Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the 30th International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) Annual Conference Transforming Global Governance for Social Justice: Feminist Economics and the Fight for Human Rights

30 June 2022


Distinguished feminist economists,

Dear sisters, dear friends,

I greet you in peace – the noble mission of the United Nations. Peace, dignity, equality, social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom: principles set out in the 1945 preamble of the United Nations Charter.

I thank the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) and the Gendere Centre at The Graduate Institute in Geneva for co-hosting this timely event. I was fortunate enough to attend your 10th anniversary sessions in Barbados as I recall, and I’m delighted to be with you as you celebrate 30 years of IAFFE today.

We meet at a time of intense economic hardship across the globe, driven by Covid-19, conflict, climate change and other crises. UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is on the ground in over 120 countries, working hard towards sustainable development and as part of global humanitarian response efforts. We are advising governments, delivering contraception, training midwives and running services to prevent gender-based violence and to support women traumatized by it.

I well know that these hard times will be harshest for women and girls. Therefore, there is an urgency to advocate for a global economy that puts the primacy of human rights, the well-being of the planet and inclusive and sustainable development at the core.

The global fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is deeply connected with the kinds of issues that feminist economists have long investigated. Your groundbreaking work affords everyone a deeper understanding of the roots of the crisis itself.

I begin by emphatically stating the truth borne out by evidence: the Covid-19 pandemic, as every crisis, has a decidedly female face.

The face of a woman haunted by the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence.

The face of a girl married or mutilated against her will, pregnant before her body is ready, as barriers are thrown up to protective sexual and reproductive health services.

The face of a girl kept out of school due to pandemic disruptions, and further excluded from learning by poverty and the digital divide.

We witnessed the prevalence of gender-based violence increase exponentially. We saw women cut off from essential sexual and reproduction health and protection services, and under increasing economic and social stress.

Almost everywhere, women and girls face a rollback of fundamental rights that is worsening long-standing inequalities. Last week’s United States Supreme Court decision is just the latest example. Women’s bodies should not be used as a political football. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right.

The pandemic brought into stark focus the heavy reliance upon the unpaid labour of women. Women dominate the care economy and perform three-quarters of unpaid care and domestic work, a burden that only increased during the pandemic.

An 18-country poll in 2020 showed that nearly half of all women with children at home dedicated more than 5 hours a day to childcare.

Although unpaid care work continues to subsidize the global economy, it remains largely invisible, unrecognized and unaccounted for in national accounts and policymaking. This has direct implications for women’s economic and social standing.

Some 740 million women globally work in the informal economy, where they often face job insecurity, low earnings, and harsh working conditions. And it is estimated that the economic fallout of COVID-19 will push 47 million more women into extreme poverty.

The pandemic has also made abundantly clear the need for massive investments in national health systems that are universal, resilient, data-driven and adequately staffed. And we know there are unique benefits to investing in sexual and reproductive health and rights. These are essential, lifesaving, life-changing services.

Access to quality sexual and reproductive health care influences the decisions women are able to make about their participation in economic life.

Family planning improves health outcomes and enables women and girls to remain in school and acquire skills that will raise their lifetime earnings. Yet, more than 200 million women and adolescent girls still cannot readily access contraceptives they want.

Indeed, UNFPA’s 2022 State of World Population report reveals that nearly half of all pregnancies in the world are unintended, illustrating how lack of bodily autonomy and reproductive choices continue to block women’s path to equality.

Research shows that delaying childbearing can have significant social and economic benefits. A recent UNFPA study in 10 Latin American countries found that women who become mothers after the age of 20 earn an average of 26 per cent more than women who became mothers during adolescence.

Every girl and woman should be able to complete her education, pursue her dreams, and make a living that protects her from poverty, vulnerability and abuse. Yet, we see a marked decline in funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights. This despite ample evidence showing that such investments are not only the right thing to do; they make sound economic sense.

Every additional dollar invested in family planning can save governments three dollars in costs for pregnancy-related and newborn care.

Over time, that same dollar invested in a total package of reproductive health, including family planning, could yield as much as one hundred and twenty dollars in health and economic benefits by helping girls stay in school and boosting women’s lifetime earnings potential.

In the same 10-country study from Latin America, UNFPA analyzed the opportunity cost of adolescent pregnancies. Our study revealed an estimated total cost of 9.5 billion US dollars annually. More than 75 per cent of that can be attributed to the loss of human capital that occurs when the lives of adolescent girls are derailed by early pregnancies.

The investment case is strong. What we need now is the political will, targeted policies and financing to transform women and girls’ lives – and their societies.

My native country, Panama, illustrates why making the case through data and evidence is so important.

Panama has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Yet access to family planning is still restricted. Only 47 per cent of married women use modern contraceptives, and the country has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the region. Just a small fraction of women and girls receive contraceptives as a free health service.

UNFPA estimates that the opportunity cost of adolescent pregnancy in Panama is around 525 million US dollars per year – the equivalent of shutting down the Panama Canal for three months.

These numbers persuaded the Government to implement policies that would expand access to contraception, with a focus on long-acting reversible contraceptive methods.

An important part of UNFPA’s work is to make sure that women are meaningfully included in planning and decision-making during crises and beyond. Women comprise 70 percent of the global health force and understand the needs of their communities. Women are the experts in their communities. That’s why nearly 40% of UNFPA’s humanitarian support funds local and women-led organizations.

UNFPA has advocated with governments to ensure that COVID response and recovery plans consider the unique and unequal impacts of the pandemic on women, including by classifying gender-based violence prevention and response and sexual and reproductive health services as essential.

What else should be done?

  1. Prioritize policies that support gender equality and women’s empowerment, including equitable access to modern contraception, parental leave, affordable childcare and shared parenting.
  2. Eliminate the structural barriers, discriminatory laws and social norms that impede women’s economic opportunities and result in gender inequalities in pay, access to capital, pensions and other forms of social protection.
  3. Tackle statistical invisibility, another form of exclusion. We need more disaggregation of data – by age, sex, location and other social and economic factors. This would feed into our growing understanding of the intersections between sexual and reproductive health, reproductive labour and economic empowerment.

Greater collaboration between researchers and sexual and reproductive health and rights activists and practitioners at various levels would also help deepen our shared knowledge and contribute to more targeted interventions for women’s economic empowerment.

I am convinced we will win full equality, human rights and justice, and I am inspired by Adrienne Germain, the late women’s rights and social justice advocate, who said:

“There will be no global peace or security until we secure every woman’s right to a just and healthy life. These are imperatives in their own right, and also the building blocks of stable societies and growing economies.”

Together, working with and supporting civil society, feminist movements and human rights defenders, we can turn the tide. We can ensure that every woman and girl lives in dignity, enjoys her full human rights, and can chart her own course and thrive.

Thank you.

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