Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Beyond Equal Rights

Reading Time: 9 minutesThe region’s prospects for prosperity hinge on the economic empowerment of women.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Michelle Bachelet is the fi rst undersecretary general and executive director of UN Women. She served as president of Chile from 2006 to 2010. (Portrait by Janet Hamlin)

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Women’s political and economic participation strengthens democracy, equality and the economy. And while women’s empowerment and full participation in society are important goals in themselves, they are also vital for reducing poverty, achieving universal education, improving maternal and child health, and fulfilling other development goals.

Increasing the presence of women in politics not only responds to their rights as citizens; it enriches political discourse, decision-making and inclusiveness, and improves social conditions through the passage of equitable laws and policies.

These are some of the reasons why the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), is placing special focus this year on promoting women’s economic empowerment and political participation, and on ending violence against women. More than goals in and of themselves, these priorities are particularly important to achieving the sustainable development discussed at the Rio+20 Conference last June.

UN member states have shown their support for the advancement of women’s political participation and leadership. For example, on September 16, 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution (A/RES/66/455) that represents a major step forward for advancing women’s political participation globally. Inspired by a joint statement signed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, and others, the resolution reflects the goals of UN Women to expand women’s political participation and leadership. With the resolution, member states reaffirmed that the active participation of women—on equal terms with men at all levels of decisionmaking—is essential to achieving equality, sustainable development, peace, and democracy.

The UN General Assembly also called on all countries to eliminate laws, regulations and practices that prevent or restrict women’s participation in the political process through discrimination. During a political transition countries are further asked to take effective steps to ensure the participation of women on equal terms with men in all phases of political reform. This includes decisions ranging from whether to call for reforms in existing institutions to decisions on transitional governments, government policy formulation, and procedures for electing new democratic governments.

Economic empowerment is just as important as political participation for women’s full participation in society. When women take an active and equal part in the economy, societies are better equipped to reach their economic and social potential. In fact, numerous studies show that closing the gap between male and female employment rates increases productivity and economic growth.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2011 of the World Economic Forum shows that across 134 countries, greater gender equality correlates positively with higher GNP per capita. The Food and Agriculture Organization finds that providing equal access to land, credit, fertilizer, and other inputs could increase national agricultural output by up to 4 percent and reduce hunger by 100 to 150 million people.

Economic empowerment is also a strategic tool to expand women’s political participation and leadership. Without the capacity to generate their own income, women face considerable barriers to reaching the higher levels of education, health care and autonomy needed to participate in politics.

What is needed, then, to increase women’s political representation and economic empowerment?

Our work has shown that some measures are transitional, such as temporary quotas to increase women’s participation in parliaments, public offices and private-sector leadership positions; still others are permanent, such as laws and policies that ensure equality. Some measures are institutional and others require cultural transformation. UN Women is working in conjunction with governments and civil society in all of these areas.

In Politics

Today, despite some advances, women are still a long way from equality with men, whether in economics or in politics. According to Women in Politics: 2012, launched by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women in February, the number of women elected heads of state and government globally has increased from 8 in 2005 to 17 in 2012. The proportion of women ministers has also grown from 14.2 percent in 2005 to 16.7 percent today, with the Nordic countries having the highest percentage (48.4 percent) of women ministers.

But at 21.4 percent, the second highest percentage of women ministers is in the Americas—up 3 percentage points from 2005.

Women also make up 19.5 percent of parliamentarians globally, which represents only a mere half-point increase from two years ago. Still, the number of countries with more than 30 percent female parliamentarians—a threshold endorsed by world leaders at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women—has gone up from 26 in 2010 to 30 today.

In the Americas, 2012 started on a positive note for women’s political participation and leadership. Portia Simpson-Miller took office as the prime minister of Jamaica in January, bringing the number of incumbent women heads of state or government in Latin America and the Caribbean to five—more than any other region in the world. While this is encouraging, there is still more work needed to ensure women’s equal participation and leadership in politics.

Only the legislative bodies of Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Ecuador have what is termed “the critical mass”—30 percent—of women legislators.

Quotas are one way to ensure a minimum number of women candidates, and 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have adopted them. Over the past 20 years, with the help of quotas, women’s congressional representation has jumped from 8 percent to 23 percent. But the implementation of quota laws, while necessary, is not sufficient. Although they have increased the representation of women on party tickets, in some countries quotas have failed to translate into the election of women. Nor have such laws expanded the role of women in political parties, their participation in voting or their representation in national, state or local governments. That is why we must ensure that women are placed in positions on candidate lists that give them real possibilities of being elected.

Fostering and strengthening the capacity of women political leaders is fundamental to increasing the number of women in political office.

Successful initiatives such as SUMA: Democracia es Igualdad (Democracy is Equality) in Mexico point the way forward. The SUMA initiative, supported by the UN Fund for Gender Equality, has provided much-needed leadership training and mentorship to women leaders in several Mexican states and aims to increase women’s congressional representation to 30 percent.

Much work also remains to be done to increase women’s political participation in local governments. According to figures from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), less than 9 percent of elected mayors in the region are women. Here, the creation of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Associations of Elected Women in Local Governments, which brings together women local authorities to strengthen their governance skills, is a promising initiative to lay the groundwork for greater gender equality in municipalities.

In the Economy

In Latin America, the situation of women is also determined by the overall economic context. The region ranks as the most unequal globally in terms of income distribution.1 Despite improvements, poverty and indigence levels remain high, and the corresponding gap with developed countries has not narrowed. In 2010, the poor and indigent population—177 million people— was larger in absolute terms than in 1980.

Between 1990 and 2010, poverty fell by 17 percentage points, from 48.4 percent to 31.4 percent.2 The Gini coefficient, which measures income distribution, also showed a slight improvement in the reduction of inequality since the early 1990s, decreasing from 0.538 to 0.520. While small, this change is significant, signaling a lift in the region’s historic, endemic distortions in the distribution of wealth.

But these changes mask a fundamental inequality in distribution by gender. Despite the substantial and sustained reduction of poverty in the past two decades, significant gender gaps persist. Female-headed households are still poorer than those headed by men.

According to a 2010 ECLAC report, 32 percent of women in cities lacked their own income. The situation was worse in rural areas, where 44 percent of women lacked their own source of revenue. The numbers highlight women’s lack of economic autonomy and their greater vulnerability to poverty. Yet at the same time, without the contribution made by women, ECLAC finds that regional poverty would increase, on average, by 10 percentage points in urban and by 6 points in rural two-parent households.3

Although female labor force participation is above 50 percent in the region and has increased significantly since 1990, with growth rates close to 1 percent a year, adult women experienced an average unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, compared to 3.7 percent for adult men. Women also continue to be overrepresented in informal and low-productivity employment. The employment gap is more pronounced among young people (15–25 years)—and starker still for young women, who have a 17.6 percent unemployment rate compared to 11.4 percent among young men.4

To address this situation, UN Women is focusing its Latin American and Caribbean strategy on women’s economic rights and opportunities. This strategy places special emphasis on strengthening business capacities and access to markets, and increasing incomes for those women who are most excluded. We are also focusing on political participation, since more women decision-makers will advance the second generation of gender policies needed to address the complexity of equality, taking into greater account the roles of women and men, including in the family.

Latin America has made significant progress during the past few decades in expanding access for women to education, jobs and assets. Today, however, gender policy is moving from quantity to quality to cement past gains and address remaining gaps necessary for gender equality to become a reality.5

This agenda requires strong political will and leadership to support effective and appropriate institutions that meet the demands of the population—particularly women and girls. It also requires adequate levels of social investment through a strong social system of protection, as envisioned in the report I launched last October with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on social policy.6 This report underscores the need for basic social protections where everyone has access to basic health services, primary education, income security, housing, water and sanitation, and other essential services—all necessary to reduce inequality and deprivation. In addition, policies must systematically account for and reduce the burden women face for unpaid work.

In the Private Sector

Public policy should always be the result of a fluid dialogue between the state, the private sector and citizens. This is where the private sector comes in.

On the business side, since 2009 more than 400 chief executive officers of some of the world’s most important and influential corporations have subscribed to the Women’s Empowerment Principles—Equality Means Business that includes seven principles and standards to ensure equal opportunities for women in the corporate environment.

The principles focus on: establishing high-level corporate leadership for gender equality; treating all women and men fairly at work by respecting and supporting human rights and nondiscrimination; ensuring the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers; promoting education, training and professional development for women; implementing enterprise development; fostering supply chain and marketing practices that empower women; promoting equality through community initiatives and advocacy; and measuring and publicly reporting on progress to achieve gender equality.

The number of corporations subscribing to these principles increases every year, reflecting the growing awareness that empowering women builds strong economies and more stable and just societies.

In promoting women’s economic empowerment and addressing persistent inequalities, it is crucial to focus attention on women with the highest levels of vulnerability, such as Indigenous populations, Afro-descendants and domestic workers. There are 14 million domestic workers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In the U.S., they total 1.8 million—95 percent of whom are women immigrants.

A promising step was taken last year with the adoption of the ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The new convention sets essential standards, including the right of domestic workers to receive at least minimum wage for their work.

While this represents a political landmark in efforts to eradicate inequalities and empower women domestic workers, countries need to ratify the convention and put its provisions into effect to make it a living reality for those whom it is intended to benefit. UN Women is providing assistance to domestic workers’ networks in Latin America and the Caribbean so they can demand ratification of this critical convention and ensure its effective implementation.

Rural women face particular barriers and inequalities in access to social services, land and other productive assets. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), a girl born in the rural highlands of Peru, for instance, is four times more likely to be poor and three times more likely not to complete secondary school than a girl from Lima.

The 2008 and 2010 Human Opportunity reports of The World Bank point out that personal circumstances still matter a lot for Latin American children. A mother’s level of education will very likely determine her child’s level of education and opportunity. Birthplace is still the most powerful predictor of whether a child will have access to basic infrastructure.

In the Home and in Society

Beyond the overall benefits of empowerment, we must always bear in mind that empowering women economically will contribute significantly to the eradication of one of the most pervasive epidemics of our time: violence against women and girls. When a woman is economically empowered, she is less likely to depend on a partner who subjects her to violence.

This is particularly relevant for women in Latin America and the Caribbean, who face some of the world’s highest levels of violence. A 2009 report by ECLAC indicates that up to 40 percent of women throughout the region have been victims of physical violence. This rate further increases when considering emotional abuse. In a comparative study conducted for the UN World’s Women Report, the region ranked highest in terms of sexual violence. For example, 44 percent of Mexican women have experienced sexual violence at least once during their lifetimes. Impunity remains a major problem, with 98 percent of cases of violence against women and girls remaining unresolved in Guatemala.

Violence against women takes a high toll on women, their families and economies. Australia’s National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children estimated that acts of violence against women and children in 2009 cost its economy nearly $14 billion. The cost of intimate partner violence alone in the U.S. exceeds $5.8, billion including lost productivity, medical care, police services, and legal assistance.

Many actions are being carried out to address gender violence. Actions taken by governments and civil society have made possible better prevention and treatment mechanisms, but a deep cultural change to render gender-based violence as socially unacceptable is needed to significantly diminish and prevent violence.

During my tenure as UN Women’s executive director, I have traveled to many countries and regions, where I have witnessed the willingness of governments, civil society, and women and men of different cultures and backgrounds to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment and end violence against women. The creation of UN Women is an unequivocal acknowledgement by the international community that gender equality is indispensable for development, social justice and prosperity.

Approaches and perspectives that exclude half the world’s population are no longer acceptable. There can be no durable solution to current global challenges—whether climate change, inequality or financial instability—without women’s full empowerment, participation and leadership.

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