Promoting an Economic and Legal Environment for Women's Empowerment

25 Mar 2010


UNDP Administrator Helen Clark and
World Bank President Robert Zoellick
Promoting a Favorable Economic and Legal Environment for Women’s Empowerment
Address by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator

MDG3 Conference, Copenhagen 25 March 2010
(09:10 – 10:00)

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It is a great pleasure to address this prominent audience on issues related to women’s empowerment - a topic of great importance to UNDP and to me personally.

Let me begin by thanking the Government of Denmark for organizing this event, and for their unwavering support for the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Denmark’s MDG3-Global Call to Action campaign and its torch initiative is an outstanding example of their commitment.

2010 is an important year in our efforts to achieve gender equality.

It marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, agreed on at the UN´s Fourth World Conference on Women. Earlier this month the Beijing +15 review session of the Commission on the Status of Women was held at the UN in New York. In June the Annual Ministerial Review of the Economic and Social Council will focus on the implementation of commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Then, in September, there will be a high level summit at the UN in New York to review progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals, and mobilize support for scaling up and replicating MDG successes.

For, ten years after the Millennium Declaration, there are positive results to report on MDG achievement. At the global level there have been reductions in poverty and child mortality rates, along with increases in access to clean water and primary school enrolment.

Yet, looking beneath the global progress, clearly significant challenges remain.  Setting aside for a moment the extraordinary achievement of China in lifting hundreds of million people out of poverty, the number of people elsewhere living in extreme poverty is actually estimated to have increased in the MDG time frame by about 36 million.

Then, in a number of countries where significant progress has been made towards the MDGs, there are often disparities between the progress in urban and rural areas, and between rich and poor, women and men, and girls and boys. Indigenous and other marginalized communities are also more likely to miss out.

I am aware of an analysis of primary school attendance in 108 developing countries, broken down by location of residence and household wealth. It found that gender parity had been reached in urban areas and among the richest forty per cent of households, but that girls in poor households and rural areas were more likely to be excluded from primary education.

Overall, we see progress lagging on the MDGs where meeting the needs of girls and women does not get the attention it deserves. This is exemplified by the fact that the goal towards which there has been the least progress so far is that on maternal health.

I believe that investing in women and girls in itself constitutes a breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs, and that almost any investment we make in women and girls will have multiplier effects across the Goals.

•    Meeting a woman’s need for sexual and reproductive health services, for example, increases her chances of finishing her education, and breaking out of poverty.
•    Providing a woman with just one extra year of schooling means that her children will be less likely to die in infancy or suffer from illness or hunger.
•    Enabling women to hold land title and to inherit lifts their status in their family and community, and gives them the economic base from which to transform their own and their children’s prospects.

In the lead up to the MDG Summit, UNDP is working with partners to identify what actions will be needed to accelerate progress on the MDGs.  I have been emphasizing for many months now that the Summit and its outcome need to have a sharp gender focus.

Today, I will focus on three inter-related and mutually reinforcing areas where, if action were taken, there would be a positive impact on women’s empowerment and the achievement of the MDGs.

These areas – identified in UNDP’s recently released Asia-Pacific Human Development Report – are:

•    expanding women’s economic opportunities
•    strengthening the legal status and rights of women and
•    ensuring women´s voice, inclusion, and participation in decision making.

One of the most effective ways to expand women’s economic opportunities is to improve their access to and participation in the labor market.

Employment is at the centre of human development. Decent work offers the prospect of dignity and self-respect, as well as the tangible benefits of income and economic opportunity.  It enables people to realise their capabilities and live fulfilling lives, reducing their susceptibility to poverty, morbidity, hunger, and disease.

Unfortunately, gender inequalities persist in labor markets around the world. They can be seen in women’s limited labor market participation, poor working conditions, occupational segregation, and discrimination in the workplace – including lower pay.

While more women than ever before are participating in the work force, close to two thirds of all employed women have vulnerable jobs, either as contributing family workers or as own-account workers.

Societies which narrow the gender gap in employment opportunity will also boost their economic development and rate of poverty reduction. When women have decent work, they, their families, and their communities benefit.

UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Human Development Report states that the under-representation of women in the workforce has significant negative economic consequences.  It suggests that raising the proportion of women in the workforce to the rates seen in many developed countries would increase annual GDP in a number of countries.

Employment guarantee programmes are good examples of actions countries can take to accelerate job creation, including for women.

In India I had the opportunity to see in action the world’s biggest employment creation programme – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Across India, it is providing a right to a minimum of 100 days work a year, benefiting some 46 million households.

The programme is very gender-sensitive - it is mandatory that at least one third of the workers are women. At the national level, the share of women participating has far exceeded that target, with women comprising over 48 per cent of those involved.

UNDP has been associated with the design and implementation of that programme, along with others around the world designed to narrow gender gaps and tackle discrimination in the labor market.

•    In Ghana, UNDP, together with the Government and the World Bank, has helped provide women with technical training to facilitate their access to the information and communications technology sectors.
•    With support from UNDP and UNIFEM, Costa Rica has successfully implemented the “Equality Seal”. It is a voluntary process which certifies that private sector companies are promoting gender equality in their work place. Other countries in the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay, have followed with similar initiatives.

Another constraint on women’s participation in paid work is the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work which falls on women. That adversely affects their choices and opportunities in the labor market.  Too often the impact of that on development is overlooked.

The HIV epidemic has also increased the load on females of all ages. We see care giving duties increasingly shifting to older women and young girls. It is all too common to hear about households where a girl child ends up dropping out of school to look after sick family members.

UNDP’s gender equality strategy recognizes unpaid care work as a priority area to address as we promote inclusive growth, gender equality, and the achievement of the MDGs.

We work in programme countries to establish why unpaid care work matters for development, what interventions would lessen the load women carry, and how the work can be more equitably shared between men and women.

For example, in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, we have worked with partners to provide diesel-powered energy which has the dual benefit of speeding up the time spent on domestic chores and offering income generating opportunities.

The feedback from Burkina Faso suggests that this is helping to reduce the time women devote to domestic work by two to six hours every day. That leaves more time for work which creates cash income and frees up time for girls to go to school.  The status of the women involved has been raised as their agricultural output has increased, and they have been able to save money.

It is also important to unleash the tremendous potential of women entrepreneurs, and to address the obstacles they may face. Supporting women to start their own businesses, or expand existing ones, empowers women, reduces inequality and stimulates economic growth.

The full benefit from these types of interventions comes when they are accompanied by access to financial services. In many countries, legal hurdles stand in the way of women accessing such services. For example, there are banks which require a male co-signatory when a woman seeks to open an account.

That brings me to another necessary ingredient of women’s empowerment: strengthening the legal status and rights of women.

Land is the most important asset for many households in developing countries, and that is particularly so for poor households. Land ownership confers direct economic benefits as a source of production and income, and as collateral for financial and credit services.

The right of women to own property, including land, is recognized under international human rights law.  Often, however, women’s legal rights, including land, property, and inheritance rights, are limited by social norms, customs, and legislation. Armed conflict and the displacement it causes add to their vulnerability.

UNDP works with governments to strengthen women’s legal rights, so that they are consistent with international norms and standards. Our initiative on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor seeks to expand poor people’s access to justice, so that they can use the law to advance their rights and interests.

In Liberia, Mozambique and Uganda, for example, UNDP is supporting community land titling initiatives with special measures to protect the land claims of vulnerable populations and women.  

Where women cannot inherit land, they and their children may be evicted from their homes upon the death of their husbands or fathers. According to UN-HABITAT, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has contributed to an increase in such evictions. Changes to the law in this area would certainly help women to cope with the consequences of the epidemic.

Laws which affect women's ability to control their sexual and reproductive health severely compromise women's autonomy, equality, and health.

UNDP is establishing an independent commission on HIV/AIDS and the law to look at these issues. The commission’s goal will be to develop action-oriented, evidence-based, and human rights-focused recommendations for law and policy reform. We want to facilitate the establishment of supportive national legal environments for responding to HIV/AIDS effectively.

The third, and final, factor I want to highlight as crucial in enabling women’s empowerment is to ensure women’s voice, inclusion and participation in decision-making.

With the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, the international community formally recognized that the active participation of women in decision-making was a prerequisite for equality, development, and peace.

When I received the MDG3 torch, here in Denmark, I committed UNDP to advocate for women on climate change issues and to support women’s voices being heard in the negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen conference. I am pleased to report, that through a partnership with the Global Gender Climate Alliance, UNDP, helped provide training and technical capacity-building for more than 500 women government delegates and practitioners.

Many of those women have been able to take what they have learned and make an impact on these issues and more at the national level.

There are many examples in our world of women making major contributions to the national life of their countries. Without doubt, however, one of the hardest places for women to enter and stay in has been elected office at the national level.

I know from personal experience that increasing the voice and participation of women in politics is essential for putting women’s issues on national agendas.

As of now, women comprise only 18.9 per cent of the world’s legislators - far from the thirty per cent target reaffirmed in Beijing.

At the current rate of progress, it could take another forty years to reach gender parity in the world’s national legislatures, and that’s obviously far too long.

A number of policy options are available to increase women’s voice and participation in decision-making, at the local and national levels, and in the economy. Those include implementing quotas or reserved seats, supporting women to campaign, and requiring gender balance in managerial structures.

It was very exciting for me to be in India earlier this month when one house of its Parliament made the landmark decision, by a huge majority, to reserve one-third of Parliament’s seats for women. That had already been achieved in local councils in India years ago.

Similar efforts are underway in other countries, including Papua New Guinea. The law reserving seats for women which is proposed would lift the number of women parliamentarians from one to 22, bringing PNG close to the current global average. I am proud that UNDP has supported this path breaking initiative.

In line with the “Torch commitment” of my predecessor, Kemal Dervis, UNDP has worked with partners, including parliaments and political parties, to enhance women’s political participation at all levels. For example, in Albania, we assisted in the implementation of the first legislative quota for women in the parliamentary elections last year. The elections resulted in an increase in the level of women’s representation from 7 to 16.4 per cent.

Successfully implementing measures like these requires dedicated political leadership. It also requires men and boys to help foster attitudes and take actions targeted to empower women.

When the new UN gender entity is up and running, I hope it will give the highest possible priority to supporting countries in these important efforts, by providing a strong voice for women at the global level, and practical support for the systemic changes needed at the country level to transform women´s prospects.

As we prepare for the MDG review summit in September, we need to focus on identifying what works, and what doesn’t in our efforts to achieve the MDGs – including MDG3.

Supporting the needs and aspirations of fifty per cent of the world’s population demands nothing less from us.

Let us use this occasion to promote women’s empowerment, and to spread the message that empowering women is not just the right thing to do, but also is critical for meeting the MDGs and the other internationally agreed development goals.