Why Economic Inequality is a Feminist Issue

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima (right) at the G7 Ministerial meetings in Whistler. (Photo: Diana Sarosi | Oxfam Canada)
Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima (right) at the G7 Ministerial meetings in Whistler. (Photo: Diana Sarosi | Oxfam Canada)


Written by Winnie Byanyima⁩, Executive Director, Oxfam International.

These are restless, exciting, and frightening times to be a woman. Every day brings with it a rousing success or a crushing setback in our fight for equal rights.

Just last week, after decades of women’s rights activism, Ireland voted by a landslide in a historic election to repeal the country’s ban on abortions. Meanwhile, a recent crackdown in Saudi Arabia on women’s rights activists resulted in several arrests –  their whereabouts and the charges against them are still unknown.

"First, by some conservative estimates, women contribute around $10 trillion—yes, trillion! - to the economy in unpaid care and domestic work. For free. Our economies would crash without it, yet we rarely see it discussed by policy makers." –– Winnie Byanyima

There are many fronts in this fight. One that I’ve been focusing my efforts on is this global economic model that’s absolutely rigged against women. Let’s look at some of the facts:

First, by some conservative estimates, women contribute around $10 trillion—yes, trillion! - to the economy in unpaid care and domestic work. For free. Our economies would crash without it, yet we rarely see it discussed by policy makers.

Second, the World Bank counted 104 countries that have laws that prevent women from working certain jobs, like in manufacturing and construction, because of outdated, paternalistic ideas of what a woman can and should do.

And at Oxfam’s last check, there were around 2,043 billionaires worldwide; nine out of 10 were men. Data by the World Economic Forum shows that at current rates of change it will take 217 years to close the gap in pay and employment opportunities between women and men. Economic inequality between women and men translates into inequality in power – how can we expect an equal world for women when the purse strings are so clearly held by men?

In other words, economic inequality is absolutely a feminist issue.

The prosperity of our global economy relies on the ground-up exploitation of women and girls – and we all keep the system in place as long as we uphold its discriminatory norms.

What’s the result? Girls left to fetch water and firewood as their brothers go to school; women cleaning hotel rooms are subjected to sexual harassment. This is closer to home than we think: the women farmers growing the food we eat don’t have enough food for their own families; the women stitching the clothes we wear are in hot, crowded garment factories, earning poverty level wages with scant rights.

And the vast majority of the wealth they create are going to a few super-rich men.

The G7 leaders are meeting this week in Quebec. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty more flattering rhetoric about women’s equality – but I won’t be satisfied until I see some action.

I welcome the Canadian government’s initiative of creating the first-ever Gender Equality Advisory Council for the G7, which I was honored to be invited to join. They dared us to push for change. We have proposed a set of concrete solutions to them.

"I refuse to accept the idea that we can simply shoehorn women into a global economy that is exploiting them, and then celebrate it as women’s economic empowerment. The G7 – as a gathering of most of the world’s richest nations – must now responsibly redesign their economies to work for women, and support a far broader shift in the global economy." –– Winnie Byanyima

I refuse to accept the idea that we can simply shoehorn women into a global economy that is exploiting them, and then celebrate it as women’s economic empowerment. The G7 – as a gathering of most of the world’s richest nations – must now responsibly redesign their economies to work for women, and support a far broader shift in the global economy.

Consider jobs. Rather than helping to boom more billionaires, the G7 should be working together to ensure decent and safe jobs for all by setting a living wage, so people can actually live a decent life. Most of the world’s women workers need jobs like these.

Take paid parental leave, and investing in universal, public, free and quality early childhood education and care services. The G7 could supercharge a broader shift to recognize, reduce, and redistribute the unpaid care work women and girls are bogged down with.

Or take progressive taxation and spending. Making rich individuals and corporations pay their fair share, and using those revenues to boost public schools, healthcare and other social services is a powerful one-two punch against inequality and for women’s rights. For when women and girls can get a quality education, and access to healthcare including sexual and reproductive health and rights, they have greater freedom and choices over their own lives.

These may seem obvious. But we also know what areas require far-greater attention. Whilst there is global momentum on changing sexist laws, the business of changing ideas and attitudes – the informal laws that dictate what women can and can’t do, like having to carry the care in the home or being unable to own land – is far harder. We must accelerate change here.

Where to start? Women’s rights organizations and movements are already on the frontlines doing this bold work. We must support them and learn from them. The G7 controls a huge portion of aid dollars: by adopting a feminist approach to aid, by injecting resources into women’s organizations – as Canada is committing to do – they could make breakthroughs for the lives of poor women around the world.

I present to you the blueprints of an economy that works for women. This type of thinking is supported by hard-evidence – what’s known as “gender budgeting” at the heart of public policy. Countries from Rwanda to Sweden to Canada show strong steps forward in this area, the latter delivering a few months ago a budget focused on advancing women’s equality. The G7 countries must follow their example and lock in gender-analysis through legislation.

We can build a future that’s far fairer to our daughters and granddaughters. Let’s not just say we’re feminists, but commit to living those principles.