Prof. Diane Elson, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Sociology from University of Essex in U.K., spoke about Inclusive Economies for Women’s Empowerment. Prof. Diane Elson discussed the meaning inclusive economies for women’s empowerment and new challenges COVID-19 pandemic posed on inclusive economies and women’s empowerment. Prof. Elson claimed that the sustainable development agenda has no goal or target that specifically focus on economic inclusion and women’s empowerment. In other words, sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth don’t actually mean women’s empowerment. SDG Goal #5 requires governments to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls but it doesn’t actually mention economic inclusion of women. However, it holds governments accountable to undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources. I think we need to focus more on the issue of rights, not just participation, to ensure that economic inclusion really empowers women.
What do we mean by inclusion? In reality, there are many forms of inclusion of women in economies that can be harmful. For instance, forcible inclusion, forced labor and modern slavery, injurious inclusion, unsafe working conditions, long and exhausting hours of work, impoverished inclusion where earnings are not above the poverty level, precarious inclusion where employment is insecure, segregated inclusion, and inclusion in low paying occupations at the bottom of the jobs hierarchy.
The above mentioned negative examples of inclusion are not considered when people talk about how inclusion in the economy will empower women. But those are many of the realities that many women face. So, we have to be very careful what kind of inclusion we’re talking about. Some of inclusion in financial markets sounds very good that every woman should have a bank account, but when you start to engage with financial markets, you can face harms. You can face predators who mis-sell financial products, who defraud you to increase your levels of indebtedness, lead to loss of assets and to vulnerability of harassment by debt collectors. So, again, financial inclusion needs unpacking the reforms of financial inclusion that are beneficial. But there are also forms that are harmful that many women face is that they’re simultaneously included and excluded.
Trade and Development Report in 2017 put forward inclusion of women in the sense that women are participating in the labor market and in financial markets, but they’re often excluded from the prosperity as an outcome from this inclusion. According to the global data sets by the International Labor Organization (ILO), women predominate among workers in vulnerable employment, defined as own-account workers and contributing family workers. ILO data on a broader range of called it non-standard forms of employment, temporary employment, seasonal work, casual work, part-time on-call employment agency work, etc. Women, young people, and migrants are more likely to be found in non-standard arrangements compared to men.
So, how can inclusion be made empowering? It’s not enough to celebrate that many women are participating in the labor market and the financial markets. We have to focus on the issue of how this inclusion can be made empowering. In 1999, ILO’s Decent Work Agenda payed attention to four issues. The first is the creation of fair and productive employment that can provide a decent livelihood. The second was rights at work. The third is social protection, including cash benefits and access to basic services. And the fourth is promotion of social dialogue between government, employers, subcontractors and workers organizations. And gender equality is a crosscutting objective of the decent work agenda that recognizes women empowerment as employment, access to social protection, cash benefits and access to basic services.
While women participate in the economy, many women are really burdened with unpaid work. Many low-income women are overworked that they’re already participating in work that generates some income, although not enough, but also burdened with the need to collect fuel, water, prepare meals, take care of children, frail elderly people, people living with long term illness. The long hours of exhausting work, both paid and unpaid, deplete their own health and strength. So, too much work is far from empowering. Empowerment must include a reduction of the overall burden and more time for rest and for participation in the life of the community through the political processes. Empowerment isn’t just a matter of having an income but it is also having some free time to participate in sport.
Investment is needed to provide affordable access to clean energy, water, sanitation and care. The SDGs do recognize this, but sometimes when we talk about women’s economic empowerment, we only talk about the labor market and the financial market. We forget the need for this complementary investment in energy, water, sanitation and care services.
Around the world, women play a disproportionate role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic because they are the majority of frontline health care workers. Women also undertake the majority of care in the home. Women’s unpaid care work has increased significantly as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people.
Women have also been hit hard by the economic impact of measures to halt the spread of COVID-19, especially women who work in the informal economy. Globally, nearly 60 percent of women work in the informal economy, both as self-employed workers and as wage workers, and this goes up to 90 percent in developing countries. So, the empowerment of women through inclusion in the economy really have to focus on the informal economy. Governments aiming to slow the virus have put in place measures ranging from border closures to full lockdown. Many of these measures forced informal workers to give up their livelihoods, alter their ways of working, and their incomes have been reduced. Sometimes it’s impossible for informal workers to earn the livelihood and the very survival of these workers and their families have been threatened. So, government should issue clear directives to lock down enforcement agents to refrain from harassment, violence, bribery, forced evictions and demolition of informal workers assets, including their homes and workplaces. We are seeing through the misuse of public health measures to contain COVID-19, the destruction of inclusion and empowerment of the large numbers of women in the informal economy, which has to stop.
However, many governments are expanding and adapting social protection measures in an attempt to provide basic level of food and income security to the many households that rely on earnings from informal work. In April 2020, the World Bank identified 133 countries which have implemented such measures. But a large number of these are short-term emergency measures. A new research conducted by Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WEGO) suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on informal incomes is unlikely to be short-term while the safety nets currently being put in place is vital in this time of immediate crisis. Former workers need access to recovery packages, including low interest loans, access to start-up capital, access to public procurement processes, which allows informal workers participation and reskilling and training programs.
Women’s empowerment requires much more than participation in the labor market and the financial market. It requires participation that is accompanied by measures to realize women’s economic and social rights. A renewed emphasis on this is needed if we don’t come back from covid-19 and move back on track for achieving the sustainable development goals.