Marissa Wesely, coordinator of the Win-Win Coalition, a network that works to empower women through cross-sector collaboration. Photo by: Win-Win Coalition

Gender equality is first and foremost a human rights issue, but it is also a prerequisite to inclusive, long-term economic development.

Treating women as equal participants with men in political, economic, social and cultural spheres could — as headlined in a recent McKinsey report — produce an additional $12 trillion of annual gross domestic product in 2025. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, giving women the same access as men to resources such as fertilizer and farm equipment could boost their productivity by 20-30 percent, boost agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent and reduce the number of undernourished people by 12-17 percent.

Marissa Wesely, coordinator of the Win-Win Coalition — which supports women and girls through enhanced cross-sector collaboration between the corporate sector and women’s organizations — believes that the way to tackle the multifaceted issues that hold women back is by employing an integrated, comprehensive approach. Wesely explains that without real progress on gender equality, it is impossible to make real progress on other development goals.

“While it is great that we have SDG 5 expressly focused on achieving gender equality, gender equality must also be the cornerstone of every other Sustainable Development Goal  — whether SDG 2 to end hunger, achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture, or SDG 16 to promote peaceful and inclusive societies,” she said.

Devex asked Wesely where gender equality stands 20 years after the Beijing Declaration, as well as what she thinks needs to be done to accelerate progress in the area. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

In your opinion, how much progress has been made toward achieving gender equality and upholding women's rights in the last 20 years? In which dimensions or aspects have we leaped forward, and in which ones have we stagnated? Are there areas where we have regressed?

There has been much progress on achieving gender equality in a number of areas in the past 20 years, with numerous laws enacted to provide equal treatment for men and women. Among other advances, the global gender gap in access to primary education has virtually closed, while the global rate of maternal mortality has decreased by 42 percent. I am also personally heartened to hear a growing chorus of male voices — particularly among younger men — advocating for gender equality in a variety of settings, including at the United Nations with U.N. Women’s HeforShe campaign.

But progress has been uneven, with gains not shared by all. Women continue to suffer from inadequate reproductive and maternal health care and lack many basic legal protections, including equal property and inheritance rights. They are subject to child marriage, mobility limitations, inadequate sanitary facilities and other issues that limit their access to secondary and tertiary education. They remain underrepresented in leadership positions in almost all fields. And despite a growing body of laws to address the issue, 1 in 3 women globally still experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes.

Even more troubling, in many parts of the world, we are seeing not only stagnation in progress for women, but significant backlash against the gains of the past 20 years, including against women in the Middle East and North Africa region who fought to topple dictatorial governments in the Arab Spring, as well as against women’s human rights defenders facing increasing violence in Latin America. There has even been significant retrenchment in basic reproductive health rights in the United States, an issue I had thought was put to bed when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. Simply maintaining hard won rights remains a critical goal for many seeking to achieve gender equality.    

Despite the momentous support that surrounded the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the world has been lagging behind or underachieving in terms of progress for women. What should governments and the international development sector be doing that they aren't yet doing, or not doing enough of, to accelerate our gains in this area?

I actually think that so much more progress could be made if we all were better at getting out of our silos — whether political silo, development silo, corporate silo or women’s rights silo. I don’t think this is a new strategy, but it is hard to implement. I think that collaborating across sectors — sharing skills, strategies, networks and resources — is the key to accelerating the pace of change to achieve gender equality.

Having said that, governments do need to take responsibility for providing basic structures and services necessary to foster gender equality — whether by passing or enforcing laws to give women equal property rights or protect them against gender-based violence, or by providing access to affordable basic health care, including reproductive and maternal health care, and quality education. And the development sector has a critical role to play to support this work and fill gaps in those public services.

I also think that everyone working to make progress for women — from whatever sector — needs to engage in a meaningful way with women on the ground, not only to understand their needs, but because their insights and strategies are critical to developing policies and programs that will create lasting change in complex social and cultural settings.

You have done a lot of work at the intersection of women's rights and the corporate sector. What role does business or the private sector play in upholding women's rights and achieving gender equality in all aspects of life?

I deeply believe that the corporate sector has a critical role to play in advancing women’s rights and achieving gender equality. Corporations have enormous access to skills, networks and resources. Many of them work in every part of the globe and in communities deep in their supply chains. Corporate programs that truly empower women can serve as models for others in the private sector, as well as models for governments to replicate. Advocacy by corporations to empower women and advance their rights can also help provide governments with the political will to make changes to advance gender equality goals.

And this work is not just about “doing good,” though it certainly is that. The private sector has much to benefit from truly empowering women — strengthened supply chains, greater productivity, access to talent and enhanced brands.

One of my favorite examples is Gap’s P.A.C.E program that was begun in 2007 as a social investment program. Through this program, workers in South Asian factories in the company’s supply chain were offered a workplace education program that focused on acquiring communication, time management and decision-making skills, as well as knowledge about topics such as legal rights, financial security and reproductive health.

When evaluated by the International Center for Research on Women in 2013, ICRW found that the program had not only achieved some of the hoped-for social impact — namely, workers’ self-esteem and self-confidence to address issues at home and in the workplace had improved — but it also had positive business impact for the factories, including improved efficiency and overall workplace performance.

Nonetheless, while more and more corporations are recognizing the business benefits of empowering women, sometimes their programs are limited to what they view as their particular expertise — providing business and financial skills, training and mentoring.  In order for women’s empowerment programs to be truly impactful, these programs must take an integrated approach to address some of the multifaceted issues that limit women's full participation in the economy and society — whether inadequate health care or childcare, violence at home or at work, or lack of property rights.

For those in the Win-Win Coalition, a key strategy for corporations to ensure that their empowerment programs are designed and implemented with an integrated approach is to partner with grassroots women’s organizations that have deep experience working on gender issues in complex local contexts. These local gender experts can help ensure that the impact that a corporation wishes to achieve is lasting and sustainable both for the women it seeks to empower and for its business.

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About the author

  • Liana Barcia

    Liana is a former Manila-based reporter at Devex focusing on education, development finance, and public-private partnerships.