Speech: Ensuring that the world of work works better for the women of Africa

Remarks by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, at the Africa Pre-CSW 61 Consultations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Date: Monday, January 30, 2017

[As delivered]

Thank you very much, Madame Regional Director, and previous speakers. I do want to thank Ethiopia for hosting us so graciously, ECA for accommodating us so warmly, and the African Union for the support, and for the remarks of the Chairperson.

Excellencies, Ministers, I think it is appropriate as Africans that we welcome our guests, Mrs. Karen Ellemann, the Honourable Minister for Equal Opportunities from Denmark, and Mr Sven Mikser, the Minister for Foreign Affairs from Estonia, for coming to be in solidarity with us. I hope they will take some of our recommendations back to their own regional groups. Excellencies, you are welcome in Africa.

I also want to congratulate us on the fact that we have young people amongst us; who have already inspired us, and I am sure will continue to do so. I do also recognize civil society and their important contributions.

It is a pleasure to be here in Addis for the Africa Consultations before the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61). You have heard from Ms. Fatma Al Zahraa Hassan, Vice Chair, Representing the Africa CSW61 bureau that it is going to be an exciting event. Thank you also for being here.

Africa, with its 54 members, is the largest block within the United Nations. Africa has the potential to influence key decisions in the United Nations, including outcomes of the Commission on the Status of Women and other intergovernmental processes, which can boost the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as Agenda 2063. It is therefore important that Africa takes this strategic role and its place in history very seriously.

The theme of CSW 61, ‘women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work’, is an idea whose time has come. The deliberations by the Commission will also benefit from the outcomes of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment and the different Pre-CSW Regional Consultations like this one. At the same time as we meet here, our colleagues will be meeting in Latin America, in Asia, in the Middle East, and in Europe; all preparing for the same event.

Under our new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UN family is strongly united in driving the implementation of the universal mandate of Agenda 2030, which has gender equality at its heart. Thank you again for your influence and the integral role you played in ensuring that Agenda 2030 has women front and centre.

We have learnt valuable lessons from implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Beijing Platform for Action, which will influence the way we implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For instance, you will remember that in the implementation of the MDGs there were many countries that were not able to meet the goals and targets that they had set for themselves. We know why those challenges occurred and in the implementation of the SDGs, we will use that experience to make sure that we increase our performance and impact.

There is no doubt that the world of work is changing. It offers both challenges and opportunities for women young and old, as well as for the displaced persons in our continent who are caught in conflict situations. We are also impacted and influenced by the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, which is driven by digital technology and ICTs, as well as the green revolution which lies ahead of us.

The real question for the eminent group to consider is: what can we do to make sure that the challenges that we face can be overcome, and at the same time that we make the best of the opportunities that are ahead of us? So that for the women and youth in Africa, for all its people, we are able to use this opportunity to create the best possible scenario in future.

Africa as a continent has much to gain from making effective changes in the world of work. Because our young economies, our challenged economies, also need to work, and work much better for women. Our demographic profile also presents significant and particular scenarios for us to take into account. 

The CSW is an opportunity to ensure that Africa speaks in one voice for women and girls; to align with other nations that are like-minded, to participate in the Ministerial Roundtables in the side events, and in particular, in the negotiations of the Agreed Conclusions, to ensure that we represent Africa in the best possible way.

Without united voices from Africa there is a real danger that we could leave some people behind. Those who are at risk of being left behind include young people and women in the rural areas, many of whom are in Africa.

The Agreed Conclusions of CSW61, as well as the deliberations at CSW 61, must also take into account the conclusions and the recommendations of the report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, because they are very informative and they reinforce some of the discussions that we are going to have.

For instance, the report highlights seven key drivers of women’s economic empowerment that could have a positive impact on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The seven key drivers begin with ensuring legal protection as well as reforming discriminatory laws.

Excellencies, 80 per cent of our Member States still have one or more laws that discriminate against women. The discriminatory laws include, for instance, unequal pay, which has been mentioned a lot in deliberations this morning. It includes women’s exclusion from ownership of property and assets. It includes laws that decriminalize violence against women. It also includes laws that take away women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Another of the seven drivers is the recognition, redistribution, and sharing of unpaid care work. This is a subject that has been discussed here. Some of the responses that are highlighted as critical to address this phenomenon include accessible, affordable child care for all women who need this service, as well as parental leave, so as to ensure that shared parenting is facilitated, especially for working parents.

The seven drivers include digital and financial inclusion. They include the need to change business culture that undermines women’s economic benefits. They include the improvement and support for the procurement of goods and services from women.

They also include the strengthening of visible and collective voices of women, and this is very important right now because we are seeing the shrinking democratic space for women’s active participation. This includes the challenges that women are facing in countries where women’s reproductive rights are being challenged in a very aggressive and systematic way. It also includes the challenges that we are seeing in countries where violence against women is being decriminalized.

It is only when women stand together, when women speak in one voice, when women walk together, that we will be able to deal with the challenges that we are facing.

The seven drivers include tackling adverse norms as well as promoting role models that enhance women’s economic participation and aspirations.

The Panel’s report highlights the need for paying significant attention to women in the informal sector. One of the speakers already said that in Africa 70 per cent of women who work outside the home are in the informal sector and that is the majority of the working poor.

The report also includes the need to make sure that both the employment and the quality of benefits that women receive in the formal sector is enhanced. It focuses on agriculture. It also focuses on women–owned enterprises. I encourage you to read this report which can be downloaded online.

Across the world there remain persistent and important gender inequalities and gaps between men and women in the workplace. The global gender pay gap is 23 per cent and is a major cause of an overall lifetime income inequality between men and women. In some countries the lost benefit for women in the totality of their life goes up to as high as 80 per cent. And again almost every speaker referred to this issue of unequal pay. We want this money, and we need it now. It has been a long trek to get to this point.

We also know that a report that was issued by the World Economic Forum in 2016 highlighted that it could take another 170 years to close the global gender gap in economic opportunity, because of the various challenges that women still face. Therefore, the actions that we are discussing are meant to ensure that it does not take this long for women to benefit in a manner that is fit and equal to the contribution that is being made.

It is also projected by UNESCO that girls in sub-Saharan Africa who live in better-resourced communities will only reach universal access to primary education in 2029. Girls who live in the poorest communities in sub-Saharan Africa will reach universal access to primary education in 2086. Surely, not on our watch?

It is therefore when we speak and act in a united manner that we will be able to address all of these barriers to women’s economic empowerment. These also are barriers to meaningful participation of women in the world of work.

Currently, in all African countries, women’s employment rate is lower than that of men, except in Rwanda, Malawi, Burundi and Mozambique - we need to hear your strategies!

This gap is influenced by women’s unequal access to education and resources and the burden of unpaid care work, which has been addressed by our previous speaker.

The majority of women in Africa are employed in agriculture, where productivity and incomes are low. But it does not have to be like this. Different countries in Africa are undertaking initiatives to address these challenges in agriculture. These interventions include land reform, smoothing out access to markets, addressing inputs that are needed for women for higher productivity, education, and the need for participation of young people in agriculture, and their ability to skill and educate themselves so that their entry to the industry can bring about the much needed enhancement.

In sub-Saharan Africa the informal sector contributes about 55 per cent of GDP. This means that this is a sector that is too big to fail and we need to pay attention to it.

Informal jobs lack fair and regular income, and workplace security. For example, sometimes you have over-enthusiastic security personnel who harass women as they trading on the sidewalk and take their booths. The absence of policy to protect these women mean that when these incidents happen they are not secure. In many of our countries, our macroeconomic and fiscal policies do not protect and assist the informal sector. They also lack social protection. When women working in the informal sector become pregnant, there is no one to support them and provide them maternity and parental benefits that those who are working in the formal sector enjoy.

The fact that this is 70 per cent of the working poor in our continent means that this is a sector to which we must pay attention.

The data that addresses the needs and experiences of the women in the informal sector is still patchy but we are working on it. I know that the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) is also working on this. As a result of the lack of data these people remain invisible. We cannot have 70 per cent of the working poor invisible. That is why when we discuss this at CSW we have to be the voice of these women. These are both young and old women. In some cases, just targeted education and skills could be a game changer for many of the women in the informal sector.

So when we talk about the changing world of work it is not just women in a formal site, in factories and offices, it is also the women in the markets, in the fields, and in the streets. 

It is however clear that innovation in ICT and digital technologies and increasing informality and mobility of labour is bringing rapid transformation, both bringing and removing jobs. 

We must make sure that technological and digital changes work for women and girls and young women and do not leave them behind. There is a particular advantage that comes from the ability to use technology, and we must make sure that these advantages are not lost to young women and girls. This means women and girls must be fully equipped with the education, training, and vocational and entrepreneurial skills to achieve the best possible incomes. We need transformative, structural change that can reach women and the working poor in rural and urban areas. Urgent policy action is needed to address both the structural barriers as well as the harmful stereotypes.

In the last few days the issue of stereotypes has been discussed over and over again. Just like wage equality, this is a very hard issue on our agenda. I do want to emphasize that these issues will be discussed at CSW. In fact, we will launch a global coalition that addresses wage equality at CSW, which involves Member States, civil society, working women and trade unions.

Girls in Africa are our future. UNICEF has told us that more than a quarter of the world’s girls live in Africa. This demographic picture means that the future is truly in the hands of our girls. It is important to make sure that their reproductive health and rights, their reproductive needs, their sexual health, and all the services that women and girls need are also given attention. Without addressing these unmet needs, for example, for family planning, we will not be able to take advantage of these democratic dividends that are otherwise in front of us. The potential for girls to be fast tracked to the high echelons of our economies has never been brighter but that depends on the crucial actions that we take.

Some of these actions we must take decisively and forcefully. One such action is the end of child, early and forced marriages. In some of our countries the figures are as high as 55 per cent of girls that are wed before they reach the acceptable age of marriage. Therefore, we are not helpless in this scenario. We have taken action in some countries. We have seen the changes making a difference in the countries that are pathfinders. We have adopted policies, yet we know that not every country has adopted such policies. We are not coming from a place of darkness. We are informed, we are experienced, we are determined, and I have listened to you all yesterday. You are driven to make a difference and to give this continent the best that it deserves.

We know that ICT proficiency is a core competency and often a prerequisite for employment. Estimates show that 90 per cent of all future jobs will require ICT skills. For women who are caught in conflict, or who are displaced, acquiring ICT skills is critical. It means that wherever they are, as long as they have a device, and as long as they have someone to support them, even in a camp, they can move on with their lives and acquire skills that will become handy when peace arrives and they can go back to their countries.

We have national plans for women, peace and security. These national plans need to be revisited so that we can tweak them and make sure we address the needs of young people and the issues that will enable us to equip the women caught up in these situations to be better placed in work. 

We know that 2.5 million engineers and technicians will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to achieve improved access to clean water and sanitation. We also know that without clean water and sanitation the lives of women and girls are made miserable. So it is in our interest to address these issues and make sure these policies are in place, but also to make sure that women and girls can participate actively as entrepreneurs, as skilled workers, as maintainers of this infrastructure, and to grow from that to be involved in the broader field of infrastructure - to be active in the provision of energy, roads, and of shelter. This is the world of work that we want for our women.

As we prepare for CSW61, we need to lead the world in demanding action to address the gender gaps in the changing world of work, including through policies that have been adopted but are under-implemented, and policies that remain to be adopted and implemented. We need analysis of policy actions to address the structural causes that underlie gender inequalities in labour markets.

Recognizing, reducing and redistributing women’s and girls’ disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work is critical in the world of work and addressing the exclusion of women from the world of work.

We need to expand public and private sector employment and focus on investments to narrow the gender pay gap, reduce overall inequality, and redress the exclusion of women from decent jobs.

Domestic workers are a critical sector—83 per cent are women. In many countries we have not ratified the ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers. In Africa only three countries have ratified the Convention. Please ratify this. Without ratifying this Convention and having appropriate domestic laws, the domestic workers work long hours. They do not have a minimum wage; they do not have protection. When they are pregnant and have to deliver children, which benefits our nation, they do not get the support they need, such as parental leave, and maternity leave. It is important that we ratify this Convention. I know that there are some countries that are making these arrangements–I am just asking you to do it faster! 

I would also like to highlight the need for creating decent and empowering jobs with social protection for disabled women, older women, younger women, and to make sure that women are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. We must make sure that the labour market works for all women, both urban and rural.  

The theme of this year’s CSW is a theme that represents an opportunity for us to reshape the world. It represents an opportunity to speak with one loud voice. It also represents an opportunity to address movement building, which will be one of the side events in which we hope you will participate during CSW. We will be looking at encouraging women to be active in trade unions, professional bodies, in communities and societies so that they can protect all rights that are relevant to women as well as to their whole community.

This is the time for Africa to use its numbers, its coherence, its commitment to human rights to ensure that the world of work works better for the women of our continent. 

Thank you.