International Feminist Journal of Politics
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Is women’s economic empowerment the key to global prosperity and peace?

The UN Global Compact  Women’s Empowerment Principles  (WEPs)

The UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs)

At the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, we have heard what has become an annual refrain: the underrepresentation of women in business is a missed opportunity for both the economy and society. UN Women agreed, arguing this week that if our globalized economy is to bring equitable progress for all, investing in women’s economic empowerment is a must. Women’s economic empowerment is also increasingly recognized as an important part of peacebuilding by the United Nations. In last year’s Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). The UN Secretary-General rightly called women’s economic disempowerment “both a cause and an effect of conflict”.

This claim is backed up by decades of feminist research into the gendered political economies of war. During war, women’s often already precarious economic position is exacerbated, forcing many into what Spike Peterson has termed the “coping economy.” While select groups of men profit from the criminal and combat economies, women more often find themselves in the position of attempting to secure basic life-sustaining resources as conflict conditions undermine social stability, erode the formal economy, and disrupt traditional livelihoods.

The Secretary-General’s mention of economic disempowerment was welcome, as the WPS agenda has rather neglected material aspects of women’s gendered war experiences. It has tended to focus on tackling war’s more vivid physical harms, such as sexual violence. In this regard, progress has been made, even if this has been more in terms of recognition rather than resolution. Meanwhile, women’s organizations and feminist advocates have continued to call for the WPS agenda to pay equal attention to economic insecurities and to building inclusive and peaceful societies in the aftermath of conflict.

In my recent IFJP article, Beyond liberal vs liberating: women’s economic empowerment in the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security agenda, I examine the periodic and patchy attention to women’s economic empowerment in the WPS agenda over the nearly two decades of its existence.

Of course, economic empowerment is, as Andrea Cornwall has suggested, a particularly fuzzy buzzword, or fuzzword, one which has as many meanings as it has users. From its radical origins, where it described grassroots women acting together to challenge the structures – both gender relations and dominant models of development – which were exacerbating their poverty and exclusion, it has become much more focused on individual betterment. Where “economic empowerment” once implied a challenge to economic systems that harm women, it has come to mean increasing women’s access to jobs in the formal sector and improving the availability of credit for women entrepreneurs. It has, in Cecelia Sardenberg’s terms, shifted from “liberating” to “liberal”.

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What version, I wondered, of “women’s economic empowerment” would we find in the WPS agenda?

Although we see elements of the liberating version in the UN’s aspirations and, to a lesser extent, its achievements, the liberal version tends to dominate. This is unsurprising, as the liberal form is dominant in other organs of the UN and most institutions of global governance, but should be of concern to feminist WPS advocates, as the liberal approach is unlikely to be the route out of insecurity for women in war’s coping economies. These insecurities are caused by the intertwining forces of neoliberal globalization, patriarchy, and militarization, as feminist scholars have detailed. Building-in reforms to these structures as part of post-war economic reconstruction would be a better route to genuine economic empowerment for women. It is efforts to involve women in developing the reforms, of which we see glimpses of in the WPS agenda, which have the potential to bring about liberating economic empowerment. We need to strengthen these.

Read the full article: Beyond liberal vs liberating: women’s economic empowerment in the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security agenda