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Making economies work for women in the South: What will it take?

- Refilwe Mabula

How do we make economies work for women in the South?

Women are often marginalised in the world economy. There are few opportunities for them to empower themselves economically due to stringent laws which present challenges for them to access funding or acquire assets.

Why is the world economy not working for women? How do we make economies work for women in the South?

UN Women ( the United Nations entity working for gender equality and women’s empowerment), together with Oxfam and the University of the Witwatersrand held a conference at the Wits Club to tackle these questions and the challenges that women in the informal sector face in the Global South.

The event, entitled: Making economies work for women in the South: What will it take? took place on 10-11 August, after Women’s Day, it and sought to address the economic disparities women face in the workplace and the entrepreneurial sector.

The high-level panel discussions at the event brought together development partners, leading academics, women’s rights experts and leaders, including UN Women Executive Director, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; Minister for Women in the Presidency of South Africa, Susan Shabangu; the African Development Bank’s Special Envoy for Gender, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi; Wits Vice Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib, and representatives from civil society and the private sector.

Speaking on the progress of gender transformation and equality within the academic sphere, Professor Adam Habib, who delivered the opening address, said that Wits had made substantial progress in the last 20 years.Women represent 58 percent of enrollments at Wits and 45 percent of mining engineering students, a previously male-dominated industry are women. 

Despite this progress, the increased cases of gender-based harm and sexual harassments in the higher education sector are alarming, says Habib.

“Whilst we have this incredible shift of women, we simultaneously have atrocious cases of sexual harassment. How is it that we have such phenomenal progress, but then we have such atrocious cases of sexual abuse?  This is not just a Wits University phenomenon; it is a phenomenon of the higher education sector,” says Habib.

Habib is a #HeforShe Global University IMPACT Champion. Wits is one of 10 universities around the world committing to taking action to achieve gender equality within and beyond their institutions.

Former Deputy President of South Africa and current UN Women Director, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka emphasized the need for women’s economic empowerment in the country, and the role of the sustainable development goals (SDG) in recognising that need and delivering substantial developments for women.

“What will success look like if the SDG goals are met? How will the economy look for women in business? We need to make sure there is no inequality when the SDGs are being implemented. We should not leave anyone behind, especially those women who fall between the cracks. We need to have shared prosperity,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka.

According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, the informal economy is measured unequally, social security for women does not exist, and gender blind micro-economic policies have presented challenges for women and impeded their economic empowerment.

Minister for Women in the Presidency of South Africa, Susan Shabangu, paid tribute to the women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 and expressed pride in SA’s gender inclusive Constitution, which also aims to address gender inequality.

“We are proud that we have a Constitution that recognises gender equality. When women are united and they have a purpose, they are able to contribute to the transformation of SA. We are proud to be beneficiaries of those women who marched for us,” says Shabangu.

Shabangu also expressed concern that, despite gender equality advances in the higher education sector, women still lag behind in the work environment (some study in one field but end up working in a different sector).

Sipho Mthathi, Executive Director at Oxfam South Africa who delivered a talk entitled: The role of civil society in closing the gender gap in the Global South says we need to look at how we are going to shift power to make it work for women.

“We need to fix our politics and many other issues to address challenges women face. We cannot take a short cut thinking that we can make the economy work for women. We need to support organisations such as UN Women. We need to make sure that the social reproduction of women is considered.”