Building women’s economic empowerment
The adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 marked a momentous year for the United Nations. They aim to transform lives in the 21st century and address such challenges as poverty, gender inequality and unemployment.
However, only one of the 17 goals is entirely dedicated to gender: Goal 5 commits countries to ‘achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.’ This means tackling the social, political and economic constraints that stop women from reaching their full potential. With wide gender disparities in countries across the globe, it will take more than eliminating discrimination against women to achieve true gender equality.
While there has been progress for women around the world, they still earn less than men, they still experience abuse and their chances of accessing technology and jobs continue to be limited by traditional views about household duties. As a result, the proportion of working-age women actually employed in 2013 stood at just 47.1% compared to 72.2% for men according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In South Asia, women’s participation in the labour force ranges from just 21% in Afghanistan to 79.4% in Nepal.
The benefits of expanding women’s economic opportunities are readily apparent. Evidence from a range of countries shows that women who earn an income tend to reinvest that income at home, with subsequent benefits for the health, education and well-being of their families. In terms of economic benefits, women not only improve their own skills through work but often advance the interests and choices of other women in their community.
Women’s economic empowerment is crucial for the achievement of many SDGs. At the same time progress towards most, if not all of the others could spur women’s economic empowerment. Lasting progress towards better health and education (Goals 3 and 4), for example, will require interventions with regard to gender issues. Equally, a strong body of evidence suggests investment in infrastructure, technology and sustainable facilities can boost women’s economic empowerment and make them more visible as key players in the prosperity of their communities.
Goal 9 is a prime example: ‘Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.’ Gender matters for infrastructure and the impact for beneficiaries is the benchmark for the success or failure of community projects. Findings suggest that infrastructure can become more sustainable when it caters to gender differences.UNLOCKING POTENTIAL
Despite such findings, women are often excluded from the social and economic benefits that come with better services in their communities, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Women spend twice as much time on unpaid work than men as they carry a far heavier burden of domestic and childcare responsibilities.
Evidence from the ILO suggests that even though women provide approximately two-thirds of the world’s work and produce half of its food, they earn just 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of its property. The allocation of gender roles remains unfair and, for poor women in particular, underinvestment in public infrastructure adds to their burden. As such, prioritizing infrastructure for women and girls could help to ease that burden, particularly in the household.WOMEN AND INFRASTRUCTURE
The lack of robust and sustainable infrastructure does more than weaken the global economy and constrain productivity. It hinders the progress of human development, keeping millions of families locked in poverty.
There is usually an assumption that both men and women benefit automatically from new infrastructure. In reality, the design of new infrastructure projects often neglect gender dimensions and their location often prevents access by women who have heavy household duties.
Studies suggest a growing recognition of the need to target infrastructure as an escape route from poverty, particularly for women. The Bangladesh Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development Project, implemented by the World Bank, found that rural women with appropriate technology and business skills can make substantial contributions to rural electrification. Rural projects in Nepal and Peru have also found there is greater progress on women’s economic empowerment when it is coupled with infrastructure programmes ensuring their equal participation in opportunities that would otherwise have been denied to them.
When efficient sources of energy, transport and access to technology are more accessible to women, it not only gives them time to take part in new ventures but also benefits communities and contributes to achievement of the SDGs, the Asian Development Bank has said. Studies in Bolivia, Egypt, India and Kenya have shown that owning a mobile phone empowered women by improving access to income-generating opportunities, education and healthcare. What’s more, it increased their independence.
Projects with all-encompassing gender policies and coverage ‘strengthened women’s individual and collective assets and capabilities in strategic areas of their lives and they did this when new opportunities created by the infrastructure made it valuable for women to get in on the ground floor, and perhaps easier for the projects to reduce gender inequalities,’ the World Bank has said. An evaluation from a World Bankapproved water and sanitation project in Nepal showed community ownership – and in particular ownership by women – was fundamental to the local sustainability of water and sanitation.
The benefits of such projects to women go beyond the economic realm: they have gained equal participation in community and market opportunities. For example, a rural roads project in Bangladesh transformed local communities as women became the major traders in the area. This was achieved through quotas reserving space for women in markets and the provision of separate toilets for men and women.BEYOND GOAL 5
Women around the world are on the brink of breaking into more productive work. Initiatives by governments and global actors are empowering them through improved roads, greater access to markets and more opportunities to become entrepreneurs. Gender-sensitive infrastructure services are more responsive to women, recognizing the hurdles they have to overcome to share equally in the benefits of progress.
There is no doubt that empowering women is the right thing to do. It leads to positive economic and social change, which has a direct link to improvements in infrastructure. That link is increasingly shaping the way programmes are designed and implemented. Gender equality – and by extension, the Global Goals – cannot be achieved without women’s economic empowerment and their equal access to resources.