As we head towards the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), women are increasingly portrayed as the lynch pin for addressing poverty. Women are, we are told, forefront and centre of the UK's aid efforts and this year the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel recognised the importance of diversified economies with equal opportunities for all and the recognition of the appalling levels of violence and other forms of discrimination that women across the world face.
This week in New York, the UN General Assembly is discussing the framework which will replace the MDGs. In London on Friday 27 September Women for Women International co-host a one-day conference on 'Bridging The Gap - The Gender Impact Of The Rule Of Law And Its Application' with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (ERBD).
After almost 35 years, it appears the international community is at last understanding that countering discrimination against women in economic spheres is key to fighting poverty. The benefits that are brought by investing in women are evident not only in the confidence that we see in the women that we work with, but also in the impact that it has on their families and their communities.
We have many fantastic international laws and declarations which were followed by national laws and policies, but even with these laws and commitments, women still face appalling levels of discrimination in every country in the world. Discrimination manifests against women in every aspect of their lives: in education, in earning a living, in political participation and in their physical integrity through violence. In no country do women have equal control over their lives. In fragile and conflict affected countries, women are disproportionately affected by poverty and marginalised from processes which seek to address them.
For Friday's conference we specially commissioned qualitative research examining: The impact of the rule of law on women's economic empowerment in both Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and Kosovo, to be presented and discussed by WfWI Country Directors Iliriana Gashi (Kosovo) and Seida Saric (Bosnia and Herzegovina).
The research finds that while both countries have made progress in bringing legislation related to women's economic empowerment into line with international and EU standards, large gaps remain between existing employment and gender equality laws and policies on the one hand and the daily life experiences of women in B&H and Kosovo.
Women entrepreneurs in both countries have difficulties accessing funds and often face financial insecurity. In many cases they lack the support needed to start and run a business.
Many of the obstacles women face to enjoy their full economic rights are similar in the two countries and include: a lack of awareness of employment laws and the available procedures to challenge discrimination in this area; a lack of education and inadequate vocational training and skills development opportunities; discriminatory employment practices such as sexual harassment and ageism and sexism in recruitment processes and in the workplace; and the double burden of balancing their paid work and unpaid care duties. Women belonging to disadvantaged groups, particularly women in rural areas and older women, report even greater obstacles to the make full use of their economic rights.
To date WfWI has helped over 384,000 women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts in eight countries - among them 29,165 in Kosovo and 34,168 in B&H -to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency via a holistic programme of a one-year education, legal and business training. A crucial part of our training programmes in countries is teaching women their legal rights and advising them on how to access them.
Providing women with the opportunity to have control over their finances is not a magic wand that destroys discrimination but it is an important first step towards ensuring that women have control over their lives. We need to bear in mind that economic empowerment is only one cornerstone for addressing poverty and inequality - which is why our WfWI programme is a holistic one that also focuses on other areas of empowerment - and secondly we must not get carried away with 'selling' the value of women's economic participation to leaders and communities just for the return on investment argument. Not only does such an argument treat women as means to ends (rather than ends in themselves) but it also risks further excluding marginalised women - the young, the old, those living with disabilities, those from minority ethnic backgrounds - who are unable to provide an acceptable return and require a higher investment.
If you would like a copy of the Report or more information on our work please contact Women for Women International via www.womenforwomen.org.uk