Making women’s economic empowerment a reality

18 September 2017

There is a global consensus that gender equality and women's economic empowerment are key elements to achieve the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The challenge is to turn that level of ambition into reality on the ground, and the United Nations is playing its part to achieve this.​

Setting out the clear benefits and then providing countries with the tools to set the right trade policies are key aims for UNCTAD and the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment. Together, they have spotlighted the issue at the ongoing UNCTAD Trade and Development Board session that is taking place in Geneva

There is urgency to make the vision of the 2030 Agenda – the bedrock of which is the 17 Sustainable Development Goals -- a game changer for millions of women all over the world who face discrimination in all spheres of their lives.

This is why UNCTAD and the High-Level Panel have developed new instruments that can significantly contribute to making this happen, stressed Ms. Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary General of UNCTAD, during a Trade and Development Board event.​

Progress towards women's economic empowerment and gender equality has been so far too slow. Significant gender gaps still exist in employment rates, in wages, in social protection and secondary and tertiary education. To tackle these shortcomings and to accelerate progress towards women’s full and equal economic participation, the High-Level Panel has produced two reports that delve into the issues at stake

The first, A call to action for gender equality and women's economic empowerment, explains why women's economic empowerment is the right thing to do – and the smart thing to do – and identifies seven drivers of transformation that are critical for breaking the constraints on women’s economic empowerment.

These comprise tackling adverse norms; ensuring legal protections and reforming discriminatory laws; recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid work and care; building digital, financial and property assets; changing business culture and practice; improving public sector practices and procurement; and strengthening visibility, women’s collective voice and representation.

The second report, Taking action for transformational change on women's economic empowerment identifies practical steps under each of the seven drivers to ensure that gender gaps in the economic field are closed.

For example, it recommends a reform of laws discriminating against women and the enacting legislation enabling gender equality, as well as the expansion of social protection coverage for all. And it calls for the promotion of gender equality in public sector employment via the establishment of targets or quotas for hiring and top-level positions,and the promotion of women-owned enterprise by establishing and tracking government-wide targets for their participation in procurements and encourage suppliers to do the same.

Such steps have been tailored to different actors, including governments, business, civil society and intergovernmental organizations, said Ms. Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland and High-Level Panel Co-Chair. All stakeholders play a pivotal role and can contribute. For example, businesses can change their culture, practices, and policies, as IKEA did successfully. “We should not need any more proof to trust the benefits of empowering and including women, she added.

UNCTAD's Trade and Gender Toolbox, meanwhile, is an instrument that helps countries answer the question: what would happen to women if a given trade policy were implemented?

The toolbox methodology supports policy makers who want to get a clear picture of which productive sectors affect women most, and allows them to measure the likely impact of future trade reforms on women's livelihoods in these and other sectors.

“Policy makers can use this instrument to re-think planned trade reforms and to craft more inclusive accompanying policies,” explained Ms. Simonetta Zarrilli, chief of the Trade, Gender and Development Programme at UNCTAD. “We have successfully tested the trade and gender toolbox methodology in East Africa, and we are planning to roll it out to additional countries and regions,” she added.

Issues addressed during a debate on the reports and the toolbox included how to create synergies among the different initiatives and multiply the entry points for the new instruments to become concrete tools for policy makers, and how to overcome gender discriminations that are the result of social norms rather than laws.

The event was moderated by Mr. Daniel Blockert, Ambassador of Sweden to the World Trade Organization. In his concluding remarks, Ambassador Blockert recalled how reluctant the trade community had been to address gender issues in the past and stressed that, though there is still a long way to go before trade and economic policies are attuned to the needs of women, the good news is that real progress has been made.