Seven indivisibilities and a conundrum: how to deliver women’s empowerment

Published on : 08 July 20218 min reading time

Simon Maxwell was invited to moderate the High-Level Event on Women’s Economic Empowerment and Sustainable Development, in Riga on 2 March 2015. In this reflection on the conclusions to the event, Simon identifies seven indivisibilities that shaped the conversation.

I don’t usually write detailed notes of meetings I’ve moderated; there are too many other things to think about: Are we keeping to time? What exactly was that last intervention about? Why is that person in the fourth row’s eyes closed? I am doubly cautious when I don’t normally write about the topic. Yet, I thought I might share my framing of the conclusion of this event.

This contribution of the Latvian Government to the European Year of Development had a full programme with 23 speakers, including the former President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the current and past EU Development Commissioners, development ministers from five countries, and other excellent speakers from international organisations, research institutions, NGOs and the private sector. Videos of all the sessions are available here. There was a valuable background paper by Helen O’Connell, for ODI.

We tried to make the discussion as practical as possible, focusing on the placing of gender in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework, as well as the forthcoming revision of the EU’s Gender Action Plan. This is not an official report of the conference. I did not take detailed notes and this is a personal take.

In concluding the conference, I noted that seven ‘indivisibilities’ shaped the discussion (there really were only six; I added one):

  1. Between men and women. Several speakers emphasised that women’s empowerment requires change by men as well as women – in attitudes and behaviour. The need to act on violence against women was a strong theme of the day, expressed forcefully by Neven Mimica, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development. This is not an isolated call, nor is it a new one. Owen Jones wrote a strong article for The Guardian, chronicling the scale of gender oppression and concluding that ‘men will only stop killing, raping, injuring and oppressing women if they change. That means tackling attitudes within their ranks that make possible the objectification of women, for instance, or which normalise violence against women.’ As early as the 1980s, when I worked at the Institute for Development Studies in Sussex, their main course on gender in development was called ‘Men, Women and Development’.
  2. Between North and South. Vaira Vike-Freiberga was not the only one to remind us that gender issues were prevalent in social, economic and political spheres in developed as well as in developing countries. In the UK, the sexual exploitation of young girls, the cost of childcare, and the representation of women in politics and business are constantly in the news. This shared problem offers possibilities for learning and sharing between countries, for example in the design of legislation. Debapriya Bhattacharya reminded us that international trade rules and economic decisions taken in developed countries affect the position of women in developing countries. Rupa Ganguli made a similar point, talking about the need to help emerging female entrepreneurs navigate the complex world of trade facilitation.
  3. Between technical and political/institutional action. Discussions of measures to empower women often focus on technical interventions, such as establishing microcredit schemes, or improving health and safety measures for female factory workers. Speakers recognised technical interventions as important, albeit insufficient on their own. Institutional or political action – such as securing women’s property rights (a point made by Caren Grown from the World Bank) – should complement technical interventions. NGOs often recognised this, using technical interventions as an entry point to deal with deeper institutional and attitudinal problems; or sometimes vice versa. Sofia Sprechmann from CARE was one of several to make this point about a staged process approach to interventions.
  4. Between economic and social interventions. The focus of the conference was on economic issues, but it soon became clear that social interventions were necessary complements. Education and training were needed, of course, but how were women expected to work if there was no childcare? What about the role of health insurance? Reproductive rights were central. We were given some nice examples from Sweden about these complementarities. Speakers repeatedly emphasised the role of social protection in the post-2015 framework.
  5. Between top down leadership and bottom up mobilisation. The conference heard from some outstanding leaders who shape policy and normative frameworks both nationally and internationally. In an EU context, Neven Mimica’s commitment was notable. Helen O’Connell talked about leadership in her background paper, and we spent some time debating what leaders (i.e. ministers or an equivalent) can do to ensure the empowerment of women. There was talk of results frameworks, incentives for staff, and ways of working. Baroness Northover (from the UK’s Department for International Development), covered these points. Paul Healey, also from DFID, said it was important to make the important things easy in a bureaucracy and the bad things hard. However, it became clear during the day that leadership also needed to be in place at the bottom, organising women’s groups or farmer cooperatives. The panel on women in entrepreneurship had some inspiring stories, including from Helen Hai, Rupa Ganguli and Annelies van den Berg. It is also worth watching the video of Panel 1 to hear Cathy Pieters talking about Mondelez International’s Cocoa Life Program.
  6. Between individual and collective action. The importance of collective action was another theme from Helen O’Connell’s paper, and was picked up by speakers with experience of the women’s movement or of trade union organisation. Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch development minister, is a veteran campaigner. I don’t know whether Sofia Amaral de Oliveira has been a campaigner, but her contribution drew on the tripartite nature of the International Labour Organistion, with its strong focus on worker organisations. Globally, Rupa Ganguli is linking female fashion designers and producers in connected clusters, to learn, share and engage.
  7. Between public and private interventions on gender. The private sector plays a key role in creating opportunities for women, in urban and rural areas, at various scales. We had many examples, from cocoa co-ops in Ghana, shoe factories in Ethiopia, and textile factories in Bangladesh. Economic opportunities do not necessarily require women to be self-employed, and many, indeed, may not want to be. See my review of Poor Economics, by Banerjee and Duflo, for a summary of their argument on the ‘last resort’ nature of much self-employment. In any case, though, it became apparent that private investment on its own needed the support of public investment, in physical infrastructure as well as in policy regimes. That is why the work of organisations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is important in this context.

I’m sure that people who work on gender will say that this is obvious, and/or that I have missed a lot. Still, it seems to me that the seven indivisibilities capture some important elements of gender planning and gender action plans.

There is one more issue we did not resolve; a conundrum of sorts. It seems self-evident to argue that results are what matter, that results frameworks can drive policy and implementation, and that effective management of results requires measurement. More than one speaker in Riga – in fact nearly every speaker – talked about the importance of gender goals and targets in the post-2015 framework, and about the need for gender-disaggregated data to measure progress. The data needed to be disaggregated by age as well, to capture the unique problems of young girls and older women.

This poses two problems. The first is that we know the SDG framework is painfully over-loaded, with 17 goals, 169 targets and, we learned recently, as many as 303 indicators. I’ve written and tweeted to death on this subject (see, for example, here and here). Bottom line: the currently proposed framework is unmanageable, lacking in logical structure, and impossible to use for setting priorities.

The second problem is the difficulty and cost of collecting data. Morten Jerven has written a number of blasts on this subject. His four Venn diagrams have been widely quoted and are reproduced below. His estimate of the total cost of collecting the data required by the current SDG framework is $254 billion over 15 years.

We discussed this conundrum – the difficulty of balancing the desirable against the practical – in Riga. I offered a solution, which was to seek a (very) small number of multipurpose targets and indicators to act as canaries in the cage. Under-five mortality of girls could be one, nutrition status another. Others talked about participation in parliaments, or disparities in earnings. Debapriya Bhattacharya had a more radical suggestion: no child’s gender should be determined at birth, but they should be allowed to choose a gender once they have seen how the world worked. I don’t think that was serious.

More of the same, or radical change?
Our Collective Interest: Why Europe’s problems need global solutions and global problems need European action

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