Remarks by Ms.Nardos Bekele-Thomas at the Dialogue between the President and the Business Women’s Association

By | 29 October 2019

Your Excellency, President of the Republic of South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Ministers of the Government of South Africa in attendance
Officials of Government. 

And to my sisters, the leadership of the Business Women’s Association of South Africa and Compatriots of industries and companies, Women entrepreneurs in attendance this morning, 

Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is an absolute pleasure for me to be participating at this dialogue event this morning, and I would like to applaud the leadership of the Business Women’s Association for taking the lead in putting this event together. This is a true testament of your commitment to bettering the plight of women in this country. I would also like to pay tribute to the President of South Africa, H.E Cyril Ramaphosa and His Government for the commitment shown in trying to find durable solutions to the myriad of challenges that have brought the country to a standstill over the past couple of months. In particular the scourge of Gender Based Violence that has hit us so hard. It has certainly been a difficult time for the nation, but for many of us as mothers the pain has been excruciating to say the least.

As we meet today, to focus our attention on the role of women in the economy it would be wise of us to remember that the conversation on empowering women-owned enterprises to play a more active and meaningful role in the economy, can not be separated from the many other challenges that confront women in society. The driving force behind the abuse and murder of women at such an unprecedented scale is the same driving force Your Excellency, that seeks to entrench an economic model that keeps women in the margins of the economy and the country’s productive life. These are manifestations of a deep-seated patriarchal outlook that plays itself out in different spheres of human interaction, in the home, at work, in religious spaces, in sport and critically in the realm of the economy. Our struggle for the economic emancipation of the woman is intimately intertwined with our fight against gender- based violence and all other manifestations of women’s oppression.

For the UN, Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. That is why in September 2015 at the UN General Assembly, 193 member states agreed to include Gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls in the SDGs as Goal 5. But for us, gender equality is not just one of the 17 Goals, it goes far deeper than that. Conceptually we see gender as one of the foundational pillars that the SDG agenda is built on, touching on each and every SDGs. So when we speak about sustainable cities, climate change, access to clean water, a peaceful & just society, access to education and health care, all of these are seen through the lens of gender equality and empowerment.
Excellency, within the context of today’s discussion on the role of women in the economy, I would like to highlight the following key issues:

• The 2017 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report showed that while progress is being made in some countries, overall, we are moving backwards in terms of gender equality – instead of the initial 170 years estimated time to reach parity, it will now take 217 years at the current rate of transformation. South Africa’s ranking dropped from 15th in the 2016 Gender Gap Report to 19th in 2017.

• If women participated equally in the labour market, $28 trillion dollars would be added to the global economy according to a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute Report.

• Women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions or have a bank account. While 65 per cent of men report having an account at a formal financial institution, only 58 per cent of women do worldwide.

• The digital divide remains a gendered one: most of the 3.9 billion people who are offline are in rural areas, poorer, less educated and tend to be women and girls.

• Women are less likely to be entrepreneurs and face more disadvantages starting businesses: In 40% of economies, women’s early stage entrepreneurial activity is half or less than half of that of men’s.

• Women are constrained from achieving the highest leadership positions: Only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Women.

Ladies and gentlemen, these figures show us both the extent of marginalisation women are confronted with in the economy and gives us an insight into some of the issues that drive this marginalisation.
Providing a summary of the situation is important but insufficient to bring about the changes we desire. So we have to go beyond this and look at critical pathways that can move us towards solutions. In this regard I would like to put the following on the table for concrete discussion:
• public (and private) procurement as an instrument to advance women’s participation in the economy cannot be underscored. It is transformative because of the opportunity it offers to build sustainable women owned enterprises.

• Public procurement accounts for more than 30 percent of GDP in developing countries – and R1.3 trillion in South Africa. But women-owned enterprises still receive only an estimated one percent (1%) of the total annual spent. This has to change. It is one of the most immediate areas of intervention.

• Experiences from countries in the continent have shown the transformational potential that public procurement has for women owned enterprises. An example of this is Kenya, where gender-responsive procurement policies have been put in place. These include setting targets and preferential schemes, where 30% of procurement goes to businesses owned by women, youth and persons with disabilities. These efforts have seen an expansion of the value chain, with forward and backward linkages clearly identified, it has expanded the number of stakeholders in the economy and curbed unemployment.

We know that promoting women in the economy, through public procurement or any other means, is constrained by the structural barriers to entry and operation that women and their enterprises face. Unless we deliberately respond to these barriers our intentions and pronouncements will be meaningless. I would like to focus my attention on two that I consider important.

1. Access to finance: In this regard we have to strengthen our development finance instruments, creating special purpose funds that set aside resources aimed exclusively at women enterprises in different sectors of the economy. We also have to be more deliberate in getting financial institutions, our banks, to establish similar funds at preferential rates for women enterprises. In this regard, the programme that the UN initiated with the Equity Bank in Kenya called Fanakisha Loans for Women has become a successful multi bank scheme which has now engulfed the whole of East Africa. There is absolutely no reason that we can not develop something of this nature in South Africa, with all the resources we have at our disposal.
2. Beyond the technical barriers like access to finance, we are also confronted by deeper issues of paradigm, mindset and values that are discriminatory against women. This means that despite the efforts and measures we prescribe to address the technical barriers, for as long there is no shift in the mindsets of those responsible to execute the change, we will see little progress. I raise this because it gives us the task to work with those in leadership positions both in the public and private sectors to change the orientation of institutions towards women. In this area of work the UN has well developed instruments that could assist in transforming institutional cultures and minds. Examples include the Women Empowerment Principles and the Gender Seal. Both these offer instruments of engaging institutions on culture change and confronts many of the stereotypes that drive the exclusion of women. We would be happy to work with both the Government and the Business Women’s Association on these and use them to recognise institutions in both the private and public sectors who are demonstrating leadership on this issue.

All these efforts require us to put in place an effective oversight mechanism to track the implementation of all the things we commit to. Its time for action.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellency, as I conclude I would like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to one of the guiding principles of the SDGs, the idea of leaving no one behind. What this seeks to promote is a framework of development that consistently places those who are most marginalised, most vulnerable at the centre of development policy and practise. If we consider this approach within the context of the conversation we are having today, a number of questions arise:

• Which category of women in business are the most marginalised
• Are the voices of the most marginalised women represented in conversations such as these, and if not how do we ensure that their voices are amplified and they become part of the national conversations.
• Are the policy proposals we are putting on the table responsive to all categories of women, in particular the most vulnerable who equally share an ambition of economic emancipation.
So as we deliberate this morning, I would urge us to be driven by this idea of leaving no one behind. For us to act on behalf of those who can never have the opportunity to interact with the highest political offices in the land, but still require a voice.
I want to assure you, Mr President and colleagues that the UN Development System in this country is fully committed to the issues you are seized with this morning, and we pledge our support to the people of South Africa in their endevours of creating a better country for themselves and the generations that follow.

I thank you…..

UN Resident Coordinator in South Africa, Nardos Bekele-Thomas