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Prof. Diane Elson

University of Essex, Department of Sociology, Emeritus Professor | UK 

Prof. Diane Elson is an Emeritus Professor at the Department of Sociology in Essex University, a Visiting Professor at the WiSE Research Centre, Glasgow Caledonian University and a Research Associate at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University. She is a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy and is a consultant to UN Women. In 2016, Dr. Elson was awarded the Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. She has served as chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group and as Vice-President of the International Association for Feminist Economics. Diane Elson elaborated on the inclusive economies for women’s empowerment as a feminist economist. Dr. Elson discussed the positive and negative factors that inclusion have on women`s participation in the economy. She elaborated on the interaction between participation in the economy and the unpaid work. In her remarks, Dr. Elson also underlined how women are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Economic inclusion and women’s empowerment are both themes of the sustainable development agenda; although there is no goal or target that specifically brings them together. The goals that focuses on sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth do not reflect on women’s empowerment specifically. Sustainable Development Goal #5, which requires governments to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, does not mention economic inclusion.

Although it set targets on governments to undertake reforms to increase women`s equal rights to economic resources, I think we need to focus more on the issue of rights, not just participation, to ensure that economic inclusion really does empower women.

Inclusion is a positive dimension. However, in reality, there are many forms of inclusion in economies that can be harmful: forcible inclusion, forced labor and modern slavery, injurious inclusion, unsafe working conditions, long and exhausting hours of work. Impoverished inclusion where earnings are not above the poverty level, precarious inclusion where employment is insecure, segregated inclusion, inclusion in low paying occupations at the bottom of the job’s hierarchy. Those are not the factors that people have in mind when they talk about how inclusion in the economy will empower women.

Those are indeed many of the realities that many women face. Therefore, we have to be very careful what kind of inclusion we want to achieve. Some of the inclusion in financial markets sounds very positive. Every woman should have a bank account, but when a person starts to engage with financial markets, there may be consequences; predators who mis-sell financial products, who make defraud to increase the level of indebtedness, lead to loss of assets and to vulnerability of harassment by debt collectors.

Financial inclusion needs unpacking the reforms of financial inclusion that are beneficial. As underlined, there are also harmful forms. One of the problems that many women face is that they are simultaneously included and excluded.

This is a framework that the Trade and Development Report 2017 put forward. Women are included in the sense that they are participating in the labor market and in financial markets; however, they are often excluded from the prosperity that is supposed to come from this inclusion. The global data sets of the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that women predominate among workers in vulnerable employment, defined as own-account workers and contributing family workers. ILO data on a broader range of so-called non-standard forms of employment refer to temporary employment, seasonal work, casual work, part-time on-call employment agency work. Women, young people and migrants are more likely to be found in non-standard arrangements compared to men.

How can inclusion be made empowering despite of its challenges? It is not enough to celebrate that many women are participating in the labor market. It is not enough to celebrate that more women are participating in financial markets. We have to focus on the issue of how this inclusion can be made empowering or the ILO put forward some ideas and it is the 1999 decent work agenda paying attention to four issues. The first is the creation of fair and productive employment that can provide a decent livelihood. The second is rights at work and the third is social protection, including cash benefits and access to basic services. The last factor is the promotion of social dialogue between government, employers, subcontractors and workers organizations. Gender equality is a cross cutting objective of the decent work agenda. It is important that this agenda recognizes that empowerment does not come from employment alone, but also needs access to social protection, to cash benefits and access to basic services.

This becomes very apparent when we look at the impact of COVID-19. There is an important interaction between participation in the economy and the unpaid work that most women around the world have to do and some women are really burdened with. Inclusion in paid work will not be empowering if it is to pay paid work to already long hours unpaid work. Many low-income women are overworked that they’re already participating in work that generates some income, although not enough, but also burdened with the need to collect fuel, water, prepare meals, take care of children, frail elderly people, people living with long term illness. The long hours of exhausting work, both paid and unpaid, deplete their own health and strength.

Work load is far from empowering. For these women, empowerment must include a reduction of the overall burden and more time for rest and for participation in the life of the community through the political processes. Empowerment isn’t just a matter of having an income. It’s also having some free time to participate in personal development. Investment is needed to provide affordable access to clean energy, water, sanitation and care. When we talk about women’s economic empowerment, we only talk about the labour market and the financial market. We forget the need for this complementary investment in energy, water, sanitation and care services.

Women play a disproportionate role in responding to the COVID-19 as they are the majority of frontline health care workers despite the fact that they also undertake the majority of care in the home. Women’s unpaid care work has increased significantly as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people. Women have also been hard hit by the economic impact of measures to halt the spread of COVID-19, especially women who work in the informal economy. Globally, nearly 60 percent of women work in the informal economy, both as selfemployed workers and as wage workers, and this goes up to 90 percent in developing countries.

The empowerment of women through inclusion in the economy has to focus on the informal economy. Governments aiming to combat the Corona virus have implemented measures ranging from border closures to full lockdown. Many of these measures of forced informal workers to give up their livelihoods, alter their ways of working, causing their incomes to be reduced. Sometimes it is impossible for informal workers to earn their livelihood in other ways, which threatens the survival of these workers and their families. The government should issue clear directives to lock down enforcement agents to refrain from harassment, violence, bribery, forced evictions and demolition of informal workers assets, including their homes and workplaces. The misuse of public health measures to contain COVID-19 causes destruction of inclusion and empowerment of the large numbers of women in the informal economy.

However, many governments are expanding and adapting social protection measures in an attempt to provide at least a basic level of food and income security to the many households that rely on earnings from informal work. In April 2020, the World Bank identified 133 countries which have implemented such measures,18 which are mostly shortterm emergency measures. There’s new research from a wonderful organization “Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing – WEGO”, which suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on informal incomes is unlikely to be short term.

While the safety nets are vital in the time of immediate crisis when they come to an end, former workers need access to recovery packages, including low interest loans, access to start-up capital, access to public procurement processes. These opportunities will allow informal workers participation and reskilling and training programs. Women’s empowerment requires much more than participation in the labour market and the financial market. It requires participation that is accompanied by measures to realize women, economic and social rights.