Close gender gaps and make Covid-19 recovery policies truly ‘green’

Climate smart agriculture

Spending plans for Covid-19 economic recovery provide a major opportunity to promote gender equality and environmental sustainability. Government spending, in particular,  must redress the back-sliding on gender equality and women’s wellbeing caused by the pandemic.

That was the clear message from diverse experts from Bolivia, Malawi, Nepal and Senegal at a Commission on the Status of Women 66 (CSW66) side event on 23rd March.

The speakers, from the IDRC-funded GLOW programme, are trail-blazing ways to empower women and pursue sustainable, low-carbon development in their respective countries. CDKN's Mairi Dupar moderated the session, and reports further here.

An unequal pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit women and girls especially hard. As a series of ‘shocks’  – both a public health crisis and cascading economic impacts – Covid-19 has amplified the effects of existing gender inequality and social exclusion in societies.

As Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has highlighted:

  • Women earn less and hold less secure jobs than men.
  • Women are more likely to be employed in the informal sector than men.
  • Women have less access to social protection (such as paid sick leave, health insurance and pensions) than men and make up the majority of single-parent households.

These realities mean that women have been less able to absorb the economic shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they are often the first to face lay-offs and job cuts. In tandem, their burden of unpaid labour in the care economy has increased dramatically during the pandemic.

Women’s economic empowerment alone will not achieve SDG5 (Gender Equality), and the linked goals of SDG1 (End Poverty) and SDG 8 (Decent Work). Other factors are undoubtedly at play to reach gender equality, such as the need to tackle the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women. However, women’s economic empowerment still plays a key part in realising women’s rights and wellbeing.

In the context of climate change, the Covid pandemic barely made a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions. Governments' commitments to cut emissions are still far off track. Their policies would deliver 2.7°C of global warming this century, far from the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. As such, women's economic empowerment needs to advance low-carbon, climate-resilient development.

Women’s economic empowerment: a bold and vital vision for change

There is no single definition of women’s economic empowerment, but UN Women provide a working definition, which highlights:

The profile of relevant markets for women’s participation and the potential for women’s access to truly decent work, which is productive, fairly paid and secure, varies by country and context. The CSW66 event heard that:

In Malawi, efforts are underway to diversify women’s livelihood options through cultivation of food trees, such as fruit and nut trees. These crops promise to secure women’s income, while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere (a climate change mitigation benefit) and providing other ecological benefits such as erosion control (important in the context of adapting to climate change and preventing land degradation). Dr Jessica Kampanje-Phiri, Lecturer at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi and Dr Joyce Njoloma, Scientist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Malawi presented these ideas, shown here.

In Senegal, the majority of agriculture is rain-fed and unproductive, but providing women farmers with access to irrigation that is powered by renewable energy could boost production and incomes, while avoiding harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Work in the horticulture sector – which is concerned with ‘garden crops’ such as fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants – could target women as users of renewably-powered irrigation – as explained by Dr Laure Tall, Research Director of IPAR-Senegal.

In Bolivia, the economy has relied for too long on the male-dominated and polluting mining sector, along with natural gas, which generates few jobs – but by contrast, sustainable tourism could provide a truly eco-friendly, women-friendly route to national development and export earnings. That is the vision of the Bolivian Sustainable Tourism Observatory, a new institution formed by GLOW grantees SDSN Bolivia and its partners, explained Lykke Andersen, Executive Director. The initiative seeks to grow this very low-carbon sector, which attracts principally tourists by bus from neighbouring countries and emphasises low-carbon activities such as cycling and trekking. The Sustainable Tourism Observatory will especially promote the creation of high-quality jobs for women in the tourism sector.

In Nepal, women entrepreneurs in the forestry and agriculture sectors have been hard hit by the pandemic: many have lost work. However, there is an opportunity to upskill women in the use of digital technologies, so they can access market information and re-initiate productive business practices said Mani Ram Banjade of Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies (SIAS). There is, further, a chance to engage local governments to reorientate some of their more ‘traditional’ and ‘tokenistic’ women’s activities in a more empowering, sustainable direction.

From pilot practices to enlightened policies and investments

All of the action-research, pilot projects described above, which are now underway with GLOW funding are led by non-governmental and civil society groups. This raised a key question for discussion: do public policies and investments enable or undermine such initiatives?

“Are the policies really green, or are they green-washing?” challenged Dr Tall of Senegal.

Of course, the circumstances vary by country and locality, but speakers concluded that positive, local changes can be locked in and broader progress made on women’s economic empowerment and low carbon development, if projects take multi-faceted approaches to influencing public policies. There’s no one magic bullet.

For example, the Bolivian Observatory will work with national and local governments to demonstrate the economic and gender equality benefits of sustainable tourism, while also strengthening the digital and financial skills of women entrepreneurs themselves – said Dr Andersen.

The Nepal agriculture and forest project’s approach is similar – although they’ve noted the move towards decentralised government in Nepal. Local government elections will happen in May, and “we can closely work with the newly elected leaders and develop some of the policies and strategies with them, which could be applicable for the next five years or so. We see it as an opportunity for policy-making and influencing policy on the ground,” Dr Banjade said. 

SIAS is also engaging with associations of women entrepreneurs and farmer field schools, as a well-proven route to identifying and advancing new innovations.

In Senegal and Guinea, said Dr Tall, the IPAR project will “be very careful in the way we are targeting the policy-makers. Sometimes it is not about the ministry we should target, but the specific agency or the specific individuals that can push forward the message.” She noted that IPAR has successfully worked in the past with researchers and policy-makers ‘outside West Africa region’ who influence the Senegalese and Guinean governments – as one part of an effective strategy.

Watch the full recording of the event below.