By Dana E. Heitz, 2017 NYCLA Representative to the United Nations
The annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women featured a high-level interactive dialogue among Ministers on Building Alliances to Promote Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work. The dialogue, held in March 2017, focused on innovative partnerships between different social components around the world. More than 200 representatives attended the event, including members of government from over 20 countries, along with spokespeople from trade unions, NGOs, and other civil society groups.
The speakers addressed both recurrent themes and issues specific to the interests of their populations. One common topic sprang from the priority theme of the need for partnerships across segments of society. Representatives from nations including Hungary, Uganda, South Korea, Chile, China, and Iran stated that these partnerships encompassed relations between public and private entities, multilateral connections between sub-regional, regional, national, and international groups, and links between groups with different degrees of access to financial and educational resources. South Korea, Hungary, Kenya and Chile recognized opportunities for government incentives—procurement contracts or seals of approval, for example—to encourage private sector policies which facilitate women’s workforce participation.
The need for decent labor conditions and laborers’ rights arose in comments by Niger, Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, as well as trade unions. As Kenya stated, these rights include the right to be free from gender-based violence, which deters women’s economic participation. Kenya’s representative’s remarks echoed in later comments by the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives and the Jamaica Household Workers Association.
The Kenyan representative, along with the delegate from the Philippines, also acknowledged that women’s unemployment, underemployment, and general undercontribution all take a toll on domestic economies. She also noted that even where women are employed, their work often comes disproportionately from the informal sector. This makes it difficult to account for the full extent of women’s economic contributions and deprives them of protection and resources enjoyed by participants in the traditional workforce.
Similarly, Niger and Kazahkstan addressed the economic significance of entrepreneurs and small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in bridging the gap between the informal economy and full employment. As the Dominican Republic stated, microfinance can facilitate this process, and the Mongolian representative suggested a global women’s bank.
Kenya and Iraq acknowledged the role of faith and the clergy in encouraging women to achieve economic empowerment, and Iraq, along with Iran and Eritrea, also identified the tech sector as offering opportunities for women’s employment.
Besides these common themes, several countries raised matters particular to their social, economic, cultural, political, or environmental circumstances. For example, Iraq identified post-conflict circumstances which offer opportunities for UN involvement, such as training for refugees, internally displaced persons, and women victimized by ISIS. Ukraine likewise described the impact which women’s limited access to economic resources can have on IDPs.
By stark numbers, Kazakhstan noted that while women comprise 53% of its general population and 49% of economic activity, they account for only 39% of GDP. To level out these numbers, the Kazakh government has focused on increasing women’s political leadership and assembled an association of businesswomen seeking to further women’s political engagement.
The Turkish legislature cited structural barriers to inequality, and noted that in 2016 it took steps to guarantee employment for working parents, increase women’s education, and generally identify solutions to structural problems in the labor market.
Other governments identified unique resources that offer opportunities to women. These included Uganda, which identified renewable energy as an industry with high potential for women’s engagement, Brazil, which recognized its broad diversity and multilateral opportunities for alliances, and Finland, where women and families rely on deeply-rooted public services and structural commitments to equality.
All speakers implicitly acknowledged the economy’s role in women’s empowerment, and that we must ensure women’s voices are heard in the process of advancing their own interests. Otherwise, continuing past and current practices will prevent progress toward economic goals.
Organizations like NYCLA have the opportunity to monitor the process of change. To ensure accountability by international governments, it is incumbent on NYCLA and other NGOs to help hold international institutions accountable. At the same time, we gain the benefit of learning new strategies for collaboration across professional lines.
Dana E. Heitz is an appellate and motions attorney who holds an M.A. in International Affairs from The New School. She practices at Heitz Legal, P.C. and can be reached at email@example.com.