CSW66: ‘Advocacy for policy change takes time and a long-term commitment’

Helen McEachernCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Helen McEachern, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Established in 2008, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries. It has already supported more than 200,000 women to start, grow and sustain successful micro, small and medium-sized businesses in over 100 countries.

What does the Cherie Blair Foundation do, and what challenges have you faced?

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low and middle-income countries. We are committed to eliminating the global gender gap in entrepreneurship and creating a future where women entrepreneurs thrive.

As a UK-based charity working in international development and women’s economic empowerment, we are very concerned about the decision the UK government made in November 2020 to cut the UK overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. The impact of this decision on women and girls has been devastating. We welcome the commitment late last year to restore the women and girls’ development budget to what it was before the aid cut. The government should swiftly act on this commitment and restore the overseas aid budget, which will save lives and protect the rights of women and girls. We are also very much looking forward to the new gender development strategy due out from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office later in 2022.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda?

It is estimated that it will take 268 years until women have equality in economic participation and much remains to be done to address economic gender injustices in women’s entrepreneurship, and more holistically when it comes to women’s economic empowerment. In real terms, this statistic means millions of women and girls are exposed to exploitation and are not able to increase the education and health outcomes of their children or enjoy their rights and the choices that come with financial independence.

The review theme of this year’s CSW was ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’. Our current advocacy efforts are focused on tackling gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship. Gender stereotypes undermine women’s economic rights in multiple ways: they affect their aspirations, sources of support, opportunities, perceptions and access to resources such as finance and markets, and impact on the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We wanted to use the 66th session of the CSW to recognise how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights and embed strong calls for action in the session’s Agreed Conclusions.

Based on detailed survey responses from 221 women entrepreneurs across 42 low and middle-income countries, our recent report, ‘Gender Stereotypes and their Impact on Women Entrepreneurs’, reveals that gender stereotypes are part of the social background for women entrepreneurs, with 96 per cent of respondents saying they had directly experienced them. Overall, 70 per cent of respondents said that gender stereotypes have negatively affected their work as entrepreneurs. Nearly a quarter – 23 per cent – also experienced gender stereotypes or discriminatory remarks while trying to access finance for their business, and more than 60 per cent said they believe that gender stereotypes impact on their business growth and affect how seriously they are taken as business owners.

We also raised concerns about the challenges women face around entrepreneurship in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For women entrepreneurs, the pandemic has meant further reduced incomes, temporary and permanent business closures, dismissal of employees, missed business opportunities and reduced access to often already limited finance and capital. 

Women-owned firms face additional barriers to accessing government support, and are more likely to close, with many citing difficulties with managing additional unpaid care work. Women-owned enterprises are overrepresented in sectors most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 – such as retail, hospitality, tourism, services and the textile industry. That’s why we wanted to advocate to ensure that a strong focus on women’s economic empowerment and gender-transformational post-pandemic recovery was embedded in the CSW session’s final conclusions.

We also highlighted the unpaid care work that disproportionately affects women. Before the pandemic, women already spent about three times as many hours on unpaid domestic work and care work as men. The pandemic has increased the unpaid workloads – both for women and men – but it is women who are still doing the lion’s share. This impacts on the everyday lives of women in multiple ways, including by undermining women’s economic rights and opportunities, for instance, to access and pursue education, formal employment, entrepreneurship and leadership positions.

These themes are critical when we consider the enormous gender economic gap.

To what degree were your expectations regarding CSW met?

This was the first time the Foundation undertook advocacy at CSW, so it was definitely a learning experience for us – but a very positive one.

Our objective was to ensure that women’s entrepreneurship and gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship and economic participation were raised, and that in addition to addressing gender justice, CSW’s final elaborations included commitments on these issues.

We decided to do this by organising a side event and by sharing our advocacy calls with permanent missions by email and through social media. I am very grateful for the collaboration and support from the excellent colleagues at the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN, who hosted a side event with us. The side event was co-sponsored by the permanent missions of the Philippines and Sweden. We found many missions and colleagues receptive to this topic and willing to get involved.

As our advocacy focused largely on tackling gender stereotypes as a critical barrier for women’s rights and economic empowerment, we were delighted to see multiple references to gender stereotypes in the final agreed conclusions of CSW’s 66th session. Also, it was great to see commitments to adopt measures to reduce, redistribute and value unpaid care work.

Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience any access issues?

We did not travel to New York but decided to undertake advocacy virtually given the pandemic. I think that being present in New York would have enhanced our advocacy. Yet I know the virtual format has also enabled more people to join, as advocating in person in New York is beyond reach for most civil society organisations (CSOs).

It is important to support partners from low and middle-income countries to attend and join these platforms – and provide sustained financial support to multi-year advocacy work in general. Changes in policies and practices rarely happen in a 12-month cycle or if you attend a global platform like CSW only once – advocacy takes time and a long-term commitment. It is only possible with funding to support a longer-term agenda.

As participation was fully virtual this year, we lacked direct engagement with UN member states as well as opportunity to connect, share and network with advocacy targets and other CSOs. Time zones can pose a challenge too, but many side events provided an option to receive the recording afterwards, which was a really great way to learn about different key themes if people weren’t able to make an event.

There is no way that online engagement can match in-person engagement, but if everyone is online then access is equal, and it does open more cost-effective avenues for many more grassroots organisations to join.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

I think the rhetoric of commitment to women’s political leadership and integrating women in decision making is there. Yet the right of women to participate politically and lead refers to participation in all levels and there are definitely gender gaps. I learnt at the CSW that only four women have been elected as president of the UN General Assembly in its 76-year history. Also, the UN has never had a woman Secretary-General. So there is more work to do to ensure women’s equal share and representation in decision-making processes at all levels. We also must make sure that the voice and agency of the most vulnerable women and girls is shaping the decisions of these international platforms. We have seen a rollback in advances in women’s rights in many areas, and thus feminist leadership and women’s political participation in UN processes are so critical. We know women’s political leadership can have an impact across many other areas where women lack opportunities and equal access.

One way to do better is to tackle gender stereotypes more effectively as they undermine women’s rights, opportunities and confidence. It is important to increase the understanding of how gender stereotypes shape women’s lives, including their access to decision making and leadership, and take concrete measures to prevent and eliminate gender stereotypes and their negative impacts, both in private and public spheres. Further efforts are also needed to promote women’s leadership and agency to address the underrepresentation of women and girls in policy-making platforms and processes.

Get in touch with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @HelenMcEachern and @CherieBlairFndn on Twitter.