On one hand, it is encouraging to see women’s economic empowerment gaining prominence as a smart investment for countries. The issue has been featured at the World Economic Forum, and the G20 group of nations has made important commitments.
But on the other hand, many of these conversations—including some in respected news outlets—are short-sighted, limiting, and yes, even dangerous. They assume that helping women thrive depends primarily on labor market or economic solutions such as incentivizing women-led businesses.
We cannot support women as workers or entrepreneurs if we do not first support them as people—and that means investing in their basic health, rights, and wellbeing.
G7 leaders are expected to unveil a Roadmap for a Gender-Responsive Economic Environment at their annual summit starting today. If countries are truly committed to empowering women, they will prioritize comprehensive, multi-faceted investments.
For many girls and women, basic reproductive health eludes them—making conversations about women-owned businesses feel like a distant luxury. This is even more true after Trump’s reintroduction and dramatic expansion of the U.S. Global Gag Rule and slashing of funds to UNFPA (the UN agency that promotes and funds maternal and reproductive health and rights).
Worldwide, 225 million girls and women want the option to plan their next pregnancy, yet lack access to safe, stigma-free services to do so—and therefore the ability to plan their futures. A shamefully high 830 women die every day from preventable complications during pregnancy or childbirth, and one in three women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime.
Improving childcare services, as suggested to G20 countries, is a positive step for women’s economic empowerment, but insufficient if women are unable to choose whether to have a child in the first place.
Removing systemic barriers to education is also crucial for supporting girls and women to achieve their full economic potential, including ending exorbitant school fees, addressing safety concerns, and ensuring accessible and safe water and sanitation. Every additional year of schooling increases a girl’s future earnings by 10-20 percent.
The G7 countries can take immediate steps to shore up support for global maternal health, family planning and girls’ education; they can also help women who have who have been displaced escaping violent conflict. Refugees, especially women, need quality health care, starting with maternal and reproductive health services.
Only if countries simultaneously invest in all of these areas can we close the gender gap in economic empowerment and reap a massive return. The McKinsey Institute estimates that if women played an identical role to men in labor markets, US $28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025.
Thankfully, there are bright spots of leadership to celebrate.
In Canada, where G7 leaders will meet in 2018, gender equality has received the comprehensive attention it deserves. In the face of global attacks on female rights, Canada committed to invest nearly US $500 million in sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide.
Countries beyond the G7 have also risen to the challenge. The Netherlands is spearheading a new global initiative that has already raised $200 million to finance access to sexual and reproductive health services, with Norway, Denmark and Sweden as core partners. Indonesia is working to mainstream gender equality in leadership by striving for at least 30% women in parliament.
The evidence is irrefutable: to power progress for all, comprehensive investments in girls and women’s health, rights and empowerment must be at the heart of every political agenda, not an afterthought. This is the mark of real gender equality champions—and we are watching to see whether G7 leaders pass the test.