Another 170 years?

Posted: 2017-03-23
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: women empowerment women human rights

If women’s empowerment is such a compelling factor of success why is it so slow to be delivered?

The World has become  more unpredictable and chaotic, the rights of girls and women are being reduced and leaving women behind means foresaking the important contributions they  make to the global economy. Gender equality describes the absence of obvious or hidden disparities among individuals based on gender in terms of opportunities, resources, services, benefits, decision-making power and influence.


New data released by the United Nations Children's Fund shows over 700 million women alive today were married as children. Child marriage interrupts girls’ education, limits their livelihood options. Across the world, persisting gender gaps in education, employment and entrepreneurship are related to discriminatory social institutions, defined as laws, social norms and practices which restrict the economic and social roles of girls and women.  The challenge of delivering long-term strong and sustainable economic growth that benefits all can only be met if best use is made of all available resources. Women’s rights are human rights. 

Officially, the responsibility of official institutions  to appropriately address issues of gender mainstreaming into policies and programmes was embedded with United Nations Beijing Platform for Action as endorsed by 160 governments in 1995. Gender equality is central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the global plan agreed by leaders of United Nations Member countries to meet the challenges we face. Sustainable Development Goal Nr.5 calls specifically for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and this is central to the achievement of all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women, either through their own earnings or cash transfers, changes spending in ways that benefit children. A United Nations study using data from 219 countries from 1970 to 2009 found that, for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality decreased by 9.5 %. Women’s access to education and health services has benefits for their families and communities that extend to future generations. If women’s empowerment is such a compelling factor of success why is it so slow to be delivered?

Gender equality is not just about economic empowerment. It is a moral imperative about equity, and includes many political, social and cultural dimensions. The World Economic Forum suggests that at the current pace gender equality will not be realized globally for another 170 years. The question is: are we willing to take another 170 years?

It is true that many countries around the world have made progress of girls succeeding in education, women entering the paid workforce and running successful businesses, patterns of gender inequality continue to persist.  For example, data from the United Nations Women Progress Report 2015 – 2016 shows that over 115 countries have passed laws on domestic violence, on sexual harassment, equal pay and guaranteed paid maternity leave. Similarly, women have equal rights to own property in over 100 countries, by law.

The ability of governments to develop evidence-driven, responsive and inclusive policies is a fundamental element for achieving genuine gender equality. Empowering women and girls is the only way to protect their rights and make sure they can realize their potential.


Increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth. Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50 % of the economic growth in  the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries over the past 50 years, of which over half is due to girls having had access to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in education between men and women.  But, for the majority of women, significant gains in education have not translated into better labour market outcomes.

According to United Nations data women continue to participate in labour markets on an unequal basis with men. In 2013, the male employment-to-population ratio stood at 72.2 %, while the ratio for females was 47.1 %. Globally, women are paid less than men. Women in most countries earn on average only 60 to 75 % of men’s wages.  When paid and unpaid work are combined, women in developing countries work more than men, with less time for education, leisure, political participation and self-care.  Despite some improvements over the last 50 years, in virtually every country, men spend more time on leisure each day while women spend more time doing unpaid housework. Women are responsible for household food preparation in 85-90 % of cases surveyed in a wide range of countries.


Gender differences in laws affect both developing and developed economies, and women in all regions.

Women are more likely than men to work in informal employment. New data released by the United Nations shows in South Asia, over 80 % of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment, in sub-Saharan Africa, 74 %, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 54 %.  In rural areas, many women derive their livelihoods from small-scale farming, almost always informal and often unpaid. Women comprise an average of 43 %  of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, varying considerably across regions from 20 % or less in Latin America to 50 % or more in parts of Asia and Africa. Despite the regional and sub-regional variation, women make an essential contribution to agriculture across the developing world.

According to International Labour Organisation data,  in  2013, 49.1 % of the world’s working women were in vulnerable employment, often unprotected by labour legislation, compared to 46.9 % of men. Women were far more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment in East Asia (50.3 % versus 42.3 %), South-East Asia and the Pacific (63.1 % versus 56 %), South Asia (80.9 % versus 74.4 %), North Africa (54.7 % versus 30.2 %), the Middle East (33.2 % versus 23.7 %) and Sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 85.5 % versus 70.5 %).

This gap is largest among lower middle-income economies as well as in South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa.  Public policies can tackle these stereotypes, showcasing experiences of women who succeeded in male-dominated industries with high individual and social returns. The design of effective support policies towards women empowerment in  developing countries requires a deeper understanding of the local landscape where women operate. 


The financial systems in developing and emerging countries are deeply different from those of high income economies. There are fewer commercial banks, often operating in non-competitive environments and located far from rural areas. The costs of access to these institutions can be prohibitively high. In most developing and emerging economies, micro and small businesses play a key role in the livelihoods of millions of workers and their families. The share of women among owners of micro and small enterprises is much higher in the informal sector of emerging and developing economies.  Many female business owners in the informal sector have no formal education, and start their business out of economic necessity despite the fact that women tend to have less access to formal financial institutions and saving mechanisms. While 55 % of men report having an account at a formal financial institution, only 47 % of women do worldwide. The entrepreneurial mindset among women also in science and technology can be fostered by integrating entrepreneurship modules into technology-oriented programmes of study, and by engaging more women in campus-based incubators, science parks and technology centres. Smooth access to finance is not only crucial for business creation, but it is also an engine of investments and innovation in existing enterprises.

Companies greatly benefit from increasing leadership opportunities for women, which is shown to increase organizational effectiveness. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness.  McKinsey Global Institute’s 2015 “Power of Parity” report found that advancing women economic parity could add USD 12 trillion to global economy by 2025. When more women work, economies grow. 

Despite some improvements, leadership positions across the board are still held by men.  Increasing the proportion of women in public institutions makes them more representative, increases innovation, improves decision-making and benefits whole societies.


Closing the gender gaps in education, employment, decision making process and entrepreneurship requires all involved stakeholders to introduce policy interventions to shift discriminatory social institutions, which are often based on deep-seated social norms and gender stereotypes. This requires a multifaceted approach, including:

Reform of formal and informal legal frameworks and the harmonisation of laws to provide equality for women and men and the prohibition of discriminatory and harmful practices. Examples include reform of Family Codes towards equality in marriage and inheritance and legislation criminalising domestic violence.

Economic support and incentives for individuals, families and communities to change behaviours and to address discriminatory attitudes. For example, by supporting parents to invest the educational participation of their daughters as well as their sons.

Community awareness and empowerment initiatives to change discriminatory attitudes, social norms and practices, through for example, media campaigns reinforcing the value of daughters.
Long-term change ultimately requires a shift to change discriminatory attitudes and  to address the gap between laws and practice.  Mainstreaming the gender perspective at all levels of policy is one aspect of efficiently enhancing gender equality. Increasing awareness among families and children of the benefits of education can be a successful and cost-effective policy to increase school attendance and reduce drop-out rates with little cost to the public purse.

Gender equality has a transformative effect that is essential to fully functioning communities, societies and economies. Empowering women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors and throughout all levels of economic activity is essential to build strong economies; establish more stable societies; improve the quality of life for women, men, families and communities; and improve the performance of global environment.  Women empowerment is the only way to protect their rights and make sure they can realize their full potential.

Author: Sintija Bernava

Chairwoman of the Board of Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’ - Only Organisation from Latvia  holding Consultative Status of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
Sintija Bernava is Member of Advisory Executive Council of Women Economic Forum (WEF) and Program Director of Social Inclusion Program ‘’Life Skills Academy’’.

Sintija Bernava holds Master Degree in Public Administration and Management and Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. She has  a long-standing extensive professional experience holding  high-profile positions in the Office of the Prime Minister of Latvia and  Parliament of Latvia.


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