How business can economically empower women through the SDGs

by 02nd Jun 2015
A student at a vocational training centre in Dili, Timor-Leste A student at a vocational training centre in Dili, Timor-Leste

The real challenge for the new Sustainable Development Goals is what happens after they are agreed. Deciding on the goals and targets is only the first step; backing them up with the commitment to implement them is crucial. The emerging consensus between the private sector, civil society, governments and multilateral agencies on the need for progress on economically empowering women is a positive sign. But how can business help make this ambition a reality?

As a great new report from UN Women explains, “unleashing the economic power and potential of women” could provide a solution to “the persistent problems caused by the global financial crisis and stalled growth”. But first and foremost women’s economic empowerment is about human rights. It’s the missing piece of the gender equality jigsaw that has primarily focused on securing legal and social rights – but has left women earning globally 24% less than men, in jobs that are generally more dangerous and exploitative, whilst at the same time doing two and a half times more domestic and unpaid care work than men.

At CARE we are aiming to economically empower 30 million more women by 2020. And if we achieve that, we think millions more will follow their example – benefiting not just those women, but entire communities and economies, locally, nationally and globally.

That’s why it’s exciting to see a draft gender goal which, for the first time ever, really recognises the specific barriers women face in achieving economic empowerment. The draft goal urges states to “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, ownership and control over land, other property, financial services and inheritance”. It also makes reference to the need for sexual and reproductive rights, equal participation in political and economic spheres, and even mentions the need to recognise and value unpaid care carried out by women.

I think there are three ways that business can support the delivery of the SDGs to help achieve the economic empowerment of women, and so result in business benefits and more sustainable solutions to poverty in the longer term.

1. Alternative financing models

Clearly donor and government funding for development will remain vital to achieve all 17 goals, yet only six OECD countries have achieved the 0.7% target and the BRICS are lukewarm to the idea. We need to urgently mobilise various forms of finance – both private and domestic. Take access to finance (as CARE and the UN have noted, savings-led financial inclusion is one of the crucial pathways for women to become economically empowered).  Along with Barclays, we estimated that $145bn could be pumped into national economies if we expanded formal access for poor savers. This would be a win-win for individuals, businesses and governments alike – and more money could be made available for spending on development.

And then there are ‘returnable capital’ models that we want to explore further too. For example CARE would prepare and facilitate the savings groups (there are currently 9 million savings group members in Africa) for the banks to link to and receive a fee for doing so (a fee that banks would otherwise be spending on marketing and customer acquisition). These models speak to serious long-term change and core business strategies.

2. Partnerships and collaborations

Many have noted that ‘doing development in a changing world’ requires new ways of working. It’s about bringing together all of the key actors – governments, private sector and civil society – to help to drive development outcomes in future. The SDGs offer a brilliant platform for the creation of more multi-stakeholder partnerships and funds.

Agricultural supply chains offer an interesting example of the need to invest in these ways of working. Take cocoa in Ghana, where female cocoa farmers earn 25-30% less than their male counterparts. And in Côte d’Ivoire, women in cocoa communities earn up to 70% less than men. In both countries, women struggle with lower farm productivity, smaller farms and less access to financing and farm inputs. CARE is working with cocoa giant Mondelez to tackle these inefficiencies – but we also work with the traders like ECOM and Cargill, as well as governments and producer networks.

3. Creating behavioural and social changes

Finally business can, through its leverage, voice and reach with consumers, really shape wider social and cultural norms that will be so key to ultimately realising the ambition of many of the goals. We know that women face significant barriers to work that are partly the result of restrictive social norms or an acceptance of cultures of violence. 

Take beer sellers in Cambodia – a low paid job often undertaken by young women, who regularly face harassment and violence. Yet several beer companies, including brands such as Tiger and Heineken, formed the Beer Selling Industry Cambodia (BSIC) alliance, which established fixed salaries for the beer promoters working for them. With the support of CARE Cambodia, BSIC also introduced a code of conduct for its members with clear guidelines for the protection of workers, including prohibiting workers from sitting and drinking with customers. 

Business can also champion and break down barriers women face as a result of undertaking domestic and unpaid care. How exciting would it be to see a commitment from different business sectors that they will provide creches and childcare options for poor women working in agriculture, or the garment sectors?

These are the sorts of changes that could really help unlock women’s potential and improve business outcomes.

This blog was first published on the Business Fights Poverty website.

Laurie Lee

I joined CARE in August 2014, because I believe strongly in our focus on economic development, gender equality and people holding governments accountable. My focus at CARE is on ensuring we have the best people to do the job we do, to support our teams on the ground in over 70 developing countries, and to ensure we continuously improve our ability to monitor the impact of our work, and learn how to do it even better.  

Prior to CARE I worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for seven years, advising them on development policy issues in Europe and Africa. Before that I worked for the British government. I managed British development programmes in South Africa and Afghanistan. He worked in 10 Downing Street to prepare the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa in 2005. And I ran the DFID Trade Policy Unit until 2008.

One good thing I've read

One of CARE’s goals is to help the 2 billion people – including 1.1 billion women – without access to financial services, to get them. This great and easy book, Portfolios of the poor: How the world's poor live on $2 a day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, explains why there’s no such thing as living 'hand to mouth'. The poorer you are, the more you need financial management tools.


Twitter: @lauriejlee