Decades after the world officially recognized a human right to gender equality, women remain largely excluded from the upper ranks of government and business, earn less than their male co-workers and face an array of customs, traditions and attitudes that limit their opportunities. Are governments, businesses and the international community putting money behind their resolutions calling for women’s advancement? Are international aid budgets, government funds and private sector resources being spent in ways that narrow economic, social and political inequalities between men and women?
The answer, notes Jacinta Muteshi, the former chair of the Kenyan government’s Commission on Gender and Development, is generally “no.” While there has been some progress in women’s political representation, advances have been limited in the economic realm, for poor women in particular. That is because disadvantages “are often anchored in social institutions, macro-economic policies and development strategies that have not adequately recognized that women are important agents of economic development and poverty reduction,” Ms. Muteshi told Africa Renewal.
In UN Women’s 2010-11 annual report, Executive Director Michelle Bachelet expressed concerns with the pace of progress: “It is not acceptable for young girls to be taken out of school, or for women to die from childbirth complications that could be prevented, but these things continue to happen every day.” In a few countries, including Rwanda and South Africa, there has been an increase in the number of female parliamentarians and other elected and appointed officials.
Poverty’s female face
Economic parity seems very distant. In employment, a 2008 report asserted, gender bias has meant that “women have been more concentrated than men in informal, subsistence and ‘vulnerable’ employment,” that is, self-employment and jobs without salaries in family-owned businesses. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 67 per cent of African women work in agriculture, mostly as smallholder subsistence farmers. Fewer than one in five working women in sub-Saharan Africa receive regular wages or salaries, compared to a third of employed African men and almost 93 per cent of women in the developed North.
The extra obstacles faced by women struggling to work their way out of poverty are suggested by the World Bank. Its 2010 Enterprise Survey found that in both the public and private sectors, only 1 in 26 salaried African women was employed in a senior management position, compared to 1 in every 6 men.
That lack of opportunity at home contributes to a far higher percentage of college-educated African women, nearly 28 per cent, going overseas in search of employment, compared to 17 per cent of educated men.
A stacked economic deck
The UN Development Programme and others estimate that as many as 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women. In almost every respect, Ms. Muteshi argues, the economic deck is stacked against women. Citing UN estimates, she notes that women worldwide account for two thirds of all working hours and produce half the food, but earn just 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property.
First and foremost, she says, this gap reflects “the absence of women in economic leadership.” African women are only rarely present among senior officials at central banks or ministries of finance, planning or trade. “The same can be said of women’s representation in the private sector.”
Employers in labour-intensive businesses often prefer women as they are seen to have fewer economic options than men and are therefore willing to accept poorer wages and working conditions. Women workers are also less likely to be members of trade unions than men.
Following the money
In the 1980s, women’s rights advocates began to scrutinize public budgets to understand how financial flows affected women. Activists initially focused on the area of most importance to women, government spending. By analysing public finance through a process known as “gender budgeting” (see Africa Renewal, April 2002), they hoped to ensure that women benefited fairly from national spending decisions and to improve the budget-making process itself.
In a December 2007 report to the UN Commission on the Status of Women on financing for gender equality, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that 50 governments around the world, including several in Africa, used gender budgeting methods to help set spending priorities. Morocco has established gender budgeting methods as part of a broader reform of its budgetary spending process.
There have been efforts to put a price tag on gender inequality. Mr. Ban’s report estimated that the equivalent of between 0.1 and 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) is lost every year from failure to “promote gender equality and empower women.” That goal is the third of eight internationally agreed development objectives known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The goal includes a specific commitment to eliminate gender disparities in education by 2015. Achieving this in poor countries, the report estimated, would require an increase in annual spending on gender equality programmes from an estimated $8.6 billion in 2006 to nearly $24 billion by 2015. The World Bank estimates the cost of achieving full economic and social equality between the sexes at $83 billion per year by 2015.
Aid and accountability
Between 2002 and 2010, reports the industrialized countries’ Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), aid for programmes designed at least in part to promote gender equality rose from $2.5 billion to $15.2 billion, and the amount of aid screened for its impact on gender rose from $15 billion to $45.7 billion. But the group also reports, “A high percentage of gender equality focused aid alone does not mean that aid is well aligned with the gender equality policy objective.” It noted in an earlier report that such “gendered” aid was overwhelmingly concentrated in social services. Only $1 out of every $4 in aid for infrastructure and directly productive activities like mining, manufacturing and farming was spent on projects that included greater gender equality as a goal.
Governments that receive aid must also do better. In recent years donors have begun to channel a greater percentage of aid to poor countries through general budgetary support, instead of allotting aid for individual projects. A recent study by the OECD’s Network on Gender Equality found that such “programme” funding leaves decision-making with recipients’ finance ministries. “These ministries often are unaware of … gender equality as a development issue, as are many staff on the donor side.”
Ms. Muteshi thinks the problem goes even deeper. “Current neoliberal economic structures are disadvantageous to women in general,” she asserts. That is because a narrow emphasis on GDP growth fails to recognize “the gendered nature of our economic lives.” The liberalization theories that influence many development strategies, she notes, tend to push women into “precarious, exploitive, unregulated and temporary forms of work” in the informal sector.
There has been some good news, Ms. Muteshi acknowledges. Women have benefited from microfinance loans, which are now available in most African countries. However, she adds, “the amounts remain small and have rarely been scaled up in ways that truly strengthen women’s economic power. It is time to provide women with credit that moves beyond ‘micro.’”
Ms. Muteshi argues that the greatest problem with donor programmes in Africa is that they generally do not invest in sectors especially important to women. In agriculture, she observes, “African women provide approximately 70 per cent of the workforce and grow about 90 per cent of the food, yet it is a sector that has seen little real investment directed towards women.”
Trading for equality?
Trade is another potentially important source of finance for gender equality, but efforts to assess its impact have been hampered by inadequate information and research. The overall effect, however, appears to be no better than mixed. Access to the US market through that country’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act helped create jobs for women in the African textile industry in the 1990s.
But following liberalization of the textile trade at the World Trade Organization in 2005, many textile plants relocated to Asia. Meanwhile, European Union barriers to African farm produce, the export sector most important to women, remain formidable.
More broadly, trade liberalization has not succeeded in dramatically expanding opportunities for women. African exports remain heavily concentrated in commodities, particularly energy and minerals, and in a few commercial agricultural products such as coffee and tea. These are sectors in which women are poorly represented.
African women’s efforts to include gender equality and poverty reduction rules in global trade agreements have been largely frustrated by the refusal of many major trading countries to consider human and social rights in trade negotiations. African women have had some success in working with Northern civil society “fair trade” groups to counter specific injustices.
Agenda for action
In the struggle for economic equality, UN Women, the UN’s gender agency, asserts, there is mounting evidence that African and other poor women remain “at the margins of formal economies.” Securing the resources women need for equality, the organization says, is “mission critical” to Africa’s development plans. It will require fundamental changes in the way power and wealth are distributed. Such changes include using quotas for elected and appointed offices, making sure women participate in setting economic priorities and accelerating progress towards the MDGs’ gender equality and health and education targets. Markets also need to be regulated to ensure that women can participate fully and fairly in economic life.
Current initiatives for women’s empowerment and gender equality are too narrowly focused, Ms. Muteshi argues. “They do not adequately address the root conditions that produce inequality.” Until the world learns how to value the work women actually do, “we leave women vulnerable to poverty, violence and powerlessness.”