Anaya* was sick and bedridden, having just given birth to her second child after a difficult pregnancy, when her husband left her for someone else. She begged him to stay and even offered for her husband’s new wife to live with them, but he declined.
Like many women in India, Anaya had married young, and although she had worked tirelessly in the leather industry for 20 years, she had no money and was now left to feed her young family alone. Anaya had no choice but to force herself out of bed and find whatever work she could. She found a job as a “maid servant”, working long hours and waiting until the end of each month for her meagre pay cheque.
Anaya’s story is commonplace. It is a story Oxfam has heard many times before. We have also come to realise that it’s a story that is not necessarily specific to any particular culture or community.
As we observe International Women’s Day on 8 March, we have gains to celebrate.
In South Asia, only 74 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 1990. By 2012, those numbers were on par. Other countries have introduced paid parental leave, stipulated equal pay for equal work and banned gender discrimination in hiring.
But despite some of this progress, the state of women’s rights globally remains grim.
Oxfam’s new report, An Economy that Works for Women, details the barriers to achieving gender equality in our global economy. Women remain over-represented in low-paid, hazardous jobs working long hours. Women are more likely to face discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and 75 percent of women in developing regions are employed in the informal sector with little rights, social security or guarantees for their safety.
With the gender pay gap as it stands, it would take 170 years for women and men to have equal pay.
Globally, women and girls do between two and ten times more unpaid care work than men, meaning in most countries they work longer hours even though they are far more likely to live in poverty.
This unpaid care work is vital to any economy – caring for children and elderly relatives or doing domestic chores – however it is rarely recognised and valued. If it were, it would add roughly $10 trillion to global GDP.
It is women in developing countries who shoulder the burden for the least reward in our global economy, and they sit at the very bottom of the ladder when it comes to producing consumer goods for wealthy markets. This is most stark in the garment industry, where many workers producing the clothes we wear endure poor working conditions and earn poverty wages.
On average, women represent 68 per cent of this global workforce; in some countries with high exports, women can make up 90 per cent of garment workers.
Achieving gender equality will not happen until we can address women’s place in the global economy. Women’s status in the labour market, which varies greatly across regions, can be due to complex issues like gender inequality and rigid gender roles for men and women.
These issues affect communities everywhere, including our own. We know we need to work towards a world where women are free from discrimination and violence, are treated equally, and are able to have a say and be listened to.
While the kind of grassroots change needed to address these issues can be slow-moving, Oxfam has seen first-hand how simply giving women financial independence can empower them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.
Oxfam has been supporting fair and ethical trade since 1965, when the first shop was opened in Adelaide. Oxfam Shop now works with more than 130 producer partners in 37 countries. Many of the artisans employed by our producer partners are women from poor rural communities or urban slums, and around 90 per cent of these women are widowed, divorced or single: the sole breadwinners of their household.
Before finding work with our producer partners, they struggled to meet their basic needs. Now the vast majority report financial security, independence and increased self-esteem.
“I don’t understand why people – especially men – think I cannot make it on my own,” said a female artisan whose crafts are sold in Oxfam Shop. “When men say I can’t do it, now I say I can do anything…I am independent, I have my own money, I stand on my own feet.”
This economic empowerment can drive the kind of long-term change needed to tackle those complex issues behind gender discrimination.
Educating women, empowering women with economic decision-making and shrinking the gender pay gap aren’t just moral decisions – they’re smart economics. If women and men’s wages were equal, the USA’s GDP would increase by 9 per cent and the Eurozone’s by 13 per cent. In 15 major developing economies, per capita income would rise by 14 per cent by 2020.
Economically empowered women pass on these benefits to their children and communities too. In South Africa, Oxfam Shop has been buying fair trade products from Woza Moya for 12 years.
Woza Moya is the onsite craft store at the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust. Hillcrest provides home-based care and income generation projects for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, many of whom are women.
Woza Moya supports more than 300 crafters who make jewellery, beadwork, ceramics, croquet work and other items, and all of these crafters, most of which are women, are treated like artists. With full autonomy of their work from start to finish, they create their own designs, handpick their materials, craft each unique product, and are paid a decent wage for their talent, skill and labour.
Before she worked at Woza Moya, one of these artisans was homeless, living in a plastic tent with her children. When it rained, their tent leaked, so she made a tiny tin house out of scrap metal with her bare hands.
Now, after learning how to bead and sew, she makes exquisite jewellery, and she plans on teaching these skills to local orphans so they too can lift themselves out of poverty.
One thing that will never cease to amaze me is the strength and resilience of women around the world.
I travelled to South Africa to visit Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust in 2013 and met some of these incredible women myself. They are inspirational mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives and widows, all touched in various ways by HIV/AIDS.
This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate our achievements but continue pushing for the rights of women who face daily discrimination, exclusion, poverty and injustice as they go to work each morning with dreams of creating a better life for themselves and often also for their children.
Meanwhile, Anaya’s story is one with a happy ending. Anaya eventually found work with one of Oxfam’s producer partners, making fair trade handicrafts for Oxfam Shop. With a decent wage, flexibility and support in the workplace and a stable income, Anaya has greater economic freedom and has taken control of her family’s future.
“I am working in a good environment with other women who are like my sisters. We work well together and encourage and support each other when life is difficult,” said Anaya. “For the first time in my life, I am happy.”
To find out more about how women’s rights and poverty intersect, click here.
*name has been changed to protect her identity
This opinion piece was first published online in Mamamia.
Dr Helen Szoke is the CEO of Oxfam Australia. For questions or more information, please contact Megan Giles, Media Coordinator – Fundraising at Oxfam Australia on 0433 028 567 or firstname.lastname@example.org