G20: can women's human rights and economic growth co-exist?

Will the G20 adopt an approach that meets human rights standards for economic growth at the Brisbane Summit? More representation of women at the governance level is essential. Who is at the table matters.

Susan Harris Rimmer
12 November 2014
Be-suited officials in front of Sydney Harbour

G20 finance ministersG20 leaders in their global governance role are not making the link between inequality and measures to improve growth. The UNDP website states: “Economic growth will not reduce poverty, improve equality and produce jobs unless it is inclusive”.

Economic policies and institutions still mostly fail to take gender disparities into account, from tax and budget systems to trade regimes. That the political economy of violence against women impacts on national productivity and health systems is well-known. KPMG estimated in 2009 that such violence costs Australia $13.6 billion each year.

At the Commission on the Status of Women in 2014, states recognised that:

"One of the responses to recent volatility in food and energy markets has been a growth in the acquisition or long-term lease of large portions of arable land in developing countries, which has had serious implications for rural and indigenous women living in poverty, the majority of whom rely on access to land and other natural resources for their livelihoods".

In relation to trade, it is clear that the G20’s commitment to an open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory multilateral trading and financial system has implications for women and girls and their place in the global value chain. Many of the studies on gender-inequalities in international trade have looked at the impact in selected industries such as the apparel and horticultural industries, where there are predominantly women, and have focused on issues such as women’s access to income earning opportunities, employment, remuneration, access and control over resources, education and training. Along with evidence that existing gender inequalities limit economic growth and export opportunities (gender employment gap), there is also evidence that trade openness deepens existing gender inequalities (access to export opportunities, gendered employment and wage gaps). The G20 should consider:

  • - strengthening the participation of women in trade negotiations and trade facilitation, in extractive industries, in value addition in agriculture and in diversified economies;
  • - strengthening the engagement and participation of women in formal and informal trade, including cross border trade and agriculture, put in place and improve infrastructure needed to improve women’s access to markets and productive resources and make markets safe for women including those living in rural areas;
  • - identify and develop strategies to expand trade opportunities for women producers and facilitate the active participation of women in national, regional and global trade decision-making structures and processes, thereby ensuring that women- and men-owned businesses and farms have equal opportunities in markets.

But evidence of the impact that including women could make to growth of the formal economy seems to be routinely ignored. Even when it comes out of the World Economic Forum, not known for its feminist leanings. The Forum now publishes the Global Gender Gap Report and regularly identifies gender inequality as a substantial risk to economic growth and stability in its annual risk survey.

Partly this is because of the under-representation of women in G20 processes. Only 25% of the heads of state of the G20 member countries are currently women. The figure for finance ministers, central bank governors and sherpas is even lower, with only 15% women.

The official Sydney photo of finance ministers and central bank governors shows 10% representation, and already represents a shift with Janet Yellen as the first female head of the US Federal Reserve and Christine Lagarde the first female head of the IMF.

We need to think about women’s role in economic governance. Minister Michaelia Cash galvanised the G20 Employment Ministers meeting around this participation target in September. Who is at the table matters. As they say, ‘if you are not at the table, you are on the menu’, and we know women and youth are bearing the brunt of austerity measures. 

Four of the G20 leaders are women (Argentina, Brazil, Germany and South Korea).  Many of the recent sherpas shaping the G20 agenda are women (Mexico, Russia, Australia, Turkey). The G20 is all about including emerging economies into global governance, becoming rule-makers not rule-takers.

But still, we are talking about a world where many women cannot open a bank account. 

Experts have discussed the role of quotas, targets and extra transparency measures to make it more ‘normal’ for women to be at the table in global economic governance. The recent ANU-Chatham House Forum focused on accountability measures, with G20 Ministers for Women meeting with G20 sherpas to measure progress against specific targets. Countries may take many diverse paths, but the final destination to women’s economic empowerment should be clear, defined and measurable.

Does this lack of representation matter? Most evidence suggests yes. James Heintz argues:

"Broad-based economic policies have gender-specific effects because sources of gender inequality interact with changes in the economic environment to produce distinct outcomes for women and men. Gender-blind policies are rarely gender-neutral".

 For example, women lag far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs, even though a growing body of research shows that enhancing women’s economic options boosts national economies. Macroeconomic policies and policy-making can make the connections to gender equality, for better or worse.

We know the adverse effect austerity measures have had, closing one third of women’s refuges in the UK and all in Greece, and gendered job losses in the public sector and certain industries, not to mention the care economy.  We know the food crisis led to stunting in girls under five at rates significantly higher than boys. 

Heintz recommends the development of a Toolkit on Economic Policy and Gender to integrate gender into the G20’s agenda, plus some serious attention to gender in the new Development Outlook.  Gender equality advocacy campaigns using data to model gender gaps in G20 countries such as the TrustLaw poll and the Third Billion campaign are beginning to add some pressure to leaders in this regard.

Some countries are responding at the rhetorical level, most notably prime minister Shinzo Abe stating that empowering women is a key pillar of his ‘Abenomics’ agenda, because “women are Japan’s most under-used resource”.

One positive area of progress has been in recognising the importance of financial inclusion - the concept of ensuring the poor or marginalised can access financial services. At a rhetorical level at least, the G20 has recognised the benefits of financial inclusion to economic growth and poverty reduction with the successive endorsement of high level principles, action plans and the establishment of the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI) and the Women’s Finance Hub.

These various principles refer to the importance of “addressing vulnerable groups'” needs for protection and education. In 2012 G20 Leaders asked for a report on how women and youth could gain access to financial services and financial education. This links to UN discussions about what comes after the Millennium Development Goals which end in 2015. The High level Panel identified a key principle of “leave no one behind”.

Will the G20 adopt an approach that meets human rights standards for economic growth at the Brisbane Summit?  The jury is out thus far, but there are a series of incremental steps that should be supported.  More representation of women at the governance level would be a good start. 



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