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The role of research in implementing Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy

July 31, 2017

Arjan de Haan

Senior program specialist, IDRC

The Feminist International Assistance Policy that was recently launched in Canada is a distinct feminist approach because it is goes beyond focusing exclusively on women and girls to address “the root causes of poverty that can affect everyone: inequality and exclusion.”

Research can play a critical role in informing policies that foster gender equality, and Minister Bibeau stresses that it should. IDRC has seen the research it supports open up new avenues to promote gender equality, avenues such as women’s financial inclusion, connecting women-owned businesses to global companies’ supply chains, and supporting businesses that include low-income women as vendors.

IDRC ensures local researchers lead efforts to gather evidence for policies through networks like the Partnership for Economic Policy. Local researchers are best-placed to address locally-specific constraints and assess the policy recommendations that can make progressive change on the ground. Research also needs to ensure that voices of disadvantaged groups are being heard.

In-depth research is particularly important for addressing the root causes of poverty and inequalities. An IDRC review of evidence on promoting gender equality in entrepreneurship showed that women are disadvantaged in markets due to of a range of factors related to access to finance, training, mentoring, women’s time burden, and social norms. Government policies often compound such disadvantages; in more than 155 of 173 economies surveyed by the World Bank, at least one law impeded women’s economic opportunities.

Focusing on women’s economic empowerment

IDRC’s Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) program creates evidence that can inform social and economic policies to improve poor women’s lives. We chose to focus on women’s economic empowerment because our analysis indicated that globally there had been less progress in this sphere compared to health and education (where many challenges remain, of course). Moreover, there was growing evidence that empowering women could lead to broader development impacts benefitting the women involved, the broader community, and the next generation.

Examples of how GrOW experiences and learning can inform our feminist policy are emerging. It is becoming increasingly clear that all gender policy needs to be based in an understanding of women’s role in unpaid care. Women all over the world — though with cross-country variation — spend more time performing unpaid care duties than men, thus limiting their opportunities to explore potential in labour markets and as entrepreneurs. Making women’s contribution visible is a priority, since recognition of this work and women’s unequal burden is a pre-condition for policy action. Investments in services and goods that reduce women’s burden are likely to have broad societal and economic benefits. Projects in India and Kenya are testing whether access to affordable and quality daycare is one of the missing links that can unlock the full potential of women at work in low-income countries. Initial results in Kenya show that when women have access to daycare, they are 20% more likely to engage in economic opportunities outside the household.

Economic growth benefitting women

While economic growth generally helps to reduce gender inequalities, this is not always the case. For example in India, as highlighted in IDRC-supported research, female labour force participation remains very low and may have even declined.

While gaining access to paid jobs is a big step for many women, work conditions often leave much to be desired. Research shows the specific barriers women face, such as occupational segregation — women concentrating in specific, often less remunerative jobs — is actually reinforced as the economies of countries grow.

A GrOW project in rural Bihar and Karnataka, India demonstrated that when women were mobilized and organized into solidarity groups, progress in education and health, particularly for girls, was much faster, and more women were enabled to work outside the household.

The lack of progress in women’s economic empowerment is often due to non-economic factors. Research in Pakistan identified physical distance as a key constraint that excludes women from vocational training. Across Africa, where a growing youth population continues to increase pressures on labour markets, research is highlighting the barriers young women face in transitioning from school to a decent job.

What we’re learning

As the GrOW program comes to an end in 2018, we are learning lessons about the value of research in informing policy, including for Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy. We are learning that we need to continue to be innovative in approaches that properly address the multi-dimensionality of gender inequality. There are no magic bullets, but we do believe that rigorous research is essential to understand women’s constraints in different contexts, and that evidence can help make feminist policies more effective.

Arjan de Haan is the Program Leader, Employment and Growth at IDRC.