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Ending global poverty begins with women’s rights
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Getting the Busan Gender Plan back on the rights track

by Oxfam | November 30, 2011


By Robert Fox

What was to be a showcase announcement on gender equality at the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness landed with a bit of a thud as women’s organizations from around the world gave the plan a cold shoulder.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton teamed up with the Korean government and several other countries – Canada included – to launch the Busan Joint Action Plan on Gender Equality and Development Wednesday. The keystone of the plan is EDGE which stands for Evidence and Data on Gender Equality – a much needed and welcome investment in the capacity of governments and institutions to collect and analyze data broken down by gender.

This information is critical to good public policy, providing decision-makers with evidence and insights on how their actions or inaction are affecting women and girls differently than men and boys.

Nothing offensive about that. Indeed the only critique is how modest an initiative it is.

The target of the women’s movements’ scorn is the other element of the Busan plan, aimed at boosting support to women entrepreneurs. And here the concerns have more layers than an onion, each with the capacity to leave you in tears.

On the surface is the focus on women as engines of economic growth. Everyone it seems is hot on women these days – the UN, the development banks, the aid agencies, the private sector. There’s not much money flowing their way but there’s lots of talk about women as a great untapped resource that, with more support, could spur tremendous growth within flagging economies.

There’s truth to that but cause for caution too. Women have every reason to be suspicious of yet another scheme that instrumentalizes women and girls for a broader objective rather than putting women’s rights at its centre.

Most development projects just ignore women. But too many create more work for women without creating more power, rights or respect for women.

Delegates to the Women’s Forum of the Busan Global Civil Society Forum recounted examples where micro-credit, community loans and other schemes simply added to the burden of women whose plates were full but were going hungry. Between their underpaid and unpaid work women already put in two-thirds of all the hours worked on the planet. Yet many are so desperate they jump at the chance to further indebt themselves, taking out micro-loans to start a business – in effect, a third or fourth job – even though too many of them have little control over the income they earn.

Lenders gladly loan them money – as long as the amount is small enough – confident the women will repay their debts. Socialization and community pressure mean default rates are very low, even when the cost to the women is very high.

Forum delegates note the dominant economic model is founded on women’s unpaid and underpaid work. The burgeoning care economy and the growth of precarious work that relies on a constantly replenished pool of young women workers were cited as examples of the sorts of entrepreneurship that was as likely to enslave as to empower women.

That women want more economic opportunity and freedom there is no doubt. That they want recognition for their many contributions to economic growth and legal status as owners of lands, homes and assets, of course. That they want decent work and opportunities to open and grow businesses, again, that’s true. But the women state unequivocally that the foundation for prosperity with equity is rights.  

They believe it is naïve or disingenuous to promote the three E’s – education, employment and entrepreneurship – as the recipe to end inequality without tackling the attitudes and behaviours, customs and norms that perpetuate patriarchy. They underline too the need to address violence and child care and climate change and a wide range of issues that create vulnerability and inequality and represent systemic barriers to eradicating poverty.

And they call for an initiative that is grounded in rights, that starts with the Beijing agenda and that engages women’s organizations from the outset in the conception and design of the proposal as well as its delivery and assessment.

Is the Busan Joint Action Plan dead? No, not yet. While early reviews were negative, no doubt some women’s groups will test USAID’s expressed openness to dialogue. And were the engagement genuine and the resulting plan rights-based, comprehensive and ambitious, there could yet be enthusiasm for this venture. [And were the US to ratify CEDAW, Secretary Clinton would have more credibility as its champion.]

As for Canada, it will be important that CIDA take an active role in the reframing of this initiative. Sustainable economic growth has been identified as a priority by the government. While the details of the strategy remain under wraps, we can only hope that women’s economic empowerment is central. And if so, a new, improved Busan plan might be the perfect means to leverage Canada’s investment to have the kind of results that all women will welcome.

Robert Fox is Executive Director of Oxfam Canada and a delegate to the High Level Forum.