Last January, the World Economic Forum made the call for 2018 to be “the year for women to thrive”. It urged governments to raise women’s participation in the labour force to that of men.
But two months earlier, in November 2017, the organization had said that it will take 217 years to close the economic gender gap.
Prior to this, in 2015, following concerted campaigning by women’s groups, and development and human rights organizations, governments had made a political commitment, under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to achieve gender equality by 2030.
There is a stark mismatch between the commitment to achieve gender equality within 12 years - including through women’s equal rights to economic resources - and the prognosis that it will in fact take more than two centuries.
Barriers to women's economic and social rights
The barriers to women achieving their economic and social rights are well documented. The UN says that women own only 12.8% of the world’s agricultural land. Lack of security of tenure is a major obstacle to women’s rights to food, work and housing in rural and urban areas. Discriminatory inheritance, and personal and property laws frequently impede women’s ability to rent, own or register land or property. Amnesty International’s 2018 report on Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) demonstrated how the traditional system of land allocation, kukhonta, by chiefs who traditionally allocate land to men, often disadvantages women. One woman, forcibly evicted from her home after the authorities demolished it, told us “It’s very difficult as a woman to kukhonta. You need a male. Otherwise you won’t be able to get land, or be heard.”
For more than a decade, Amnesty International has called on governments to guarantee a minimum degree of security of tenure to everyone. This must include protection against forced evictions, harassment and other threats. Governments continue, however, to carry out land acquisitions for large commercial projects or redevelopment of urban areas in ways which flagrantly breach international law and result in forced evictions.
The impacts are deeply gendered, because of women’s differential access to land and property rights, and drive women into, or further into, poverty. For example, Indigenous Sengwer women described to Amnesty International how forced evictions from Kenya’s Embobut forest destroyed their financial autonomy because they lost access to the forest, land and livestock upon which they depend for their livelihoods and cultural identity. A Sengwer woman, who received no compensation, said, “I am hosted [living in someone else’s home], I have no land, no bedding, I hardly have food. I do casual labour in people’s farms. I live in destitution.”
Grossly inadequate protection of women's rights to and at work
According to the World Bank, Brazil, Egypt, France, India, Russia and 99 other countries still have laws which prevent women from working in specific jobs. Over 2.7 billion women are therefore legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. The Fielding School of Public Health, a think tank, found that only 87 countries guarantee equal pay between men and women for work of equal value.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 740 million women work in the informal economy where there is a lack of legal protection and limited or no access to social security systems.
Domestic workers are often in a particularly vulnerable situation. Amnesty International’s campaigns in Lebanon, Qatar, Hong Kong SAR and Indonesia have highlighted domestic workers’ vulnerability to severe labour and other human rights abuses because of gaps in labour laws and/or poor enforcement. Women who work in informal economies and in many export processing zones face legal and practical barriers to joining trade unions and exercising their rights to collective bargaining.
Women comprise the majority of workers in certain segments of global supply chains, like clothing and horticulture, according to the ILO, but tend to be disproportionately concentrated in low-wage or low-status jobs. Amnesty International’s ongoing campaigns around palm oil and cobalt in global supply chains have highlighted the failure of some of the world’s wealthiest companies to undertake adequate human rights due diligence.
Changing employment patterns, such as increased offshoring and outsourcing in global supply chains and in the gig economy, especially when combined with insecurity of work and low pay, raise significant challenges to closing the gender wage gap.
Governments need to urgently adapt labour rights frameworks and modes of enforcement to address gaps in the protection of women’s rights to, and at, work. Companies need to identify, prevent and address risks to labour and other human rights throughout their global operations and supply chains. Governments must make a substantial paradigm shift in the way they assign legal responsibility within corporate groups, and ensure that all victims have access to remedies.
Women's unpaid and care work
Women continue to bear the disproportionate burden of unpaid and care work. According to data analysed by the UN from 83 countries, women carry out more than twice as much unpaid care and domestic work than men. This restricts their ability to access education and gainful employment opportunities, and adversely affects their incomes. According to the ILO, as the educational and work experience gaps between women and men narrow, the gender pay gap remains wider than expected.
Gender inequalities in work and the burden of unpaid and care work also result in gaps in social protection cover for women. Furthermore, women make up nearly 65% of people over retirement age who do not have a regular pension. Almost 750 million women also do not benefit from a statutory right to maternity leave. It is essential that governments recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work, including through better provision of public services and social care programmes.
These inequalities are compounded by regressive austerity measures and budget cuts to key public services in many countries. For example, in Spain, delays in implementing legislation to regulate long-term care has had a huge impact on informal carers, most of whom are women. Similarly, Chad's austerity measures have had a serious impact on the public health sector and undermined access to basic health care for women and girls. This has a severe effect on economically vulnerable women and girls who live in rural areas. One 29-year-old pregnant woman who lives 12km from her nearest health centre told Amnesty International, “I did not come before because I did not have the money for the health tests, nor money to buy iron tablets or purchase the booklet...”
Governments must ensure gender equality
It is positive that more than 100 governments have taken action to track budget allocations for gender equality. However, governments need to do far more to assess, develop, and implement appropriate fiscal and monetary policies to ensure gender equality. This includes implementing progressive taxation policies and addressing tax evasion and illicit financial flows in order to make more resources available to realize women’s economic, social and cultural rights.
To achieve gender equality, governments can and must address gaps in legal frameworks, in the enforcement of laws and in public spending. Women cannot wait another 200 years.