By Sean Buchanan
London, Apr 27 2015 (IPS) – Almost exactly two years ago, on the morning of Apr. 24, over 3,600 workers – 80 percent of them young women between the ages of 18 and 20 – refused to enter the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, because there were large ominous cracks in the walls. They were beaten with sticks and forced to enter.
Forty-five minutes later, the building collapsed, leaving 1,137 dead and over 2,500 injured – most of them women.
The Rana Plaza collapse is just one of a long series of workplace incidents around the world in which women have paid a high toll.
It is also one of the stories featured in the UN Women report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, launched on Apr. 27.
Coming 20 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, which drew up an agenda to advance gender equality,Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 notes that while progress has since been made, “in an era of unprecedented global wealth, millions of women are trapped in low paid, poor quality jobs, denied even basic levels of health care, and water and sanitation.”
At the same time, notes the report, financial globalisation, trade liberalisation, the ongoing privatisation of public services and the ever-expanding role of corporate interests in the development process have shifted power relations in ways that undermine the enjoyment of human rights and the building of sustainable livelihoods.
Against this backdrop, all too often women fail to enjoy their rights because they are forced to fit into a ‘man’s world’, a world in which these rights are not at the heart of economies.
What this means in real terms is that, for example, at global level women are paid on average 24 percent less than men, and for women with children the gaps are even wider. Women are clustered into a limited set of under-valued occupations – such as domestic work – and almost half of them are not entitled to the minimum wage.
Even when women succeed in the workplace, they encounter obstacles not generally faced by their male counterparts. For example, in the European Union, 75 percent of women in management and higher professional positions and 61 percent of women in service sector occupations have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetimes.
The report makes the link between economic policy-making and human rights, calling for a far-reaching new policy agenda that can transform economies and make women’s rights a reality by moving forward towards “an economy that truly works for women, for the benefit of all.”
The ultimate aim is to create a virtuous cycle through the generation of decent work and gender-responsive social protection and social services, alongside enabling macroeconomic policies that prioritise investment in human beings and the fulfilment of social objectives.
Today, “our public resources are not flowing in the directions where they are most needed: for example, to provide safe water and sanitation, quality health care, and decent child and elderly care services,” says UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Where there are no public services, the deficit is borne by women and girls.”
According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, “this is a care penalty that unfairly punishes women for stepping in when the State does not provide resources and it affects billions of women the world over. We need policies that make it possible for both women and men to care for their loved ones without having to forego their own economic security and independence,” she added.
The report agrees that paid work can be a foundation for substantive equality for women, but only when it is compatible with women’s and men’s shared responsibility for unpaid care work; when it gives women enough time for leisure and learning; when it provides earnings that are sufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living; and when women are treated with respect and dignity at work.
Yet, this type of employment remains scarce, and economic policies in all regions are struggling to generate enough decent jobs for those who need them. On top of that, the range of opportunities available to women is limited by pervasive gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices within both households and labour markets. As a result, the vast majority of women still work in insecure, informal employment.
The reality is that women also still carry the burden of unpaid work in the home, which has been aggravated in recent years by austerity policies and cut-backs. To build more equitable and sustainable economies which work for both women and men, warns the report, “more of the same will not do.”
At a time when the global community is defining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post-2015 era, the message from UN Women is that economic and social policies can contribute to the creation of stronger economies, and to more sustainable and more gender-equal societies, provided that they are designed and implemented with women’s rights at their centre.
Edited by Phil Harris