By Adrienne Nicole Razon

Women’s economic empowerment cannot be achieved without significant investments in women’s health and wellbeing.

When more women work, the results go beyond economic development. Equal participation in labor markets creates political, social, and cultural advantages. Even so, women around the world continue to have lower participation in labor markets compared to men. Statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2013 show that male employment-to-population ratio was 72.2 percent while that of women was 47.1 percent, or less than half of women of working age. Female workers also earn an estimated 23 percent less than their male counterparts, and often end up in the informal sector and with a much heavier responsibility for unpaid care work than men.

Advancing women’s economic empowerment and gender equality means addressing these gaps, as well as supporting women in their livelihoods and businesses, giving them equal access to land, markets, and financial resources, and redistributing unpaid care work between women and men. These objectives are central to the priority theme of the 61st session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which is “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” The theme is also central to many international conventions and agendas including the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – both of which aim to end poverty, hunger, gender inequality, and other global issues.

However, these goals cannot be met without acknowledging women’s fundamental rights to food and health. Women strongly influence the consumption patterns and activities in their households. At a CSW side event, “Women and Labor: A Nutritional Perspective,” Carla Mucavi, Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN Liaison Office in New York, cited FAO’s findings: “When women have greater control over household resources, they and their families are better nourished. Women spend more on nutrition, health, and wellbeing of their households.”

Mucavi also mentioned how women’s malnutrition adversely affects families and communities. Malnutrition in mothers – especially those who are pregnant or nursing – “can set up a cycle of poor child’s growth and development.” Children born from malnourished mothers may exhibit poor performance at school and low productivity in adulthood. They are more likely to have weak immune systems and high risk of diseases, cognitive impairments, stunting, and are at high risk of dying before the age of 5.

If maternal and child under-nutrition by themselves are not devastating enough, these issues have a negative impact on global economic growth. The World Health Organization estimates that 11 percent of global GDP is lost because of these issues. This is why the CSW calls on actors from all sectors to take action. Governments, first and foremost, must perform their duty to “expand the opportunities of women and girls” and “ensure women and girls’ rights, including their right to food and health,” said Mucavi.

Fortunately, more countries are aware of the significance of women’s food and nutrition security to their economic empowerment. This was evident from the presence of public and private sector representatives at the CSW 61 side event on women’s nutrition, following up on the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition in 2016 – a resolution that aims to intensify actions to eradicate hunger and malnutrition globally.

Dr. Rohan Perera, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, said that women “form the backbone of industries in the country [such as] tea and garment. Women in informal sectors are equally significant even though they do not make the statistics.” This recognition has led to increased investments and better interventions focused on maternal nutrition and health services not only in Sri Lanka but also in other parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Programs are no longer limited to simply distributing food or providing health services to poor communities. They now include actions aimed at providing long-term solutions that increase women’s access to information, resources, and incomes.

However, their actions should not stop there. Governments must also exert more effort in creating workplace environments that are sensitive to women’s needs. The ILO found that at least 830 million working women – mostly in low-income countries – do not have maternity protection, which guarantees them job security after pregnancy or maternity leaves. Failure to provide such benefits to female workers is a form of discrimination, as it limits women’s opportunities for career advancement, exposes them to unequal working conditions, and restricts them in their role as mothers or caregivers.

Using the context of breastfeeding, Dr. France Begin, senior advisor for Infant and Young Child Nutrition at UNICEF, elaborated this at the side event: Mothers who breastfeed make “enormous contributions to the health and welfare of families, economies, and nations.” It is good for protecting children and mothers against diseases, and can empower women “with greater reproductive autonomy.” This means that since breastfeeding can delay menstruation, it can help mothers with birth spacing. This is especially helpful in areas where women have limited or no access to contraceptives and reproductive health care. As a result, more women can “pursue education and paid jobs outside the house – both crucial to achieving gender parity,” said Dr. Begin.

Breastfeeding can also contribute to the global economy. Referring to a study by the Lancet, the World Health Organization (WHO) explained that “the costs of lower cognitive ability associated with not breastfeeding amount to more than US$300 billion each year.” The WHO added that breastfeeding can reduce treatment expenses associated with common illnesses in children, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. The Lancet study also projected that improved breastfeeding practices can save the healthcare systems of the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, and urban China over US$300 million.

Yet women around the world stop breastfeeding before they want to because they do not have time or get limited support from husbands, families, and society, Dr. Begin explained. Some women workers do not use the lactation breaks provided to them due to inadequate or no breastfeeding spaces in the workplace. She added that this holds true in female dominated sectors, especially the garment sector.

Moreover, the burden of domestic care should not be placed on women alone. Paid parental leave is another crucial support for working women that is still not routinely available in many countries. Although more countries have passed laws on maternity leave – allowing up to three months of leave – states should also prioritize paternity leaves that extend beyond two weeks. Several studies have shown that this has many benefits women’s economic empowerment and gender equality.

First, it can lead to the equal distribution of childcare and other domestic duties, which are normally given to women. Second, it can reduce the gaps in labor force participation and wages between women and men. More importantly, it frees both from traditional gender roles that limit their potential in society. This increases women’s participation in the labor market, and thus has benefits to their household and economy.

Without sufficient workplace policies that provide maternal protection and benefits, many working mothers across all sectors of society face the dilemma of having to choose between their work and their duties as caregivers of the family. Governments must pass and implement laws that regulate both public and private work sectors. They must create ways to demonstrate to employers that investing in women’s health is beneficial to their own objectives and success, while also encouraging them to actually create policies that do so.

Now that the CSW’s 61st session has ended, the intergovernmental body must continue to call upon member-states to reinforce their commitments to progressing the status of women in the world. It is not enough to acknowledge that women can contribute enormously to economic, social, or political prosperity. All actors must ensure that women’s basic needs are met and that they are physically capable to handle all roles and responsibilities in the changing world of work.

Adrienne Nicole Razon holds a Master of Science degree from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Her concentration was International Development and Humanitarian Assistance, with a focus on food security, public health, and gender issues.

Written by Adrienne Razon