to low-income women (objective F3), and
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  • Strengthen women’s economic capacity and commercial networks (objective F4).


The Platform for Action also delineates responsibilities. Under Strategic Objective F2, some 24 actions to be undertaken by governments, private banking institutions, and international, development Co-operation and non-governmental organizations have been agreed.

This offers the international community a solid base of agreed language on which to build indictors to measure progress. These need to be specific enough to measure publicsector delivery while including a measure against which the contribution of the private sector can be counted.

Innovative work undertaken by the UN Global Compact and UN Women in the promulgation of the Women’s Empowerment Principles, together with UN Statistics Division identification of a minimum set of gender indicators, offers a way forward. One such indicator measuring ‘the percentage of firms owned by women by size’ could be useful to the public and private sectors as policies targeting sourcing from womenowned enterprises in procurement processes, which are becoming increasingly popular as a means of putting money in the hands of women.

Lessons learned from two decades of striving to achieve women’s economic empowerment must, however, be built into the SDGs, not only in their articulation but in their implementation. Measuring the establishment and longevity of women-owned enterprises as an indicator for the SDGs could provide a window into the world of support for women’s enterprises. This could include innovative areas such as demand creation through targeted procurement as well as functioning as a potential proxy for the realization of rights fundamental to business success.

Given the aspirational nature of the SDGs, it is clear there is a need to develop a framework that takes us to the world we want in 2030 – and beyond. That must include gender equality and empowered women and girls, ensuring that they not only have a room of their own but can grow up to be women with sufficient earnings to own a house of their own.