Statement of Judith Karl, UNCDF Executive Secretary, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day 2019

  • March 08, 2019

  • New York, United States

Ensuring that women’s economic empowerment is both a key driver and a key measure of achievement of the SDG agenda guides our day-to-day work

Judith Karl
Executive Secretary, UNCDF

Greetings on International Women’s Day—a day that calls on us to Think Equal, Build Smart, and Innovate for Change—so that we can envision and work towards a truly gender-equal world.

This year’s International Women’s Day comes just a few months after the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR established with force and clarity that equal rights for women and girls would be the standard that the international community would be expected to meet.

But with a billion women still financially excluded, lacking the agency to start their own businesses, support their healthcare needs, or achieve an education, it is clear that we still have a long way to go before we achieve the standard that was established in December of 1948.

In 2019 and beyond, it is clear that equality for women and making finance work for women’s economic empowerment are one and the same. So, what does that mean for UNCDF?

It means making digital finance work for women. While mobile money has expanded the reach of financial inclusion for many women, women in LDCs are still 7 percentage points less likely than men to be involved in the formal economy—reducing their ability to control their own finances.

What we are doing is carrying out multi-country assessments in LDCs to learn about specific constraints when it comes to women accessing mobile finance, as well to inform industry participants and governments of opportunity areas. We are also driving the technical innovation in product design and delivery channels to boost women’s uptake of digital financial services, as well as incentivizing financial service providers to focus on un-banked and under-banked women. Looking ahead, we are going to focus on both “supply and demand side” challenges that prevent women from those services. On the supply side, there is the requirement for collateral or female clients having to interact with male agents in cultural environments where that is discouraged. The “demand-side” challenges include confronting social norms that discourage women from pursuing these tools.

It also means making infrastructure and entrepreneurship work for women. Entrepreneurship is one of the strongest insulators from personal economic crisis and larger economic shock. But women face persistent challenges in achieving entrepreneurship, including personal security, accessing markets, paying higher interest rates, experiencing a higher loan rejection rate, and frequently being asked to provide more collateral than men—despite the fact that women are typically under-collateralized and less likely to own property.

What we are doing through our Women’s Economic Empowerment Index (WEEI), is providing an enabling vehicle to identify and measure the impact of our investments to increase gender-responsiveness of women-friendly infrastructure and entrepreneurship in LDCs. Supporting women entrepreneurs was the motivation for our active participation in the first ever Gender Smart Investing Summit last November, which convened entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and asset managers to examine how “gender-smart capital” can reduce structural barriers and create an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs in LDCs. That motivation also spurred our partnership with UNESCAP to launch an innovation fund to pilot innovative digital solutions that will improve access to finance, and enhance the efficiency of women-led MSMEs in the Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, it means making investment capital work for women. Capital investment, deployed in the right quantity and quality, can be the bridge for women to reach economic empowerment and opportunity. But this type of investment requires the right incentive structures, as well as clear demonstrations, to unlock this investment.

What we are doing is helping governments and investors understand how blended finance can catalyze gender-smart investment by crowding-in finance, while creating demonstration effects that support commercial replication over time. Through our partnership with Impact Shares, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the first UN-affiliated exchange traded fund (ETF) was launched on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2018 (ticker $SDGA). The ETF gives investors a liquid investment vehicle to support companies generating impact in the LDCs, including for women, as well as incentivizing companies to improve their gender-impact in order to be invited into the ETF.

Ensuring that women’s economic empowerment is both a key driver and a key measure of achievement of the SDG agenda guides our day-to-day work. That is how we salute the women, businesses, and governments that advance the business models to make this empowerment a reality, achieving the ambitions of the SDGs and coming closer to meeting the standard set roughly 70 years ago.