Answers to the 'woman question'

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Twenty years after the 1995 International Conference on Women in Beijing, the "woman question" still begs for answers.

For Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, the question boils down to such a simple query as: "Why should an 11-year-old girl, on frail legs, have to fetch the water to quench the thirst of a muscular man?"

Speaking Wednesday at the High Level Dialogue on "Economies that Work for Women," Mlambo-Ngcuka sought to situate the question in the context of "unpaid care work," which afflicts the majority of the world's women and is, she said, "a structural cause of gender inequality."

All over the world, she added, "children are made by both men and women. But child care is a woman's responsibility in almost all countries."

But women are expected not just to look after babies and children; the responsibility of caring for elderly parents and sick members of the family likewise falls on them.

This "caring duty" also extends from family members to the home itself, to "providing household necessities" that include food preparation (and, in many instances, food gathering), fetching water, foraging for fuel, housecleaning, and even providing sexual services-even as, frequently, a woman must also "contribute" her share of productive labour with work outside the home.

"In an era of unprecedented global wealth, millions of women are still trapped in low-paid, poor-quality jobs, denied even basic levels of healthcare, water and sanitation," she declared, noting how "this is particularly true of women facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, based on factors such as age, income level, ethnicity and location."

True, much has changed since 20 years ago, including the creation of UN Women after decades of campaigning among women's groups and women within the UN System for a major and distinct UN body devoted to the advancement of women.

But as Mlambo-Ngcuka admits, despite the advances gained in the last two decades, "progress in gaining gender equality overall has been slow and uneven."

Still, bemoaning the situation-and stopping at that-was not the reason for Mlambo-Ngcuka's visit to the country.

What needs to change to make economies work for women?

The UN Women executive director focused on three areas: the pay gap in formal labour, informal employment, and the "gender penalty."

"Women almost universally earn less for the same job than men, or do precarious work," Mlambo-Ngcuka observed. Globally, she noted, women are paid 24 per cent less than men, although the specifics vary widely: Women earn 20 per cent less in East Asia and the Pacific and 33 per cent less in South Asia.

It isn't just wages that matter. The nature of the work works to women's disadvantage, too. "In some developing regions," Mlambo-Ngcuka said, "upwards of 75 per cent of women's employment is informal, unprotected by labour laws or social protection."

An "honourable exception," she added, is the Philippines which till now is "the only country in East Asia and Pacific region that has ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention adopted in 2011."

In East Asia and the Pacific, excluding China, 78 per cent of women are engaged in informal employment (nonsalaried, impermanent, unrecognised) and over one-third are in informal agricultural employment, added Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Globally, millions of women in developing countries make their living through small-scale farming while in South Asia, 64 per cent of women are informally self-employed, with 31 per cent in informal wage employment.

Over a lifetime, noted the UN Women head, such inequalities "add up to a devastating loss of security and status," reflecting and reinforcing economies and societies "that chronically undervalue girls and women."

This Mlambo-Ngcuka calls "the gender penalty," consisting of "fundamental attitudes and conceptions of relative human value that play out in sexual violence, in discrimination, or in the decisions about who stays home, who misses school, who fetches water and fuel."

Beyond hand wringing, there are clear (maybe even easy) steps that governments, societies and communities, and even employers can take to make an economy work for women.

Among these steps: Transform paid work. Governments need to "enact policies to implement and enforce minimum wages," ensure that there is "equal pay for equal work," and provide women equal access to pensions and social protection.

There is also a need to support the livelihoods of self-employed women, such as market traders (vendors) and small farmers since, she said, 62 per cent of women work in family businesses.

It is also imperative, Mlambo-Ngcuka declared, to address the needs of farmer-women, to "make their jobs decent, ensure their control over land, and [give them] access to credit so they can buy seeds and fertilizers to make their land productive." Just as crucial: "Increase their resilience to climate change."

There is also a need to "ensure that social protection, such as employment guarantee schemes, reaches rural women to bolster their income security." In particular, governments must extend social protection to informal workers, since more than 75 per cent of women's jobs are informal in developing regions.

"If women stopped having children, caring for them, or shaping them into productive and creative human beings, there would be no labour force and the global economy would grind to a halt," Mlambo-Ngcuka reminded her audience, sending a message to all men and women seeking answers to the age-old "woman question."

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