Gender: Still some way to go

©Evaristo SA/AFP

Wherever I go, in every country, women are demanding that their voices are heard. From the Arab states, where women continue to stand up for freedom and democracy, to all regions of the globe, the calls for equal rights, opportunity and participation are spreading and have brought significant change over the years. 

In 1911 just two countries in the world allowed women to vote. Today, a century later, that right is virtually universal. Women are exercising greater influence in decision-making in all spheres of public and private affairs. More girls are going to school, more women earn an income, more women survive childbirth and more women can plan their families. But while we are closer than ever, we still have a long way to go to achieve equality.

The past century brought a transformation of women’s legal rights, but most of the laws that exist on paper do not translate into equality and justice. While countries are taking strides in promoting gender equality, all too often women are denied control over their bodies, denied a voice in decision-making and denied protection from violence.

Today less than one in ten presidents and prime ministers and less than one in five members of parliament are women. Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Some 600 million women are working in vulnerable employment, trapped in insecure jobs. Gender wage gaps persist and every day, women continue to struggle to balance work and family life.

As we prepare for the upcoming Rio+20 conference, there is growing agreement that development is a comprehensive process involving economic, social, and environmental dimensions–the three pillars of sustainable development. We also know that progress towards equality depends on political commitment, policy change, social mobilisation—and each individual’s actions—of girls, boys, women and men.

But despite all we know, listening to ordinary people so often brings clarity on what is needed. This happened recently when a few women from Afghanistan, businesswomen, came to the United Nations. One woman, who started a business of office and home furniture said, “I started my business because I am a mother with two daughters and I was thinking of their future.” Another, who started a food processing business that employs more than 250 women, said, “I wanted to change the traditional life of Afghan women.”

These entrepreneurs were asked what they needed for success, and they all said the same thing: we need education and security.

All over the world, the goal of development is much greater than rising gross national product. It is about expanding human well-being and human freedom.

Today I point to four areas that will help move us towards greater human security and more inclusive economies.

First, we need to orient the role of governments and multilateral institutions to effectively respond to today’s financial, social, economic and environmental challenges. These are linked. The United Nations Environment Programme defines the green economy as one “that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

There is a duty to protect citizens from absolute poverty and depravation. Governments need to make sure that resources are allocated efficiently, that the labour force is healthy and well educated, that jobs are created, that consumers are protected, that people enjoy a decent standard of living, and the environment is protected.

Second, and this is related to my first point, we need ethical leadership. This leadership was demanded last year by protestors around the world—from those camped in tents at Occupy Wall Street to the students and workers marching in the streets of Europe and beyond, to the people demanding freedom and democracy in the Arab world.

The protests continue this year. People are calling for ethical leadership—leadership to reduce economic insecurity and inequality, leadership to tackle lack of opportunity and high unemployment, and leadership to uproot greed and corruption. Leadership that respects the human being.

Third, we need social protection and job creation. Six decades of strong economic growth have led to ever increasing inequalities. The global GDP is ten times larger in real terms than in 1950, but access to adequate social protection benefits and services remains a privilege afforded to relatively few people.

Today about 5.1 billion people, 75% of the world population, are not covered by adequate social security. Some 1.4 billion people live on less than US$1.25 a day.

About 38% of the global population, 2.6 billion people, do not have access to adequate sanitation. Some 884 million people lack access to adequate sources of drinking water.

Far too many people, especially young people, are unemployed. The persistence of such large numbers of excluded persons represents tremendous squandered human and economic potential and a threat to security. Growth strategies and economic and social policies need to deliver services and jobs to people.

Last October we launched a new report produced by the International Labour Organization advocating a social protection floor, moving beyond the concept of a social safety net. First, everyone should have access to basic health services, education, housing, water and sanitation and other essential services. Second, no one should live below a certain income level. This means that everyone should have basic income security guarantees, such as pensions for the elderly and persons with serious disabilities, child benefits, and/or employment guarantees.

Social protection is not only about providing services. It is about empowering people, giving them a chance to work with a decent salary and working conditions. It is possible, it is feasible. Many governments including Argentina, Brazil, India and Rwanda have made lots of progress. I can show it from my own experience.

Social protection was at the heart of my government in Chile during 2006-2010. Many reforms were implemented and huge investments were made to enhance access to health, pensions, education, housing, water and sanitation and especially to promote child development and gender equality.

And if you think that these programmes are too costly, think again. Studies by the International Labour Organization, in consultation with the International Monetary Fund, show that in countries such as Benin, El Salvador, Mozambique and Viet Nam, major social protection floor programmes would cost between 1 and 2% of GDP.

In the long run, social protection floors can pay for themselves—by enhancing the productiveness of the labour force, boosting the aggregate demand and generating further tax revenues.

Fourth and finally, we need to place special focus on women as we pursue healthy economies and societies. Half the world is women and yet they are denied equal opportunity and participation. A growing body of evidence finds that the exclusion of women in society, the economy and politics is not only hurting women, it is harming all of us because we are losing women’s potential and paying a high price for inequality. Removing the barriers to women’s full participation and protecting their human rights would result in higher and more inclusive economic growth, healthier and more educated children, and more balanced decision-making. Women’s full and equal participation strengthens good governance and democracy.

By placing women’s rights and gender equality at the centre of economic policymaking and the economic and political agenda, into the incentives that drive decisions, we can build inclusive and healthier societies. Women’s full participation is no longer an option. It is a necessity for our common future.


See also: 

Hirsch, Martin (2012), "A global safety net", in OECD Yearbook 2012. 

The Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development 

The UN Environment Programme 

©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012

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