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High-Level Panel report on women’s economic empowerment: a good start but more to do

Written by Abigail Hunt


The UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel, intended to turbo-charge Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) commitments on women’s economic empowerment, launched its first report in New York yesterday. This follows nine months of meetings, consultations and evidence-gathering.

Here are some initial reflections while the report is still hot off the press.

What the report gets right

There were a number of strong elements in the Panel’s analysis that immediately struck a chord:

  • Emphasis on tackling women’s unpaid care and work. Securing an SDG target in this area was a hard-won battle, and the report prioritised it. This is good news, as addressing women’s unpaid work burden – which sees women carry out over three times more unpaid work as men - is essential for women’s economic empowerment. Given that the old-age dependency ratio is projected to increase by 144% by 2050, attention to elderly care in the report’s narrative is also well placed.
  • The need to tackle discriminatory social and gender norms is woven throughout. As the Panel clearly acknowledge, adverse norms and attitudes are a major barrier holding back women’s empowerment. For example, recent ODI research shows that one in five men in 67 countries disagreed that women can hold any job that they are qualified for outside the home, demonstrating attitudes which seriously limits women’s ability to access jobs they are capable of doing.
  • The Panel also recognises that the public sector is an important source of decent jobs for women and that reductions in public spending are especially damaging for women. Evidence clearly shows that women’s unpaid care burden increases as they fill the gap left by diminished social protection and public services, such as health or childcare.
  • Finally, it’s great to see a section outlining what Panel members and their organisations are doing to support women’s economic empowerment. After all, leading by example is crucial to encourage others to take action.

Structural stones left unturned

Sadly, significant structural challenges have been omitted from the report’s ‘Call to Action’. This could be a real hindrance to the ability of the Panel’s work to achieve transformative change, as this is the bit of the report that people will focus on implementing.

For example:

  • Really positively, the report focuses on women’s collective action and the importance of women advocating for themselves in the workplace and to policymakers. But in the recommendations the onus is on civil society and international development institutions to make this happen, rather than on businesses to recognise women’s collectives and unions, or governments to ensure democratic structures which are responsive to their demands. This is likely to seriously limit the effectiveness of women’s advocacy.
  • Elsewhere, the report asks governments to invest in care services and social protection for all. But it’s striking that there is no accompanying call to ensure the fiscal space needed to do this in practice. In fact, the report states that while the gains from these investments are substantial, ‘national budgetary and other constraints’ may take precedence. Unfortunately, this is a real contradiction, and one which seems to betray the report’s solid analysis of the role of public services in supporting women’s economic empowerment. 
  • Finally, a central focus is the world of paid work. There are some good recommendations to support women’s access to economic opportunities, such as addressing workplace discrimination and ensuring family-friendly policies. Yet the call to action is silent on the bigger issue – making sure labour and economic policies work together to create economic opportunities for women in the first place. This is a significant gap, considering that more than 600 million new jobs are needed globally for both women and men in the next decade. By my calculation, that’s only slightly more than the total combined populations of Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Brazil and Ecuador. In this context, it’s hard to see how the report’s ‘Call to Action’ will address one of the deepest structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment – a critical lack of decent work.

The verdict

There really is some great stuff in the report. And if the recommendations proposed in the Panel’s ‘Call to Action’ were all fulfilled there would surely be positive change in many women’s lives.

But after a first read of the report I can’t help feeling that only a year on from the adoption of the SDGs, much of the enthusiasm for achieving bold and deeply transformative change may have already fizzled out.

However, this is not the end. As the Panel’s Co-chair Simona Scarpaleggia said during the report launch event, ‘The conversation will continue in the months to come. We want to have more recommendations to bring in … we want further work and further action for women’s economic empowerment.’

With a second report expected in March 2017, there is perhaps still an opportunity to raise the bar.  

On Tuesday ODI’s Development Progress programme will host a webinar to discuss the report in detail with its co-author Dr. Jeni Klugman and other guests, so do join us for that.