On March 13, 2017, the global community will gather for the Commission on the Status of Women to deliberate this year’s theme: women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.
Discussions will certainly include equal pay for equal work, unpaid domestic labour and care work, and violence against women in the workplace. Noticeably absent from this year’s thematic discussion, and from much of the surrounding debate in this context, are “girls” and their capacity and right to be economically secure, as well as their role as key stakeholders in the fulfilment of girls’ and women’s rights and the achievement of gender equality.
Economic violence begins in girlhood
It’s critical to enable an environment that promotes economic justice for women from early in life. Failure to address the economic violence that manifests in girlhood will have lasting effects throughout women’s and girls’ lives.
Gender-based divisions of labour take significant time away from girls that could be spent learning.
Harmful and discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes, unequal inheritance rights, lack of access to financial services and literacy, the burden of unpaid labour, and lower rates of completion of quality, inclusive education are just a few of these barriers that girls more acutely and routinely face. These gender and age-related hindrances reinforce continued economic inequalities between men and women. These hurdles contribute to cycles of poverty and forced economic dependence throughout girls’ lives.
Unpaid work takes time away from studying
Much of the unpaid work discussed in the global arena regarding economic rights is actually work performed by girls. This includes tending to sick relatives, caring for younger siblings, performing domestic chores, and collecting water and firewood, which can often be time-consuming and dangerous. Gender-based divisions of labour take significant time away from girls that could be spent learning, and gaining important skills that would contribute to their financial literacy and independence.
For instance, the Gates Foundation reported that girls’ school enrolment rates increased* by 10 percent in one country and by 12 percent in a second country when the time spent walking to a water source was reduced by only one hour. These pervasive gender norms also keep girls and women in a field of unpaid labour and care work, keeping their contributions to society invisible and economically unvalued.
We must tackle unequal power dynamics and violence
Ensuring that girls can be economically viable as adults requires changing traditional household dynamics in order to keep girls in school. Once in school, however, there is more work to be done. Girls are often discouraged from subjects such as science, maths, and digital technology, which is of increasing importance in the changing marketplace. Girls are five times less likely than boys to consider a career related to technology, and girls’ participation in science and technology subjects has been shown to decrease as their level of education rises. Significant work with all school stakeholders must be done to ensure girls gain the modern skills they need to be competitive employees.
Of critical importance in all spaces is also ending violence against girls and women. Violence occurs throughout girls’ and women’s lives, in public and private spaces, at home, on the streets, in school, and at work, and according to the World Health Organization constitutes a “global epidemic”. Exposure to violence at home can have devastating consequences for girls, including impaired educational outcomes in adolescence, and lower job performance, job stability, and income as they reach adulthood.
A holistic, life-cycle approach is the only way forward
All of these barriers prevent both girls and women from making decisions about their own lives, and their own bodies, and contributes to the continued entrenchment of unequal power dynamics, cycles of dependency and subordination, and cycles of poverty. If we are to achieve economic justice for women, we need to dismantle systemic harmful stereotypes that impose gendered divisions of school subjects and work, and normalise violence against girls and women.
It is critical to address obstacles to economic independence, including those traditionally thought only to affect adults, with a holistic and life-cycle approach. Economic empowerment ideology, policies and programming, need to move beyond active employment and encompass the many ways one can be empowered, both economically, politically, socially and otherwise. This is the only way forward if we are to succeed in supporting young women to achieve gainful, decent work, once they enter the labour market, and for women and girls to be valued as active and equal participants in society.
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