Empowering women in developing countries is “smart economics” but faces challenges

By Michael de Laine, Copenhagen, 25th March 2010

Empowering women in developing countries is “smart economics” that gives them jobs, helps them contribute to economic growth, and promotes greater liberty and democracy. But there are challenges that must be overcome before success is achieved.

Empowering women in developing countries in a way that gives them employment is “smart economics”. Not only does this give them jobs and help them contribute to economic growth, it is a route to combat poverty and a movement towards greater liberty and democracy. But there are challenges that must be overcome before success is achieved.

Such was the message delivered at today’s conference on women’s empowerment and employment, arranged by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Part of the ministry’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) series, the meeting was a precursor for the United Nations’ MDG high-level meeting in New York in September, which will assess the extent to which the millennium goals are being implemented.

Across the developing world, far more women continue to be out of the labour market than men, according to the Millennium Development Goals report from 2009. Northern Africa and western Asia have exceptionally low female employment-to-population ratios, and only about 20% of working-age women are employed in the most important sectors here, industry and services.

Overall, almost two-thirds of all employed women have vulnerable jobs, either as contributing family workers or as own-account workers, yet MDG 1 has a target that aims at full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people, while MDG 3 aims at promoting gender equality and empowering women.

But there are many barriers to success in reaching these goals, and the world economic crisis has delayed progress – and even reversed developments by five or six years.

We must empower women for them to gain their rights and promote economic growth,” Søren Pind, Denmark’s recently appointed Minister for Development Cooperation, told the conference.

Pind added that a new draft for Denmark’s development cooperation has five focus areas, including gender equality and boosting the position and status of women.

Through economic growth we can try to help and empower women, and that helps combat poverty,” Pind said.

Empowering women is smart economics,” said Robert E Zoellick, the president of the World Bank group.

Various reports indicate that improving women’s situation can benefit society in ways that transcend the direct benefits to individual women. Women’s independent earnings improve the well-being of their families and communities, reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth. Higher income for women and better access to and control over their resources lead to better health and nutrition for children. In Bangladesh, access to micro-finance increases household consumption when the borrower is a woman, and access to credit also improves children’s health and nutrition.

While noting that women “can be driving forces in economic growth”, Zoellick added, “Women and girls are hit first by economic downturns.”

The world economic crisis means that micro-finance institutions – many of which lend money on very favourable terms to entrepreneurial women in developing countries – are now seeing that their customers are having difficulties repaying their loans, and the institutions may also face problems raising the new capital needed for their work, Zoellick added.

Helen Clark, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), warned that there are very serious challenges to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. These challenges include classic areas of dispute such as rich versus poor, urban versus rural and men versus women.

But, Clark underlined, “Investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect across the Millennium Development Goals and expands the economic possibilities and employment of women. Women’s legal skills and situation must be strengthened in terms of their rights and to enable them to take part in decision-making processes, including in national legislatures.” This would ensure greater equality.

Carsten Staur, Denmark’s ambassador to the United Nations, summed up the recommendations from the conference discussions in five themes:

  • Economic empowerment of women as a rights’ issue and as smart economics.
  • Expansion of women’s entrepreneurship opportunities.
  • Creation of opportunities to overcome social and cultural barriers.
  • Priority for women’s health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.
  • Voice and political participation.

Staur will be presenting the recommendations at the MDG high-level meeting in September.

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