Investing in Women, Girls Pays Dividends

16 May 2016

When investing in women and girls, everybody wins. That is the resounding message expected to come out of the Danish capital this week when Copenhagen hosts the largest international conference on women’s and girls’ rights, health and well-being yet to be held this millennium. 

World leaders, academics, policymakers, activists, media, royalty, civil society and private sector representatives will gather in Copenhagen to put the spotlight on how to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development so it matters most for girls and women. 

As Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister, Yohana Susana Yembise will represent Indonesia together with more than 30 other delegates from the legislature, media, academia, civil society as well as youth delegates. Together, they will engage representatives from the rest of the world in discussions on issues ranging from health to gender equality, education and economic empowerment. 

Research clearly shows that investing in girls and women is not only the right thing to do but is also an effective investment, reaching far beyond the individual woman. On average, women spend 90 percent of their salary on their children and the health, education and well-being of their family, creating ripple effects throughout society, while men spend only 30 to 40 percent.

Investing in women and girls also helps middle-income countries like Indonesia to grow and to reap the so-called “demographic dividend”. This refers to a country’s opportunity to accelerate economic growth as birth and death rates decline, and the working age population outnumbers that of dependents. Indonesia’s window of opportunity for realizing the demographic dividend is widely seen to remain open until 2030. 

It thereby coincides with the timeline of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But the demographic dividend does not automatically award countries in transition. Reaping the benefits takes targeted policies that sustain the demographics of transition as well as the rights of women and girls.

Indonesia’s Development Plan 2015-2019 holds a number of strategic priorities that are supportive of realizing the demographic dividend. These include the maintenance of a fertility decline, increased social health insurance, expanded access to and quality of tertiary education and, last but not least, increasing women’s participation in the labor force and representation in political decision-making. In other words, it is time to factor women and girls even more into the equation. 

Obtaining quality education is a first crucial step in empowering youth, including women and girls, allowing them to achieve equal opportunity in other spheres of life and entering the labor market. The establishment of the first school for Indonesian girls in 1903 by the country’s national heroine for women’s rights, RA Kartini, was an important step toward recognizing the universal right to education without discrimination and paving the way for girls’ access to education. Since then, Indonesia has made enormous strides toward achieving gender equality in educational enrolment and literacy rates, as well as ensuring universal access to primary education. 

Throughout the world, women and girls contribute greatly to the economy as employees, entrepreneurs and by delivering a large amount of unpaid work inside their homes. However, women still constitute the majority of the world’s poor, earn far less than men and are often disenfranchised when it comes to education, health and labor market participation. 

In Indonesia, parity in education is also yet to translate into parity in labor force participation. While more women than men now graduate from Indonesia’s universities, only 53 percent of Indonesian women have formal employment. Women’s participation in the labor force varies greatly between age groups as well as between urban and rural regions, with up to 70 percent of women aged 25-29 residing in urban areas being part of the labor force. 

Indonesian women nonetheless on average make some 30 percent less than their male colleagues despite holding equal positions and educational qualifications. And the pay gap widens even further with lower levels of education. By removing the barriers that prevent women from entering the labor market, work productivity has been shown to increase by up to 25 percent. 

Investing in women’s economic participation is therefore a direct way to further gender equality and poverty reduction as well as creating inclusive economic growth at the same time.

For both Indonesia and Denmark, and for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the international framework on women’s rights and the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) have been and indeed remain important instruments on the path toward gender equality. 

Despite much progress since both countries joined the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in 1984 and 1982 respectively, challenges still remain. Denmark still sees a pay gap between men and women and lower levels of female representation in public and private decision-making bodies. 

Besides the unequal labor market participation, one of the main challenges faced by Indonesia relates to addressing maternal mortality, a Millennium Development Goal on which Indonesia is yet to deliver. These are reminders that the struggle to further gender equality continues in vastly different countries across the globe. 

Women Deliver 2016 will create a unique platform for decisionmakers, advocates and experts from all around the world to come together to learn from different experiences, emulate successful interventions and seek to establish new and innovative partnerships to promote the rights of women and girls as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Closing the gender gap is not a luxury for the few. In fact, it is a chance that all countries — including Indonesia and Denmark — cannot afford to miss, because in the end, it is a win-win situation not only for individual women and girls, but also for sustainable development and for economic growth.


Yohana Susana Yembise is women’s empowerment and child protection minister, Annette Sachs Robertson is UN Population Fund representative in Indonesia and Casper Klynge is Danish ambassador to Indonesia.


the original opinion was published in The Jakarta Post.

Tags: population, reproductive health, youth