Wanted Constructive Impatience for Change in Women’s Status

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Following are excerpts from the opening statement on March 13 by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women for the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – The Commission concerns itself with the status of women. It reviews the progress made by women and girls, and assesses the remaining challenges. It is a barometer of the progress we are making on achieving a world that is free of gender discrimination and inequality, a world that leaves no-one behind. It will help us measure achievement of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It also helps us to pursue action in priority areas and benefits from the Commission’s Agreed Conclusions.

The priority theme for CSW61, as set out in the Secretary-General’s report for the session, is “Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work”. Inclusive economies and a positive world of work are powerful ways of breaking away from the cycles of poverty that besiege our nations.

Currently, in the gender equality agenda, we see progress in some areas, but we also see an erosion of gains. The much-needed positive developments are not happening fast enough. We also need to work together to make sure we reach a tipping point in the numbers of lives changed.

We need swift and decisive action that can be brought about by the world of work so that we do not leave women even further behind.

. . . let us agree to constructive impatience.

The Sustainable Development Goals give us a framework to work for far-reaching changes. In this session of the Commission we will be able to bring renewed focus to the needs of those who are currently being left behind and those who are currently furthest behind.

They include young women; some of whom were at the Youth CSW. They include refugees and migrants. They include women affected by gender-based violence, including workplace sexual harassment.

They include women who are denied sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights and services; and women facing discrimination on multiple and intersecting fronts over and above their gender: such as sexual orientation, disability, older age, race, or being part of an indigenous community.

They include women in the informal sector, and care givers, those who provide services in the home that are much needed to sustain society.

Almost all women do some form of work. If you are a woman you are a worker—period.

Virtually all economies rely on the unpaid care and domestic work that is largely provided by women and girls. Yet this form of work positions masses of women uniquely to be “left behind”.

Positive changes in the world of work must enable care work to be valued and to be shared by parents and within the family unit. This will bring about far-reaching positive changes for women, society and economies.

Investment into the care economy of 2 per cent of GDP in just seven countries could create over 21 million jobs. That would provide child care, elderly care and many other needed services.

The Secretary-General’s report gives greater attention to women who work at the base of the pyramid, as these are the ones who are at the highest risk of being left behind.

The Commission must also look at how to increase the participation of these women, as well as women’s participation in male-dominated sectors that have meaningful economic benefits.

The Commission can make fresh gains in how we bring the informal sector into a structured and meaningful economic relationship with benefits, respecting the rights of women in this sector.

The informal sector is dominated by the millions and millions of women who are the working poor. Women workers in the informal sector are all around us.

They are in the rapidly growing urban communities, as well as in rural areas. They are the under-the radar and under-valued cogs in the bigger wheels of the formal economy. They are the low-cost farm workers, flower sellers, street food vendors, care workers, and home-based producers of garments and car parts. Almost none of them have legal or social protection.

And they are missing out on the opportunities offered by the changing world of work, which has technology as one of its advantages.

There is a big opportunity for this Commission to recommend changes that match the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals in their scale of potential change. And when we do that we will address the needs of these women.

More than half of all women workers around the world—and up to 90 per cent in some countries—are informally employed. We cannot ignore them. This sector is just too big to fail.

Informal workers themselves are mobilizing to negotiate the changes they need, for example waste pickers through their local associations in Brazil, Colombia and India, and in many cases doing that successfully.

On International Women’s Day last week, Pakistan enacted a new law that recognizes home-based workers and entitles them to social protection.

. . . let us look for a moment at some of the barriers that remain to be cracked.

There is under-representation of women in decision-making at all levels. They therefore have insufficient voice to drive the nature and extent of change needed.

There is still a myriad of laws in more than 150 countries that discriminate against women. This falls right in your court as decision-makers and law makers.

And we have to address the stereotypes, norms and practices that discriminate against women and girls, and have for generations denied women career paths on a par with men.

In this Commission, you have an opportunity to assist us to turn back these practices and to introduce changed practices both in businesses and in institutions. The global pay gap, at an average of 23 per cent, means that women are clearly earning consistently less than men.

Women regard this as daylight robbery. The deficit has robbed generations of women of income, future security and just reward. Each year they work three months more than men for equivalent pay.

In the digital age, we also seek technology-enabled solutions for women. We must therefore resolve to act on gaps in the access to technology that unfortunately have been growing. There are some 200 million fewer women online than men, and the gap is worryingly widening.

In a world that has moved to technology and will move even further, this obviously has to change for women too, as it is expected that 90 per cent of future jobs will need a level of digital literacy.

This Commission can drive faster change for multitudes of young people and older people who need to be ready for this future world of work.

Too few people are impacted by the actions to date that we have been driving in the economy. Change is not yet addressing the root causes of women’s economic injustice, nor is it fulfilling their rights.

There is now an opportunity to act on the economic front. These changes must also mean a rights-based approach in which all people also enjoy democratic rights, free to organize, free to dissent, and human rights defenders free to support their fellow workers, fellow activists and not be killed and brutalized for doing this work. And young people must be free to be activists.

Advancing women’s equality in total could bring a potential boost of 28 trillion US dollars to global annual GDP by 2025. That is five years before the 2030 Agenda endpoint. Wouldn’t it be great if we were to achieve this?

Just fixing the informal economy could impact 80 per cent of the women working outside home in sub-Saharan Africa and remove the threat of extreme poverty.

The change of discriminatory laws in over 150 countries could affect more than 3 billion women and girls in the world. And that is what tipping the scale is about. This will be game changing.

Macroeconomic policies and related laws would contribute to inclusive growth and significantly accelerate progress.

Innovations in climate-smart agriculture and the low-carbon economy envisaged in the 2030 Agenda, as well as digital economies and information communications technologies can rapidly move opportunities ahead.

Mobile cellular networks already cover an area occupied by 95 per cent of the world’s population offering huge potential for digital and financial inclusion.

Investment in a pipeline of girls well educated in STEAM subjects, could increase the current 25 per cent of women in the digital industries’ workforce and build skills matches for the ‘new collar’ jobs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution coupled with the anticipated demands of the green economy.

Women also face difficulties when it comes to access to markets. Governments and the private sector can both make a significant contribution to this. If just 1 per cent more than existing annual global public procurement spending were to be directed to women’s enterprises, women could earn an additional 60-70 billion US dollars from supplying goods and services. This can be addressed in procurement policies and practices.

We have committed to eliminating violence against women including sexual harassment at work in the next 13 years by 2030.

That would give relief to many women who are traumatized by daily harassment at work. That includes the ability for women to have a fair hearing when they report violence and harassment at work.

Paid parental leave, more men sharing care work, and safe affordable childcare services together create many possibilities for more women to be active in the economy and enhance the essential parenting role of men.

The private sector has a role to play in this too, and in enabling women’s voices to be heard in shaping products, services and policies in the new industries, supporting asset ownership, digital and financial inclusion, and infrastructure development. When companies promote women, invest in their careers, and bring their voices into decision making, there is a better future for all.

Collectives like trade unions, and networks and associations like the International Domestic Workers Federation are vital, where the fight is not just for higher wages but for higher and equal wages. They are absolutely essential to ensuring that women are adequately represented to get the changes they want.

It is ever more urgent that we respect and protect women’s sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, and ensure the unmet needs of family planning for women are met. This would limit unwanted pregnancies and the consequences for mothers who may wish to work outside the home, and protect their rights.

What you agree to do during this CSW could be the much needed accelerator for the implementation and achievement of the 2030 Agenda. We must make, and can make, the world of work, work better for women, transforming economies and realizing rights.

We now have only 13 years until 2030. Every week and every month counts. So does the scale of the change we achieve, which must also benefit the displaced persons.

This Commission on the Status of Women must not be the Commission on the Status Quo.

This week the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment will present its final report. This contains important recommendations, all in line with the work of this Commission. The report will enable us to reach and motivate the partners who are essential for success.

At the UN, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, we are also making adjustments to support women in the world of work. We are committed to gender parity at senior levels by 2021. This is a challenge faced by many partners in both public and private sectors. Our Secretary-General joins the growing number of leaders who want a solution before 2030.

Incentives in every sector will be needed to recruit and retain female workers and also to make contributions to the business culture, and the norms and values that must change for women to realize economic justice.

Lessons from countries already making change are important to share. For this Commission, 35 countries have provided input on the review theme of how lessons from the Millennium Development Goals are being reflected in national processes and policies.

We also expect progress on gender to be reflected in the reports for the July 2017 UN High-Level Political Forum. We also follow with interest the actions of countries that made critical commitments at the 2015 Global Leaders Meeting attended by more than 70 heads of state.

Partnerships are essential, especially our partnership with ILO that tonight will enable us to launch the forward-looking “Equal Pay Platform of Champions”, which will be attended by trade unions, by sports heroes, by film stars, governments and by youth.

We need to work together. There are challenges but there are also solutions. You have boldly committed to substantive and sustainable changes by 2030.

Across the world, civil society space is shrinking, and democratic actors and human rights defenders face daunting attacks. Strong movement building continues in the face of the existential threats that both provoke and besiege it.

We know that strong and autonomous women’s movements are a corollary of effective policy change on gender equality. We will consistently promote their safety and ability to organize.

At the same time, over the last two years, a resounding global gender equality compact has been accumulated, through the Beijing+20 Review, Agenda 2030 itself, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the New Urban Agenda and the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees.

These aspirations are shared by the world, for a better world; for women, for us all. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 March 2017]

Image credit: UN Women

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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