From the 1% vs the 99% of the Occupy movement and Oxfam; to the World Bank’s call to focus on the trajectory of the income of the bottom 40%; or the increasingly touted Palma ratio, debates on inequality are back. And yet, there is a group systematically omitted within such debates: women – and in particular women in poor countries.
All over the world, women’s work contributes to growth, sustainable development, and the health and wellbeing of society. Yet by virtually every measure women are in the “wronged” percent. ActionAid new research found that being in the wrong side of the equation costs women in poor countries USD 9 trillion a year. Globally, the cost stands at USD 17 trillion.
This is first and foremost a scandalous violation of the rights of billions of women. But gender inequality in work not only has consequences for women; the functioning of the economy relies on women’s work. Women’s labour – in and outside the home – is vital to sustainable development, and to the wellbeing of society.
Women’s equality resonates well in mainstream development debates. However, the focus is often on how opportunities for women in poor countries can be improved through micro-finance, or better access to land or property, or job opportunities. Some of these are necessary policy and legal measures. But they are not sufficient.
The reason why women stubbornly stay at the bottom of the pile is because they are women. This means that the whole debate on economic inequality needs to address fundamental gender issues.
The other powerful reason is the need to feed the beast. For decades, we’re in a downward spiral where the global economic and financial system is fed by increasingly cheap labour and capital gains that are increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Women have provided cheap labour to the economy, as well as free labour at home– subsidising trillions in paid care services.
The briefing calls on governments, international institutions and businesses to take action to create the conditions that are needed to give women in developing countries the chances that they deserve in and at work. Steps include ensuring that women can access safe, decent work opportunities and the essential caring work they do is recognised, shared and better supported.
In 2015, the time is ripe for change as we determine the UN sustainable development goals and celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. Let us ensure the achievement of women’s economic equality is high on the agenda.
As we focus on how to buck the trend between winners and losers of an increasingly dysfunctional system, we can no longer dodge the fact that half of us have been systematically losing out to the tune of trillions every year.
This must stop now.
Nuria Molina is the Director of Policy Advocacy and Campaigns at ActionAid.