Helen Clark:Speech at the International Conference 'Celebrating the Centenary of Women’s Right to Vote in Norway'

Nov 15, 2013

Keynote Speech by Helen Clark on
The Effect of the Global Financial Crisis on Women
At the International Conference
Celebrating the Centenary of Women’s Right to Vote in Norway
Oslo, Norway

Thank you for inviting me to contribute to this discussion on the effect of the global financial crisis on women.  

I look forward to engaging with State Secretary Hans Brattskar, Professor Radhika Balakrishnan, and with you all on this important topic.  I trust that our moderator, Gro Lindstad, Executive Director of the Forum for Women and Development, co-organizers of this conference, will steer us in the right direction. 

At the outset let me congratulate Norway on this centennial celebration of women’s suffrage. The right to vote and choose one’s parliamentary and subnational representatives is one of the most basic civil and political rights. In my country, New Zealand, we celebrated our centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993, and take pride in being the first nation in the world to achieve this.

Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, states that one of the purposes of the UN lies in: “…promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.  A number of UN instruments and conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – which will have its twentieth anniversary in 2015, and the Millennium Declaration of 2000, all reinforce the global commitments made to women’s empowerment and gender equality. 

Norway is among those countries with high levels of gender equality and has, in ten of the last eleven reports, ranked first in the world on UNDP’s Human Development Index  . In the latest Human Development Report, it ranked first in the HDI, and fifth using the Gender Inequality Index. 

Gender equality remains an elusive goal in many parts of the world. A new report from UNDP to be launched shortly, Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries, argues that while women have experienced significant progress in education, with most countries coming close to achieving gender parity in primary education and almost three quarters of countries achieving gender parity in secondary school enrolment rates, women remain disproportionately represented in vulnerable employment and continue to earn significantly less than men. Furthermore, they remain grossly underrepresented among political decision makers.

A number of structural factors, as well as social norms, are standing in the way of achieving gender equality in incomes, access to livelihoods, and decision-making.  This has implications for the way in which financial crises – and indeed other shocks – impact on women and girls. For example:
•    pre-existing inequitable power relations between men and women, and boys and girls, are exacerbated in times of crisis;
•    times of crisis may lead to a shift in national priorities away from efforts to empower women and girls, resulting in progress towards gender equality stalling or even reversing; and
•    social spending may be cut, increasing the burden on women and girls as carers of elderly, frail, and/or young family members - this may be one of the pressures leading to girls being pulled out of school.

My remarks today will touch on these concerns.

I will begin by discussing the economic and social impacts of the global financial crisis on women and girls, drawing on the available evidence.  I will then provide examples of the types of policies and initiatives which could be implemented to mitigate such impacts.  Finally, I will make the case that times of crisis – while challenging and painful – can offer opportunities to tackle structural barriers to women’s equality.  

A.    The Social and Economic Impact of the Financial Crisis on Women

Let me turn to the main question for our discussion today: Have women been disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis? And, if yes, in which ways?

This is a challenging question to answer, because there is often not adequate gender-disaggregated data for quality analyses of the differential impacts on women and for evidence-based policymaking. Studies looking at the impact of the global crisis consistently make this point.

As well, women’s circumstances vary greatly across countries and regions.  The impact of a global crisis on women living in a very high human development country like Norway will be very different from that on women in least developed countries, and where, for example, remittances have dried up because of the impacts of the crisis on migrant workers in countries far away. 

Differences may also be profound within the groupings of developed and developing countries, depending on a country’s level of exposure to the crisis and the way in which it responded – this has been very much the case in Europe in recent years.  And even within countries, developed and developing, certain groups of women may be harder hit, depending on their age, ethnicity, or socio-economic or immigration status – to name just a few factors.    

While some impacts of the crisis may have been immediate, for example where women lost their jobs, others, such as the impact on nutrition for pregnant women and subsequent poorer developmental outcomes for their children, may not be evident for years to come. 

With these caveats in mind, it is possible to assert that women will have suffered disproportionately from the crisis by extrapolating from the evidence available from study of previous crises, as well as from what we know about the recent one.  
1)    Economic Impact: Labor Market Participation and Access to Credit

The International Labour Organization’s Global Employment Trends for Women 2012 report, finds that the conditions of women’s engagement in the labour market worsened during the global crisis, and that gender gaps in indicators of unemployment and employment, which had been reducing between 2002 and 2007, began to grow again from 2008 in many regions .  

In developed countries, evidence summarized by the IMF suggests that in the early years of the crisis, specifically from 2007 to 2009, fewer women than men in OECD countries lost their jobs, as male-dominated industries like construction were hit harder.  Thereafter, however, as the male unemployment rate began to stabilize or fall, women continued to lose their jobs . 

In a number of developing countries, the economic crisis did affect women disproportionately from the outset because they dominated employment in export-oriented industries. In Latin America, for example, sectors with a predominantly female workforce like textiles, apparel, and tourism, were hit harder.  Evidence from Mexico suggests that women accounted for 71 per cent of all lay-offs there in 2008 .

Women are often over-represented in the informal sector, so the data available on the impact on jobs is unlikely to reflect the full impact of the global crisis on them.   In the Central African Republic, for example, the mining industry was hit hard by the crisis. While men represent the majority of workers in the industry, women are over-represented in the informal sector concentrated around the mines.  It stands to reason that if the mines’paid mine workforce is earning less, there will be impacts on the informal female workforce.

For women who remained in the workforce, there is concern that the crisis has led to worsening conditions. For example, for self-employed women pre-existing barriers to accessing credit and financial services may have increased.  Drawing on evidence from the Asian crisis, a report by the Levy Economic Institute of Bard College in New York suggests that policy responses should address the “limitations women face in gaining access to credit and assets, as these are all the more exacerbated at times of crisis” . 

2)    Social Impact: Health, Education and Unpaid Care Work

The full social impacts of the crisis are still being documented, but we can expect there to have been education- and health-related impacts in the short- and long- term, with younger girls particularly impacted.
A recent report by Plan International and ODI, Off the balance sheet: the impact of the economic crisis on girls and young women, reviews the evidence to date, and draws particular attention to the impact on this younger group.  It notes that:
•    Infant mortality rates for girls are particularly sensitive to drops in per capita GDP. It has been calculated that a one per cent decline in GDP per capita increases average infant mortality by 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births for girls, whereas for boys the increase is much smaller at 1.5 deaths per 1,000 live births.
•    For children under-five, the food crisis in 2010-2011, which pushed 44 million people into poverty, had a greater negative impact on the weight gain of girls than of boys.
•    During times of economic contraction, primary school completion rates often decline, with the decrease among girls being higher than that among boys (29 per cent versus 22 per cent).
•    Girls and young women are often compelled to take up riskier employment to compensate for decreases in family income.  This can involve sexual exploitation, and can increase young women’s risk of contracting HIV.
•    For pregnant adolescent girls, who are already vulnerable to poor health outcomes, cuts in health budgets are particularly worrisome if they lead to fewer ante-natal check-ups and an increase in unattended home births, as in previous crises .

Similar concerns are raised by a recent UNAIDS discussion paper which notes that: “During times of economic crisis, global gender inequalities mean that women and girls, particularly in low-income countries, are more likely to be taken out of school, are the first to reduce the quantity or quality of food they eat or forgo essential medicines, and are more likely to sell sex in order to survive.”   

It also notes that to compensate for shrinking wages and to remain competitive, women often need to work longer hours, at the same time as cuts in public spending in care-related sectors may have increased the burden of their work in the home. 

Given that the evidence points to these disproportionate impacts of the crisis on women and girls, it should be possible to design and advocate for policies which could avoid or at least mitigate such impact, and help remove some of the structural barriers to gender equality.

B.    Building the resilience of women to economic crisis

In December 2009, UNDP issued a Guidance Note titled Turning the Global Financial and Economic Crisis into Opportunity for Poor Women and Men.  It outlined the threats posed by the economic and financial crisis to developing countries and how they could impact on advancing gender equality.

This Note set out an “Action Plan for Gender-Responsive Recovery at the Country Level”.  It emphasized the need to:
•    identify the sectors and areas where the crisis has had the greatest impact on poor women and men;
•    implement quick-win solutions, while also promoting medium- and long-term policies to empower women;
•    institutionalize gender-responsive budgeting; and,
•     build capacities of stakeholders where needed.

To support countries in such efforts, UNDP works with governments to help mainstream gender-considerations in national policies, strategies, and budgets through a range of advisory services, advocacy work, and capacity building activities.  For example:

•    Through our Global Gender and Economic Policy Management Initiative, which addresses gender-related capacity constraints in economic planning processes, UNDP has trained policy makers to use gender frameworks, analysis, and applications in the design of economic development and poverty reduction policies. Such training programmes have been held across the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions.

•    In Colombia, UNDP is supporting the Ministry of Labour to include gender analysis in Labour Observatories and in its main Labour Equity Programme.

•    In Zimbabwe, UNDP supported the Ministry of Water Resources and Development to produce a Gender Responsive Water Policy which includes strategies to reduce women’s unpaid care work.

In times of crisis, social protection schemes are very important in shielding the most vulnerable from the worst effects, as they strengthen the resilience of individuals, families, and communities. 

Studies suggest that where social protection schemes were already in place when the financial crisis hit, they helped the poor cope better with its impact – for example by enabling families to continue to pay for food, education, health, and other costs. When gender considerations are integrated in their design, social protection systems can also ensure that women and girls are not disproportionately impacted by shocks.

•    For example, I have often highlighted India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which guarantees a minimum of one hundred days work a year to eligible rural poor; sets a minimum quota for women’s participation in the scheme; and prioritises work on environmental sustainability, including water and reforestation.  This scheme can simultaneously empower women, provide jobs and incomes, and have a positive impact on the environment. Women also have thirty per cent representation guaranteed on the village councils which determine the priorities for the work to be done. 

•    In Bangladesh, UNDP has supported the Rural Employment Opportunities for Public Assets (REOPA) initiative for helping female-headed households. It provides two years employment for destitute women and employment for casual labourers in six food-insecure districts during the lean period. In addition, the women undertake various training sessions on social and legal issues, gender equity, human rights, primary health care, nutrition and income generation. So far, nearly 25,000 women have moved out of poverty through being employed in this scheme.

Working at the local level, UNDP’s initiatives on women’s economic empowerment have also helped sustain human development, even in highly adverse circumstances, by building the resilience of women to shocks. An important part of this work has been around supporting female entrepreneurship. This provides women and girls with alternative livelihoods when formal employment options are unavailable.  For example:

•    In Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, UNDP provided financial and technical support to improve women’s entrepreneurial, marketing, and income-generating skills, through training and provision of improved seed. This enabled the women to access decent work, increase their agricultural productivity, and enhance their own and their families’ livelihoods.

•    In Georgia, vocational education courses provided through local implementing partners have contributed to economic empowerment of women from vulnerable communities.  Around sixty per cent of the women graduates from the programme went on to become self employed entrepreneurs.

•    In FYR Macedonia, a programme on the economic empowerment of female victims of domestic violence is providing opportunities for self-employment and training for skills in demand in the job market.

•    And, in response to the global crisis, in Serbia, UNDP’s Severance to Jobs project supported the self-employment of women who lost their jobs in 2009.

C.    Recovering from crisis - an opportunity to expand women’s leadership
As today’s session comes under the overall title of “The Road to Sustainable Democracy”, it is useful to consider the role of women’s leadership and involvement in recovery from crisis. 

In 2009, the Commission on the Status of Women held an expert panel discussion on gender perspectives on the financial crisis.  There, experts warned that government policy responses must focus on the role of women as economic agents, in order to contribute to growth and recovery, and to enable women to participate fully in financial and economic decision-making processes . 

Women must also have the opportunity to be political agents more broadly, so that they can help shape the transformation of their societies. It is unjust for women to have to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden in times of crisis, yet not to have the opportunity to participate in redesigning the systems which made them vulnerable in the first place.

Based on data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the proportion of women in national legislatures in the world’s regions ranges from roughly 24 per cent in the Americas and Europe, to 22 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, nineteen per cent in Asia, and sixteen per cent in the Pacific and in the Arab States. 

As Prime Minister of my country for nine years, Leader of the Opposition for six years before that, Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party for fifteen years, and as a Member of Parliament for 27.5 years, I am well acquainted with the challenges women face when entering the hitherto male-dominated field of politics, and with how decisions which impact on the lives of women have often been made without women at the table, particularly economic decisions. 

In my current position, I note how few women there often are at major international meetings – focused on economic and financial matters.

This needs to change.  Perhaps there should be an explicit call from the international community to guarantee women seats at the table in economic and financial decision-making.
This is not as far-fetched as it may at first seem. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security and subsequent resolutions on the same topic were revolutionary in affirming that for peace and security to be sustained, women must be empowered, their voices must be heard, and they must be included as active participants in conflict prevention, management, and resolution. It called for women to have a seat at all relevant decision-making tables. 

In Rwanda, for example, which experienced genocide, women now hold 64 per cent of seats in parliament, taking that ‘seat at the table’ by breaking into the previously male-dominated space and thereby permanently transforming the political landscape.   

Clearly it is possible to emerge from crisis with structures transformed and, with that, the opportunity for improvements in people’s lives.  We should apply this thinking to recovery from economic and other shocks – like major disasters – just as it is being applied to recovery from war and conflict.

Already, I am pleased to note, such concepts are being applied to how climate change is addressed. Last year, at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, COP-18, a decision was taken to increase women’s representation in climate negotiations, and to set “a goal of gender balance in bodies established pursuant to the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, in order to improve women’s participation and inform more effective climate change policy that addresses the needs of women and men equally” . 

UNDP will continue working with political parties, electoral commissions, parliaments, local assemblies, and other national partners on measures to strengthen women’s political participation in countries around the world, and advocate for women’s leadership in the political, social, economic, and environmental spheres.

In closing, I refer to a powerful quote from the Women’s Major Group statement at the civil society conference on “Advancing the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda” in Bonn this March:
“We do not want to be mainstreamed into a polluted stream. We call for deep and structural changes to existing global systems of power, decision-making, and resource sharing. This includes enacting policies that recognize and redistribute the unequal and unfair burdens of women and girls in sustaining societal wellbeing and economies, intensified in times of economic and ecological crises.”

The latest global crisis has more or less passed, despite its lingering impacts which are serious for many, but it is certainly will not be the last. 

Our world's problems are deeply interconnected.  Countries and their citizens are exposed to economic crises emanating far away. The challenge is to support all countries to put in place systems to mitigate the impacts. Had such systems not been in place in those Western European nations where the crisis hit hard, even greater economic and social distress would have been suffered.  The same applies to developing countries which had built effective social protection systems – the impact of the global crisis on the poorest there was reduced.

The consultations which took place on the post-2015 development agenda, globally, regionally, and in 88 countries around the world, revealed that there is strong interest among the world’s citizens in being part of the process of shaping a new development agenda.

This agenda must help build the resilience of  women and men, girls and boys, and their communities to future challenges.  Promoting gender equality and women’s active political, economic, and social participation is central to that.   Gender inequality is unacceptable from a human rights perspective, and is also a significant impediment to development progress.  Investments made in women and girls are great multipliers of development progress.  Failing to make those investments, and failing to boost the status of women and girls, thwarts the potential not only of individuals, but also of families, communities, and nations.

At this centennial commemoration of women’s suffrage, let us celebrate the progress made towards gender equality in Norway and elsewhere, but also acknowledge that much remains to be done.  Times of crisis expose vulnerabilities and inequity, and threaten to reverse human development progress; but crises can also enable transformative change if managed well.

I hope that our discussion today will help identify some of these opportunities to expand women’s empowerment.

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