Missing the Mark: Gender Equality and Women’s Rights at the G20

G20 leaders met last month for their annual summit in Hamburg, Germany—and women’s economic empowerment was high on the agenda.

The Summit saw the formal launch of Ivanka Trump’s financing initiative for women’s entrepreneurship, which had been announced a few months prior when Trump attended the Women’s 20 (W20) hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now officially known as the Women’s Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, or We-Fi, the effort is housed at the World Bank. Several G20 governments have already made initial commitments totaling $325 million. According to the Bank’s website, the effort will “enable more than $1 billion in financing to improve access to capital, provide technical assistance, and invest in projects and programs that support women and women-led [small- and medium- sized enterprises, or] SMEs in World Bank Group client countries.”

Prior to the G20 meeting, Lyric participated in the Civil Society 20 (C20) Summit, a gathering of advocates from G20 countries to present their recommendations to the current G20 president, Chancellor Merkel. We knew the Trump initiative would be launched at the upcoming G20 Summit, and many of us were eager to see German leadership on gender equality and women’s rights more broadly, including and beyond the proposed focus on entrepreneurship. After all, Chancellor Merkel has actively championed women’s issues within her presidency of both this year’s G20 and last year’s G7.

Given that these are both economic bodies, it is not surprising that the focus has been on women’s economic empowerment—although this is and should be a clear bridge to a host of other women’s rights issues that must be addressed if women are to have full and unfettered participation in the workforce and their economies are to tap the economic potential they represent. This is the agenda ICRW has pushed in its advocacy at these and other global forums.

There was some progress in this regard at the G20 ultimately, although largely overshadowed by talk of the We-Fi, the U.S. departure from the Climate Accord and sometimes-violent protests. Notably, the Communique text includes a section on women’s empowerment that is responsive to a number of ICRW recommendations: there’s a nod to property rights, social protection schemes, quality work, protections against violence and discrimination and even legal reforms. All good and necessary issues. But more could have been done.

Whereas the G7 opted for the first time this year to include a focus on gender across all issue areas on the agenda and also adopted a specific roadmap for a gender-responsive economic environment, the G20 missed an opportunity to follow suit. Indeed, the Hamburg Action Plan, meant to articulate specific actions by which G20 countries are setting out to achieve the goal of inclusive growth, makes zero mention of gender equality and references “women” only twice.

New commitments out of Hamburg were limited to small sub-issues under the gender equality umbrella—women’s entrepreneurship a la the fund, a new initiative to promote digital literacy for girls—rather than articulating a larger vision for how these efforts advance an overall vision for women’s rights and empowerment. The WeFi, administered through the World Bank, has the potential to channel financial and technical resources to women entrepreneurs in a highly transparent and accountable way. But it also means that, hosted at the World Bank, there may be more political oversight and protocol around disbursement than free and open competitions for funding and technical assistance located in NGOs and civil society mechanisms might require. There is also the risk that the complex concept of women’s economic empowerment and agency in economic decision-making is reduced to a private sector initiative funding entrepreneurship and providing loans for small- and medium-sized enterprises, with no focus on policy and enabling environments—an essential ingredient for true empowerment to be achieved.

The G20 would have done well to adopt a policy framework—such as the one adopted by the G7 earlier this year—articulating a shared vision for women’s economic empowerment that includes policy to invest in education and vocational skills, address care needs and deficits and to support women’s labor market participation in developed and developing countries. Positioning such initiatives as steps toward that common goal, to be complimented by other necessary reforms to economic policy and investments in additional efforts that work to dismantle barriers to women’s full participation in labor and product markets and economic decision-making. Otherwise, they appear ad-hoc and atomistic, a sprinkling of funds for female entrepreneurs with no larger analysis or acknowledgment of the structural issues that hinder women’s economic empowerment and the imperative of supporting labor rights, land rights, equal pay for equal work and parental leave policies.

More broadly, the Communique failed to address gender equality and women’s rights in a number of related topic areas outside economic empowerment. For instance, many had hoped that the Hamburg update to the 2016 Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would correct its lack of focus on gender. But it both neglected to include reference to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality as a relevant goal—despite evidence pointing to $12 trillion in GDP growth that could be unlocked if the world were to eliminate the gender gap in the global economy by 2025, a timeframe in which G20 leaders have already pledged to work to reduce the gender gap in their economies by 25 percent—and also failed to mention how various other goals deemed relevant to the G20, such as on infrastructure and energy, would impact women and girls. While there are certainly more references to initiatives for women and girls, the 2017 agreement still fails to make Goal 5 a core focus area and falls short of mainstreaming a focus on gender across all the other goals on which the G20 has agreed to focus.

Similarly, new initiatives on unlocking economic opportunity in Africa through development spending ahead of anticipated rapid population growth missed easy opportunities to address gender dynamics that will be necessary to unlock the demographic dividend: investment in girls’ education and skills development and in sexual and reproductive health and rights. Instead, these efforts appear largely geared toward attracting private-sector investment to the continent, which, while important for the development of job opportunities, will be unsuccessful if the young people who hope to get those jobs do not have the skills and information necessary to be eligible for them. In the absence of skills development and investment in human capital, new jobs will go to the elite and to international contractors, frustrating the hope that excluded populations—women and youth—can find good jobs and decent work and a middle class can grow on the continent. Given the worrying stall in the decline of Africa’s fertility rate, if these investments don’t also give young people the information and services they need to plan families, girls and women in particular will likely miss out on opportunities to participate in the formal workforce. The moment to exploit the demographic dividend will have passed.

ICRW has worked over the course of the past year to put forward these recommendations and more to our own government and to share them with our international counterparts in forums like the W20 and C20. While it’s not immediately apparent whether our efforts have been successful, we are already looking ahead to the Argentine presidency in 2018 and eyeing opportunities to build on some of the promising frameworks put forward in the G7 as Canada takes the helm.

With G20 countries representing nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, 80 percent of the world’s GDP and three-quarters of world trade, their power and importance cannot be ignored. However, as a body primarily concerned about economic growth, the G20 simply cannot afford to leave women off the agenda and rely on the markets alone to resolve inequality. Policy matters. Addressing gender equality through policy, as well as the marketplace, is not only the right thing to do but an economic imperative.

About and

Lyric Thompson is the founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, where she leads global coalition efforts to refine and advance the highest level of ambition and impact for feminist foreign policies. Previously, she served vice president of policy, advocacy and strategy at the International Center for Research on Women, as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, and senior policy manager at Women for Women International. She writes regularly on feminist issues for such platforms as the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Devex and Ms.
Dr. Sarah Gammage is an economist with more than 25 years of experience as researcher and feminist economist, providing policy advice and supporting strategic advocacy on gender equality in Latin America, Africa and Asia. She is the senior director, Gender, Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women.