Reducing gender inequalities requires smart and sustained investment in policies and approaches that have proven impact in dismantling obstacles to women’s rights and empowerment. Why the United Nations needs to take the lead now in financing gender equality

Why the United Nations needs
to take the lead now

10 min read
Foto: Unsplash/ JodyHongFilms

Achieving gender equality is an imperative that cannot be sidestepped. Never has this been more important as women’s rights are being attacked, funding for global access to reproductive health care services reduced and hard-won progress on gender equality reversed in many countries around the world. Persistent gaps remain in women’s rights and status, their ability to work, to defend against entrenched levels of violence and limited freedom to make their own choices. Reducing gender inequalities requires smart and sustained investment in policies and approaches that have proven impact in dismantling obstacles to women’s rights and empowerment. Global leadership is urgently needed, and we have indications that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, is poised to respond: this December he will formally launch a Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

The Task Force will include different UN agencies and experts convened to address the state of financing for gender equality within the UN system. It will consider how much the UN spends on gender equality and how staffing and recruitment policies affect its gender composition.  This is particularly important as UN Women’s Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri noted in a recent speech at the Economic and Social Council Coordination and Management Session in June 2017 that, “The work on gender mainstreaming and enhancing gender equality needs better funding. Underinvestment in gender continues to impede results yet it remains the norm. The number of staff working on gender issues at least 50 per cent of their time stands at only 3.5 per cent of UN staff. This is not enough to make a difference. UN entities need to ensure that resources, both human and financial, are earmarked in their respective budgets.”[1]

The International Center for Research on Women, in collaboration with other civil society networks and allies, launched a Feminist UN Campaign[2] following the 2016 publication of a flagship report, Towards a More Feminist United Nations, outlining transformative and practical steps the Secretary-General, his staff and UN agencies can make to achieve gender equality across the UN system, in both its policies and programs. The goal of the Campaign is not only to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality within the UN, but also to draw attention to the persistent lack of gender investments in many UN programs and development initiatives – including in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. Part of the Campaign’s activities have been to focus on financing for gender equality through the newly minted Sustainable Development Goals.

As members of the Feminist UN Campaign, and participants in an active global civil society engaged with our governments and with the UN, we applaud the decision to convene a Task Force to look at how gender equality is being pursued within the UN, in line with one of our initial recommendations. However, in order to be successful, we believe that this Task Force should go beyond an internal focus on UN agencies to look at financing for gender equality more broadly and globally. The Task Force needs to discuss Official Development Assistance and fiscal and monetary policy in developed and developing countries. It needs to engage with the development banks, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to discuss policy and lending, and must engage in dialogue about how the private sector is both helping and hindering gender equality.

To achieve gender equality and equity requires greater and more equal access to employment and productive resources, as well as macroeconomic policies that promote and sustain full employment. It requires freedom from discrimination and violence, the right to health and education and the freedom to choose if, and when, to marry and if, and when, to have children. It also requires that we view investments in health, education and wellbeing as investments and not recurrent expenditures, since these investments yield a flow of future returns enhancing human capabilities and expanding individual and collective opportunities. Gender equality also requires reductions in women’s disproportionate unpaid care burden.[3] The quality of work matters, as do access to social protection, pensions, health-care and the operation of effective labor market institutions that guarantee the terms and conditions of employment.

For example, making “investments” in social care infrastructure can be essential for achieving greater gender equality and higher job growth.  This is particularly true when these investments expand human capital development, reduce poverty and inequality, increase employment for both men and women, stimulate tax revenue generation and, as a result, increase fiscal space.[4] A recent study by Ilkkaracan et al.(2015)[5] in Turkey explored the employment opportunities that could be created by increasing expenditures on early childhood care centers and preschools in comparison to physical infrastructure and public housing, modelling the direct and indirect employment that would be generated. The authors found that investments in physical infrastructure would generate a total of 290,000 new jobs in construction and other sectors, while an equivalent injection into early childhood education would generate 719,000 new jobs in childcare and other sectors (2.5 times as many jobs). In addition to creating more jobs in total and more jobs for women and the unemployed, the authors determined that an expansion in childcare services would create more decent jobs than a construction boom.  Of the new jobs that would be generated in care services, 85 percent were estimated to come with social security benefits, versus 30.2 percent in the case of construction-generated new jobs.[6] 

Making resources available for social programs requires reframing these expenditures as investments, precisely because by stimulating economy-wide improvements in living standards, this type of spending yields a stream of income in the future. Yet all too often, we are told there are insufficient resources available for such investments. This is simply not true. Not only do such investments generate fiscal space, and garner more taxes as a result of their positive impact on growth and employment, but more fiscal space exists than otherwise expected. A recent article by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNICEF and UN Women concludes that we have many more options to expand fiscal space for social spending by reducing tax evasion and under-reporting, reprioritizing public expenditures away from military spending and reducing corruption and illicit financial flows.[7] This article reports that the global cost of corruption is estimated to be more than 5 per cent of global GDP (US$ 2.6 trillion). The African Union estimates that 25 per cent of African states’ GDP, amounting to US$148 billion, is lost to corruption every year. Surely, redoubling efforts to fight corruption are indispensable when there is such a pressing need to fund social protection, health and education – all positively associated with gender equality.  Similarly, the 1997 Asian financial crisis in Thailand prompted the government to respond to civil society calls to address neglected social policies by reorienting spending away from national defense (a reduction of about 10% from the 1970s to the 2000s) and towards the creation of a Universal Health Care Scheme (at the time, one third of the population had no health coverage),  People’s Bank and other measures to stimulate spending nationally and improve financial conditions.[8]

Defending public expenditures against austerity measures are also key to promoting gender equality. A recent report by UNISON in the UK found that cutbacks in expenditure had affected a wider range of services including child care provision, employment in local government, street-lighting and leisure facilities. A survey of more than 7500 women found that “as a result of the cuts, over a third of women felt more cut off from their community, 28% felt more cut off from finding a job and 12% felt more cut off from their families.”[9] Another report by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (2015) in Spain documents how the budget for social security benefits for children and families has been cut by 91% since 2008, while the budget allocated to addressing gender-based violence was cut by 77% of the 2009 figure. In both these cases, austerity measures are clearly undermining gender equality and well-being.

Macroeconomic and fiscal policy is fundamental to states’ ability to secure investments in health care, education and social protection and to generate jobs and promote inclusive and sustainable growth. It makes little sense if development and aid programming is focused on expanding women’s rights and opportunities when macroeconomic and fiscal policy is working against these achievements, closing down investments in gender equality, restricting job growth and undermining institutions and laws that uphold rights.[10] As such, the Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment must address macroeconomic and fiscal policy, including not just expenditure but also progressive taxation, making sure that corporations pay their full dues and reducing tax evasion and tax havens for the wealthy.[11]

It is important to remember that the United Nations is a public good, owned and funded by many governments – but it is also responsible to civil society. As such, this Task Force must include a mechanism for external and civil society experts to participate as both members and as stakeholders with whom the Task Force must regularly consult and solicit technical guidance and proposals for its consideration. This is particularly important in a context where other allies and actors, including the private sector, are increasingly being drawn into UN processes and commitments. Creating space for civil society to engage with the UN and voice our concerns about international development policy is fundamental if these processes and systems are to be transparent and committed to supporting transformative change for gender equality.

The UN does engage with civil society through some existing mechanisms. The ILO provides an important example of a tripartite governing structure where unions, governments and the private sector sit on the governing board and come to the annual labor conference to debate labor policy and establish and adopt labor standards about the quality of work. UN Women has a mechanism for engaging civil society around the annual Commission on the Status of Women, whereby civil society delegates can attend and engage with their and other governments about global and national commitments to gender equality. And the human rights treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women or the Committee Against Torture welcome and accept shadow reports from civil society on member states commitments to uphold human rights principles. Even in these measures, the space for civil society to engage with the UN remains limited and largely peripheral. The High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development[12],convened to oversee implementation of the SDG agenda, severely limits opportunities for civil society input or reporting. This is why the Feminist UN Campaign is calling for more civil society engagement in technical and procedural fora, since consultation about and oversight of UN commitments is essential for governments to be held to account and for their reports to be interrogated and evaluated by communities, citizens and the growing numbers of stateless peoples around the world. We are also calling for more oversight of the Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, especially where their policy conditionality undermines commitments to gender equality and to human rights. The SDGs are a shared agenda to reduce poverty and global inequality. To “leave no one behind,” all multilateral institutions should hold these commitments foremost in their policy and programs. The SDGs have made explicit commitments to advance gender equality. Let’s hold our governments, the UN and the multilateral agencies that define the rules of global finance to account for delivering on these aspirations. 


[3] Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2017) Leave No One Behind: Taking Action for Transformational Change on Women’s Economic Empowerment

[5] Ilkkaracan, I., Kim, K., & Kaya, K.  (2015). The impact of public investment in social care services on employment, gender equality, and poverty: The Turkish case.  Istanbul Technical University, Women’s Studies Center in Science, Engineering and Technology and the Levy Institute of Bard College. 

[6] This estimate reflects the levels of informality in construction and the seasonal nature of these jobs.

[7] Ortiz, I.; Cummins, M.; & Karunanethy, K; (2017) “Fiscal Space for Social Protection and the SDGs Options to Expand Social Investments in 187 countries,” Extension of Social Security Working Paper, ESS 048, Geneva: ILO, UN Women and UNICEF.

[8] Duran-Valverde, F.; Pacheco, J.F. (2012). “Fiscal space and the extension of social protection: Lessons from developing countries,” Extension of Social Security (ESS) Paper No. 33 (Geneva, International Labour Organization).

[11] Action Aid (2017) “Women as “underutilized assets”:  A critical review of IMF advice on female labour force participation and fiscal consolidation,” forthcoming.

[12] Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.