Foreign Aid for Gender Equality

Future Agenda

This is the second of a two-part article presenting key discussion points from the UNU-WIDER gender equality workshop held 12-13 July 2012, in Helsinki. The first part of this article discussed the priorities and internal challenges for donor agencies with respect to promoting gender equality and ensuring that it is, and remains, a priority. In this second part, we present some of the themes on which both researchers and donors could focus in order to maintain the relevance of aid at fostering gender equality.

Formalizing female employment

In the past decades, wage growth globally has lagged behind productivity growth. This worsens specifically women’s position in the labour market. Indeed, women are increasingly trapped in low-productivity and low-wage jobs while the gap in educational achievement between men and women has rapidly closed. Therefore women’s employment in the formal sector is not a function of women’s skills, but rather of structural constraints of the global economy. Global competition among firms makes cutting costs an imperative resulting in a reduction of the labour costs through low investment in human capital. This creates a defeminization of formal labour observed in more capitalistic and industrial economies where the share of women in the informal sector has continually increased. Women constitute the majority of workers in the manufacturing and export-oriented sectors where they acquired skills on the job. With a reduction of human capital investment on workers, more women are increasingly pushed toward the informal sector resulting in an informalization of women’s labour.

How can aid contribute to shifting women from informal to formal employment? Macroeconomic policies, including monetary and tax policies, can play a role. In low-income countries the most important question is how to raise women’s income from farming. This could involve access to credit and technology, and also reducing the care burden which is often left to women.

Overcoming barriers to female participation in the labour force

In the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, investments in human capital have not translated into the commensurate participation of women in the economy either—termed the ‘MENA paradox’. One explanation could be the means through which women primarily obtain employment, which is through registering at the government labour office and entering the government job lottery competition. Meanwhile, men tend to enquire about jobs at the work location and directly contact employers either face-to-face or by using the phone. Societal norms do not enable women to search for jobs in these ways. How can aid promote new channels for women to obtain formal sector employment?

Inclusive development for men and women

A number of discussions in the workshop highlighted the dangers of aid focusing solely on women. In Caribbean countries there have been backlashes against women when interventions have aimed to promote women’s employment in a context of declining employment. What does female employment mean for a community or society? How can aid improve the situation of individual women while also strengthening their position within households and communities? Here, issues of power relations are important.

Within this discussion arose the question of whether the gender theme of the UNU-WIDER ReCom programme should focus on poverty reduction for women’s empowerment, or rather the achievement of gender equality. The latter requires interventions beyond poverty reduction including the promotion of women in the political, social, and economic spheres.

Female asset ownership

So far there has been little investigation into the types of assets owned by women and why this may be important. Research from Uganda and Ghana highlights the asset gap in terms of ownership of land, housing, large and small livestock. Key areas to investigate further here include how different types of assets impact women’s empowerment and gender equality. How do women acquire ownership over different types of assets? Key areas for policy are inheritance and entitlement laws, which disadvantage women in many countries.

Development interventions should pay attention to how the importance of different types of assets may change with economic transformation. Mobile phones, for instance, are likely to become more important and aid donors are increasingly acknowledging this through their initiatives—including promoting mobiles as a means to provide agricultural information and to make small payments. However, a gap in mobile phone ownership between men and women means that these types of interventions could further marginalize women. The principle of ‘do no harm’ is a useful one to remember here.

De jure and de facto rights

What institutional changes can promote gender equality? Already the importance of inheritance and entitlement laws has been raised as a potential area for institutional innovation. However, women frequently have the de jure rights to inherit, but in practice these rights are not upheld. This may be because women do not realise that they have these rights, or because they fear recriminations if they try to claim them. There is a need to inform women about their rights. Meanwhile, aid to women’s organizations could help women themselves to push for change.

The two-day workshop on gender equality raised a range of interesting issues for the gender theme of the ReCom programme to grapple with. As the gender theme progresses so a series of research papers will be published—watch out for these on the ReCom website at the start of 2013.

Malokele Nanivazo is a UNU-WIDER Research Fellow. Lucy Scott is a UNU-WIDER Research Associate.

WIDERAngle newsletter
September 2012
ISSN 1238-9544