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Inaugural meeting of the High Level Panel on Economic Empowerment of Women

Tuesday, 15 March 2016
President of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis
New York


Good morning!

As President of a Latin American nation that has conducted systematic efforts to incorporate 

women’s specific needs into the development agenda of the state, it is immensely gratifying 

as well as a great honor to promote international actions for the economic empowerment of 

women, especially along with the members of this High Level Panel at the United Nations. 

Promoting the full integration of women into the economy is a source of productivity and 

human talent that has been wasted for a long time despite its ability to stimulate international 


Economically empowering women involves removing cultural, social and labor barriers that 

prevent them from entering the productive world and from fully exercising their rights. It 

implies recognizing and valuing fairly all their paid and unpaid work within a framework of 

gender equality, respect and peace. It also involves directly influencing other areas 

–physical, sexual and political- because an economically empowered woman has 

fundamental tools to have more effective control and greater autonomy over her body and 

the surrounding environment.

But for this to happen it is essential to eradicate some of the most dramatic expressions of 

violence against women, which limit not only their economic rights, but their human rights in 

general. I am referring to the physical, sexual, psychological and patrimonial manifestations, 

including, among others, domestic violence, symbolic violence, several types of harassment 

-in the streets, at work, on the political arena-, as well as some of the most invasive types 

perpetrated against girls and adolescent females, as forced marriages to older men, forced 

pregnancy and early motherhood.

A society that has gender equality and the empowerment of women at the core of its 

development agenda not only grows economically but also becomes more human. 

In the last three decades there have been noteworthy advances in both fronts, as recorded 

by UN WOMEN in the Report on the Progress of Women 2015-2016 and other international 

and regional agencies. More countries today have a legal framework that guarantees and 

protects the rights of women; more females participate in political and economic 

decision-making; more girls, adolescents and grown women are enrolled in the educational 

system than ever before; women’s participation in the labor force has increased and in some 

regions that has a significant impact on the reduction of poverty and income inequality; there 

is more awareness about gender discrimination at the workplace and more regulations on 

the topic have been enacted; and today we have segregated information by gender in more 

countries around the world, providing better information to guide our policies.

Inspired by the analyses and diagnostics of the Beijing +20 Action Platform and the 

Sustainable Development Objectives laid out in the 2030 Agenda, important international 

consensus has emerged around the need of incorporating a gender perspective to growth 

and development goals. 

Gradually, we begun to understand that advancing these topics is not a responsibility solely 

of women or of specific national or international sectors, but also the result of an effort based 

on strategic alliances between international organizations, national and local governments, 

civil society and business sectors, working together to channel policies, efforts and 

resources towards the advancement of gender equality and women economic 


Recognizing the big and small steps we have given is a good starting point for this panel 

because it shows that the current situation can be modified. On the other hand, it is equally 

important to recognize that there is still a lot to learn and a lot to do. There are no simple 

recipes, but a number of collective good practices to emulate and/or adapt to build more 

democratic and egalitarian societies.

The gender gaps reported by UN WOMEN, ECLAC, the World Economic Forum, OECD and 

other regional organizations makes us realize that as of today, March 15, 2016, no country 

in the world, developed or developing, has attained gender equality or the full 

economic empowerment of women ... NONE! Also, no country has achieved an 

integral development by excluding women.

As nations, we all face remarkable challenges despite our differences, because the 

transformations that lay ahead transcend legal changes. We need to move from normative 

gender equality to a substantive equality: From words to practice and from sensibility about 

the problem to action.

We have to achieve this in a complex environment that might exacerbate the existing gaps 

between men and women. To financial globalization, trade liberalization, the emergence of 

new economies of information and knowledge information, as well as clean and circular 

economies, the constant privatization of public services, and the growing pressure of 

groups with special interests, we need to add the resurgence of violent armed conflicts, 

devastating natural cataclysms, harmful environmental effects caused by climate change 

and recurring economic crises, one deeper than the other, where extremisms, neo 

machismos, social violence, migration waves and insecurity thrive...

Within this context, it is of vital importance to address the difficult fiscal situation faced by 

many developing countries, which has crippling effects for public policies that strengthen 

and enlarge programs and projects that promote the economic empowerment of women. 

The cultural context, with its practices, stereotypes, patterns and customs, also presents 

obstacles because it is deeply rooted at home, at school, at work and in the media, 

recreating and reinforcing the feminine role of procreation and orientation toward the private 

world, in stark contrast to the masculine role of productivity and orientation toward the public 

world that embodies some of the highly esteemed values of today’s societies, such as 

money, success and power. 

Therefore, we have a challenge of encouraging women to enter the public world and men to 

assume more responsibilities in the private world. It is of utmost importance to work towards 

assume a social notion of responsibility for the child and dependent care, as a stepping 

stone to stir change in both directions, by allowing women to have more time, resources and 

spirits to join and fully develop in the labor market, as well as other economic activities, 

socially, culturally and politically.

Before I go deeper into this idea, I would like to point other important challenges that need 

to be addressed in order to foster gender equality and economic empowerment of women: 

First, incorporating more women in the formal labor market. On average, only 50% of women 

in the world participate in the labor market, 26 percentage points below the level of 

participation of males. 

Despite higher levels of schooling among women compared to men, the transition from the 

educational system to the labor market has been difficult: In most countries, unemployment 

rates are consistently higher for females than males with similar levels of education. 

Procreation and child care tend to reduce women’s participation in the labor market. For 

example, ECLAC estimated that in Latin America when there are children younger than 5 

years old at a household, the rate of participation of women if 60% of men’s, increasing to 

75%, if the children are older, and reaching 80% if there are no children in the household. 

Second, reducing the wage gap between men and women. On average the latter earn 24% 

less than men for comparable jobs. The recent decline in the worldwide gap has more to do 

with the deterioration of men’s wages than an improvement of female salaries. 

Estimates show that women will earn half the income of men throughout their lifetimes. This 

explains why they are more likely to live in poverty, and why poverty is becoming 

progressively a feminine phenomenon.

The panorama worsens when women’s unpaid work is considered. It has been highly 

documented that subsistence or marginal activities, as well as family work, especially in 

agricultural areas and fisheries, employ a significant number of women whose work does not 

receive any economic compensation. 

Closing the gender wage gap requires a real implementation –which means explicitly 

fostered and monitored- of the principal of equal wage (or equal value) for equal work. 

Encouraging females to participate in more instances of public and private wage 

negotiations could help achieving greater equity while ensuring a more transparent process. 

Third, creating more decent Jobs for women. Gender gaps in social security coverage have 

been well documented as well. In developing countries an immense majority of women work 

in the informal sector, without any social security protection or right to a pension. This 

situation is particularly poignant for rural women, especially those working in agriculture, or 

among paid domestic workers. 

According to UN WOMEN data, it is less likely for women to enjoy a pension when they retire. 

If they do, it is usually lower than what men receive, because due to procreation and child 

care, that usually impose a temporary retirement from the labor market, women made fewer 

contributions to social security than their male counterparts. Even in countries with good 

pension coverage, women are less likely than men to live in poverty. 

It is important, therefore, to promote and finance sustainable social coverage among 

informal workers, self-employed workers and domestic workers, accompanying this with a 

clear legal framework, along with monitoring instruments and incentives for informal workers 

who regularize their situation, as well as resources for financing child care and domestic 


Fourth, creating quality employment by encouraging entrepreneurship among women. This 

implies providing technical and financial support and adequate incentives to induce the 

formalization of businesses. 

In this area significant disadvantages for women persist. OECD studies conclude that 

women in G20 countries represent only 25% of business owners who hire employees. They 

seldom own big businesses and the income they derive from auto employment is 60% of 

what self-employed businessmen earn. 

Companies owned by women have less capital, fewer employees and belong to low 

productivity categories, compared to those owned by men. 

To counter this situation it is necessary to enact public policies that encourage women's 

entrepreneurship, taking into consideration their specific needs and guaranteeing equal 

access to productive and financial resources while preventing any discrimination in credit 


A closer look at successful experiences involving public and private financing within 

associative schemes might be necessary. Coincidentally it is important strengthen 

mechanisms for entrepreneur women to share experiences, dialoguing and conducting 


Fifth, raising female control over productive assets is crucial because there is evidence that 

women tend to save more and to distribute a bigger proportion of their resources among 

family members and their surrounding communities. Their incomes have a notable 

multiplying effect. 

Better access to credit, financial and banking services and incentive provision to further 

capitalize women’s assets, including land and businesses, are necessary to allow greater 

control over their capital, and therefore cementing their economic opportunities. 

Because of its sheer relevance for developing countries and considering the critical situation 

of women in rural areas, it is essential to carry out affirmative actions in order to fully assess 

the value of women's contribution to the agricultural sector, by granting access to productive 

resources through land titling and recognizing the value of their of unpaid work.

Actions carried away in response to the 5 issues I have laid out would be further enhanced 

by addressing urgently and firmly an additional topic I introduced earlier in my comments: 

Dismantling structural barriers that prevent women from accessing the labor market on 

equal footing as men. 

For years the feminist movement indicated the existence of unequal distribution of gender 

roles with clear implications for the use of time, income availability and access to power, 

which in turn has an impact on the differential access women have to the public sphere. 

Females have less time and money for job training and for accessing the labor market, and 

tend to concentrate on low-wages economic sectors that provide limited social security 

coverage. And they also tend to occupy lower positions than men in the company hierarchy. 

This ideology generates and reproduces attitudes that permeate market logic about which 

occupations are and which are not suitable for women. This logic is taught at home and is 

reinforced by the educational system, in the workplace at all levels as well as in the media. 

Perhaps one of the most relevant issues of the existing model is that it devalues domestic 

work and unpaid child and dependent care, which are disproportionately performed by 


It is very difficult to contemplate full and egalitarian access to the labor market for females 

when according to UN WOMEN they must dedicate more than twice the time of men to 

unpaid domestic work and child care. Many must shorten their paid working day to bear the 

burden of family obligations, with the consequent loss of income in comparison to men.

Currently the national accounts do not reflect adequately this vital activity of breeding and 

training the future generations because it occurs within the confines of the household and in 

the intimate sphere of family dynamics. Traditional economy reinforces the misconception 

that the work performed by women in the private world is not work.

Several countries have created satellite accounts to measure the value of the work of women 

in these areas. My country, Costa Rica, is taking decisive steps in this direction. However, 

we still face the challenge of fairly valuing that part of the economy that has remained in the 

dark for so long, and doing so with a consistent and comparable methodology. 

Eradicating structural limitations that curtail women’s access to the labor market on 

egalitarian terms requires clear and effective efforts to provide care services not only for low 

income, but also to medium income families. We need to move firmly towards assuming the 

social responsibility of care. 

This requires more active participants than men and the state. It also involves businesses as 

they can offer flexibility and opportunity to their employees, both male and women, so they 

may tend their family obligations in a more equitable fashion.

I want to emphasize this. If we expect to effect positive change for the economic 

empowerment of women, we need to address multi-dimensional issues capable of 

structurally undermining the current paradigm. A paradigm that has taken us to where we 

are today, segregated by gender, producing and reproducing gender inequalities. 

This multi-dimensional issue, in my opinion, is the social responsibility of child and 

dependent care. A strategy centered on it will have profound ramifications; therefore certain 

conditions must prevail if it is to be successful:

1. An integral and coherent scope. Deconstructing gender roles will impact different 

areas where they reproduce. 

2. A sound institutional leadership with a gender perspective, to coordinate all efforts and 

consolidate alliances between different sectors around substantive issues. 

3. Strong and innovative alliances between civil society, feminist and women’s 

movements, human rights institutions, neighboring national and local governments, 

business people, international donors, the United Nations and other regional and 

international organizations. 

4. Participatory channels that encourage and strengthen female leadership.

5. Solid information and monitoring systems to assess policy impacts and to ensure 

transparency. Baseline studies are also needed to assess policy performance. An 

information-sharing platform for international best practices and experiences is a 


6. Fiscal stability to finance and support inclusive public policies for the economic 

empowerment of women and gender equality.

7. Adequate and strategic financing from diverse sources (public, private or from the 

Official Development Assistance) around gender-sensitive budgets, with detailed costs, 

linked to a clearly defined investment policy, and with control mechanisms guarantee the 

use of resources. 

I would like to thank you again for your participation here today and reiterate my high hopes 

that the process we are starting today will produce concrete, actionable and measurable 

results that will benefit all the women in the world and the development in all the nations.

Thank you very much!