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Stephenie Foster

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Building Blocks to Increase Women's Economic & Political Progress

Posted: 07/04/2012 3:02 pm

Virtually every day, someone asks me about how to engage women in projects and work in the economic or social spheres. My answer is always that women -- 50% of any country's population -- are critical to progress that benefits everyone in a society. Often, the conversation then turns to how best to turn these goals into reality and how to structure laws and institutions in to harness this potential. Here are some basic building blocks.

In terms of women's political participation, both at the grassroots and national decision-making levels, we must value women as voters, as candidates, and as elected or appointed officials. Societies must recognize the importance of women, who comprise over half of the world's population, participating fully in policy decisions that are made at the local, national, and international levels. In an era where we are all looking to be as efficient and effective as possible, a country cannot develop a policy on anything without understanding the very different needs of men and women, whether that is in terms of access to credit or access to health care. For example, women have different health care needs because they give birth -- and men do not -- and because they are often the primary care givers for children. If a government policy does not take these differences into account, it will be flawed. At the same time, if women do not see their perspectives considered and taken into account in the policymaking process, they are less likely to be part of the debate and to make voting a priority.

Political parties are also crucially important institutions, and can often be resistant when it comes to opening up decision-making positions to any newcomers, women or young people, for example. Parties need to remove structural barriers that discriminate against the participation of women, develop programs and initiatives that allow women to participate fully in all internal policymaking and candidate selection, and incorporate the issues that women care about in their political platforms.

In addition, women are more engaged in the economy and the workplace than ever before. However, in many countries, women have fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, are more often denied credit, and face social restrictions that limit their chances for advancement. It is important that countries work toward creating a business environment in which women and women-owned businesses can thrive. Every country is different, but there are some key cross-cutting policy issues that can have a positive impact on women's ability to create and grow their businesses, such as equal access to capital and credit; equal protection of property rights; expanding the capacity of women-owned businesses to become eligible for supplier diversity programs at multinational companies; and increasing their ability to compete for government contracts.

It is also important for women to participate in already existing business networks, and to develop their own networks. Groups across the globe, like the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), do important work in this arena and it is fundamental to increasing women's opportunities. So much business development can be done through networks and business associations. That is crucial to both helping individual women grow their businesses, but also to creating organized groups that can advocate for changes in laws or institutional practices (e.g., lending requirements) to benefit women in business overall.

Across the globe, women are concentrated in the informal sector and are often the "weakest links" in global value chains. It is important to look at how to best build social supports for these women in particular, who are often at the margins economically and also bear the disproportionate share of family responsibilities. At the same time, it is crucial to not only create legislation to address the issues that women in the informal sector face, but also develop a strong and compelling case that formalizing their businesses is important, and that their business and quality of life will improve if their businesses are formalized. Becoming part of the formal economy can cost more (i.e. you pay taxes and fees and are subject to regulations), so there needs to be a benefit for women in terms of protections and opportunities for growth.

Men do face a lot of these same issues, but men do not usually have the added responsibility for family care, for getting children to school, walking to collect firewood, etc. They are not subject to the same types of physical fears and abuses as women, either. There are also certain stereotypes of women in almost every society that prevent them for being considered as part of the formal sector.

It's an exciting time to be working on these issues, and to building a stronger future for everyone, women and men, across the globe.

 

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