Around the Halls: Top Policy Priorities for Improving the Status of Women

The 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is currently taking place from March 15-26, 2021.

Established in 1946, the CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. During the Commission’s annual two-week session, representatives of UN Member States, civil society organizations and UN entities gather to discuss progress and gaps in the implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the key global policy document on gender equality, and the 23rd special session of the General Assembly held in 2000 (Beijing+5), as well as emerging issues that affect gender equality and the empowerment of women. The themes of this year’s gathering are women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, the elimination of violence against women and the link between women’s empowerment and sustainable development.

As the Commission gathers to assess the status of women globally amid the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating climate and fiscal crises, Global Development Policy Center experts share their insights on the top policy priorities for improving the status of women. Covering topics as diverse as health, climate justice, migration, austerity, labor and international institutions, our experts propose policy prescriptions for reform:

Enacting Protections for Migrant Domestic Workers

In recent decades, the number of workers leaving their countries to escape poverty and war and seek better opportunities abroad has been rising. Many of these workers end up in jobs with little security, low pay, and dangerous work environments. Such vulnerabilities are especially high among domestic workers, who work in informal settings, often residing with their employers, and face restrictions on movement, lack of access to healthcare, and exploitative conditions working long hours.

Over 73 percent of these domestic migrant workers are women, who face additional physical, sexual and mental abuse.

The vulnerabilities faced by domestic workers are often linked to the precarious recruitment process with unclear terms of employment, lack of formal contracts, absence of assistance, and lack of enforcement of labor laws in domestic spheres.

Efforts towards addressing this problem have been insufficient. While the International Labor Organization has put together a convention on decent work for domestic workers to raise awareness and develop policies to protect workers, only 22 countries have ratified the standards. Other efforts have focused on limiting women’s movement to prevent such abuses. For example, a recent policy proposal in Nepal requires women below 40 to get permission from family and the government to travel to the Middle East and Africa. Such regressive policies only limit women’s access to fair and equal opportunities.

Specific efforts to protect domestic workers should include multilateral agreements and an international legal framework focused on providing social protection and access to social services, enforcement of legal work contracts, and establishment of laws on wages and work hours.

Women’s Market Work and COVID-19

Women around the world have been disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, women are more likely to work in sectors that were most negatively affected by the pandemic, such as leisure and hospitality, retail and some services. Research by McKinsey and Company shows that 54 percent of global job losses have been suffered by women, although they represent less than 40 percent of workers. Second, in developing countries, women are much more likely than men to work in the informal sector, and thus, less likely to benefit from social protection during the pandemic. Third, women have carried most of the weight of increased childcare responsibilities and other household chores due to school closures and lockdowns. In the US, for example, approximately 2.2 million women dropped out of the workforce between February and October of 2020 to take care of children. In developing countries, more household responsibilities mean women will struggle to keep working in their small businesses.

Globally, women-owned enterprises are about 6 percentage points more likely to have closed their business than male-owned businesses due to the pandemic. This gender gap is explained both by women’s businesses operating in more affected sectors and by women facing higher difficulty balancing family and work.

The setback of women in the labor force does not only harm women and their families – it has a high cost in terms of economic growth and productivity. Bringing women back into the workforce should be a priority of governments all around the world. The specific policies will depend on the country. The US, for example, needs to avoid a permanent and dramatic contraction of the childcare sector by providing economic support, while countries where women’s main source of work and income is their own small business need to provide financial support to women-led enterprises.

The Gendered Impacts of the IMF’s Austerity

As the UN considers the status of women globally, I’ll be watching for updates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a potential retreat to austerity.

Austerity is well-established as a women’s issue. In 2013, Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins showed IMF programs are linked with austerity in four areas: public payrolls, subsidies, old-age pensions, and healthcare expenditures. All four disproportionately affect women, who are more likely to be public teachers or nurses, be responsible for household grocery provision, live longer than men, and rely on health systems for safe childbirth. Alexander Kentikelenis and Thomas Stubbs have continued this research, showing the link between IMF-based austerity and public health spending cuts (with Lawrence King in 2014) and worse maternal and child health outcomes (in 2017 with Michael Thomson).

The IMF has begun addressing this problem. As new research has questioned the use of austerity during crises, Ilene Grabel has documented “productive incoherence” at the IMF: without a universal doctrine on austerity, some borrowers have successfully pursued expansionary fiscal policy. But Boston University Global Development Policy Center research shows that IMF-required austerity has not softened overall. More recent agreements to address the COVD-19 crisis have done better, often directly targeting health spending, though rarely in binding ways.

It is encouraging that IMF agreements are beginning to take health spending into account. But if the IMF is to take women’s equality seriously, it will need to rethink austerity demands and safeguard health spending, not just in the COVID-19 recovery, but in the years to come.

Prioritizing Maternal and Child Health in the COVID-19 Era

With the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, much of the global focus will now be centered on vaccine production, vaccine distribution across countries and populations, and complementary preventative measures such as social distancing, contact tracing, mask wearing, etc.

Such efforts play a critical role in the pandemic response; however, they also bear significant costs to health systems by diverting resources and support for other essential health services. Indeed, an accompanying feature of the pandemic has been the reduction and suspension of health programs, particularly in maternal and child health, the consequences of which will be observed for years to come. Recent evidence from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has shown how health emergences can be a significant threat to the lives of mothers and children not only through the direct effects of the outbreak (higher mortality, infection, etc.), but also through the diversion of scarce resources from essential health services, such as emergency obstetric care, antenatal coverage, facility delivery coverage, and child immunization programs.

In applying the lessons learned from Ebola to the COVID-19 case, we can expect that the reductions and stagnations in service provision over the last year will likely contribute to adverse health and mortality outcomes for women and children, particularly in settings where service provision was already constrained. With this in mind, policymakers must continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic, and the global responses to the pandemic, on these vulnerable groups. Moreover, investments that are targeted directly to women and children must be made to re-establish essential services and recover all of the progress that has been made in recent decades.

An Intersectional Global Green New Deal to Tackle the Root Causes of Global Crises

Women experience specific gendered impacts from climate change – for example, when women smallholder farmers lose their livelihoods, additional care responsibilities accrue in the aftermath of climate disasters, or in being subject to gendered violence when resisting environmental exploitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated such inequities. Unpaid caring responsibilities have vastly increased at the same time as domestic violence has increased globally. People of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and have faced escalating state violence. People in poorer countries will wait years for a vaccine because powerful countries have hoarded them. Workers have collectively lost $3.7 trillion in income, while billionaires have increased their wealth by around $3.9 trillion. These trends are not disconnected.

There is a risk that in ‘building back better’ from the pandemic, governments around the world will double down on the extractive economic status quo. Focusing only on economic growth or lowering emissions without attending to the relationship to gender, racial and colonial exploitation will only deepen injustices: indigenous people will continue to be displaced from their land, the health of poor and racialized communities in the Global North and South will be undermined by higher pollution, and women will continue to subsidize the global economy with their vital, but unpaid care.

When the world is wracked by interlocking crises, the only serious response is to tackle them together. A feminist, anti-colonial and pro-worker Global Green New Deal challenges these injustices at their root and unites us to tackle them together.

Ending Gender Inequality for a Resilient Future

The impacts of COVID-19 are blindingly clear for gender inequality. Globally, women comprise over 70 percent of healthcare workers – and even more in COVID-19 epicenters (90 percent in China’s Hubei Province and 78 percent in the US), according to UN estimates. In the world’s largest democracy, India, the face of frontline health workers is almost exclusively female, and plans for mass vaccination rely on women. Yet, women are less likely than men to have access to formal wageswealthhealthcare, and, as health workers have less effective personal protective equipment (PPE).

At the very moment when women’s work serves a vital function for our survival, we see women leaving the workforce in disproportionately high numbers: McKinsey estimates women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the global pandemic than men’s jobs, accounting for 54 percent of overall job losses while women represent only 39 percent of global employment. This is mainly a response to the increasing burden of care as schools and daycare centers shut down.

Pre-pandemic, women performed at least three times as much care work as men, according to the International Labor Organization. While some studies predict that gender norms may shift as men increase their engagement by working from home, there is a clear cost of our failure to build institutional support for “care” that has locked many women out of the labor force during the pandemic, amounting to a loss of $64 billion in the US and up to $13 trillion in potential global GDP by 2030.

Alongside making healthcare coverage, access to childcare and education should be made universal and safe for all concerned. To do so, governments should make substantial investments to guarantee and improve the pay, job security, and benefits of daycare providers and teachers at all levels; upgrade the physical infrastructure of schools so they are safe to attend; direct significant additional learning, career, and financial resources to the most vulnerable students and families; and provide significant investments in our mental health infrastructure to support necessary healing of individuals, families, and communities during this collective trauma. These investments are costly, but their price pales in comparison to what they will enable us to achieve.

Now is the time to tackle inequality head on, for a resilient future where we not only survive, but expand our capacity to flourish.

More Women at the Helm of Global Economic Governance Institutions – But Will They Support a Green and Inclusive Recovery from COVID-19?

The last several years have seen a striking shift in the leadership of global economic governance institutions, where spaces that had once been dominated by men have come under increasingly women-led leadership. Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), stands at the forefront of Europe’s economic recovery, overseeing the economic blocks stimulus package, advising for stronger fiscal and monetary policy coordination and recognizing the pitfalls of market neutrality in greening the ECB’s investments.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the most recent woman to take such a leadership role as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). As the first woman and first African to head the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala faces the formidable task of uniting the divided members of the WTO and rebuilding trust in the institution. Additionally, there is already a growing skepticism among trade justice activists that she will challenge the power of wealthy members to advance a trade system in the interests of development.

Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is leading the organization as the world moves from the current pandemic into the rapidly escalating climate crisis. The IMF will have an important role to play in transforming the global economic architecture to be more resilient against climate shocks, keeping warming below 1.5C and tackling severe inequality within and between states.

With stability far from certain, only time will tell if a few women breaking the glass ceiling will make much difference for the many women picking up the shards below.

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