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Maria-Noel Vaeza of UN Women discusses key issues affecting women post-COVID

In the past year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, women have experienced job loss in record numbers and suffered from economic barriers. To address these issues UN Women is creating a variety of programs and initiatives that will help further the advancement of women globally, increase their access to capital, and promote gender equality.

UN Women, gender equality

Maria-Noel Vaeza, UN Women. (Photo credit: Pablo Sanhueza)

How UN Women is working to support women post-COVID Crisis

Maria-Noel Vaeza is the Regional Director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean. A Uruguayan native, she holds a doctorate in Law and Social Sciences from the University of the Republic of Uruguay and a master’s degree in public policy from John Hopkins University in Washington DC. Prior to this role, Maria-Noel served as Director of the Program Division at UN Women headquarters in New York. 

Before joining the UN she also held various positions in the Uruguayan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Political Counselor at the Uruguayan Embassy in Washington DC and delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. 

Currently, UN Women are working to develop various programs to support women in business, especially those struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key objectives UN Women are working to address is advancing gender equality. 

“Advancing gender equality continues to be strategic, and becomes even more important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to McKinsey Global Institute estimates from July 2020, the rate of job loss for women has been 1.8 times higher than that of men,” says Maria-Noel. 

UN Women

Maria-Noel Vaeza, Regional Director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean. (Photo credit: Pablo Sanhueza)

According to their estimates, not taking gender-lens actions to address the impact of COVID-19 in a way that would widen the gap in labor participation between men and women would result in a decrease in global GDP by $1 billion in 2030, compared to its value if the crisis had affected women equally. In contrast, if actions were taken now to improve gender equality, so that gender equality improves over the next decade, global GDP could be $13 billion higher in 2030, an increase of 11% over the no-action scenario.”

To encourage advancements in gender equality, UN Women are creating a variety of programs to address gender biases and inequalities in business. One of these programs is the Win-Win program. 

Formed in collaboration with ILO and with financial support from the European Union, the Win-Win program seeks to contribute to the economic empowerment of women, recognizing them as beneficiaries and drivers of growth and development, in partnership with the private sector through the incorporation and/or improvement of corporate management with a gender lens, with the understanding that in addition to an ethical imperative and social justice, gender equality is good business for companies, for the market and society as a whole.

The Win-Win Program’s 3 Key Focus Topics

The Win-Win Program is framed within the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development focusing on 4 Sustainable Development Goals (5,10, 8 and 17). To address opportunities for economic empowerment and open spaces for women, the Win-Win Program addresses the issue in 3 dimensions of work: with entrepreneurs and businesswomen; with companies (supporting them in a gender-focused management) and with the financial sector to develop innovative financing initiatives with gender impact.  

Maria-Noel Vaeza at Forum WEPs. (Photo credit: Rodrigo de la Fuente).

There are three topics that have become essential for women’s businesses and that UN Women seek to promote through the Win-Win Program. Maria-Noel describes these three key focus topics below:

  1. First, the use of digital tools to reach their target audiences, position their businesses and sell, including digital marketing and e-commerce. This crisis is deepening the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitalization processes, so it is essential to adjust to change and rethink the ways of doing business. 
  2. Second, access to financing. The evidence is clear: investing in women is good business. But for many women, access to capital remains a major barrier. According to the IFC, only 7% of private equity and venture capital is invested in women-led businesses. This lack of capital or funding is not only detrimental to women’s progress, but to social and economic growth itself. Therefore, from the Win-Win Program, we are working on an innovative financing initiative with an impact on gender equality. 
  3. Third, there are the strategic alliances and linkages that can be made between women’s companies and between companies committed to equality, to generate business opportunities or mutual benefit, as well as the promotion of gender-sensitive procurement in corporate or public procurement processes. By gender-sensitive procurement, we mean the review of procurement processes to identify barriers to the participation of women-owned businesses, as well as the possibility of implementing affirmative actions to include more women-owned businesses in supply chains.  

Within the framework of the Win-Win Program, the UN Women have also developed the Investors for Equality Initiative, a space for meeting and dialogue between the different actors of the financial, investment and entrepreneurship ecosystem to raise awareness and mobilize investments with gender impact.

The Investors for Equality Initiative seeks to become a space that puts women at the center of investments, making them visible as businesswomen, entrepreneurs and investors. It also seeks to involve more actors in this effort and to mobilize more capital flows and financial instruments to reduce the financing gaps that women face today and to generate a commitment to the principles involved in promoting gender-sensitive investments and gender equality within organizations in the financial sector.

“To this end, we call on more investors and financial institutions to join us, transforming their internal practices to promote women’s empowerment, generating more innovative financial instruments and mechanisms that incorporate a gender perspective and thereby achieve greater impact on gender equality and women’s empowerment,” says Maria-Noel.

The impact of Latina women and entrepreneurs

According to recent World Bank data, in the Latin American and Caribbean region, women represent approximately 40% of the economically active population. According to IDB data, the average rate of entrepreneurial activity of women in the region is 15%, of which 71% undertake out of opportunity and 29% out of necessity. 

“Latin America in general is one of the regions with the highest rates of entrepreneurial activity, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, the six countries with the highest rates are in the region, with Chile and Ecuador at the top of the list. This speaks of a huge opportunity,” says Maria-Noel. 

UN Women, gender equality

Marie-Noel Vaeza, UN Women. (Photo credit: Pablo Sanhueza)

“Women play a central role in our societies, not only because they are almost 50% of the population, but also because women control around 20 billion dollars in consumer spending, and generate around 18 billion, which widens their circle of influence. In Latin America, women make 64% of the purchasing decisions in their households. Data shows that women entrepreneurs generate 20% more income than men, even though 50% less is invested in them.” 

This begs the question: Why, if women generate more income, decide on consumption and undertake profitably, do they have fewer opportunities? According to Maria-Noel, one of the current challenges for women’s economic empowerment is the mobilization of the capital necessary to have impactful businesses, diversify sources of financing, and develop more innovative mechanisms.

Still, Latinas are innovative and eager to move forward,” Maria-Noel says, though they face  “enormous frustrations due to the barriers they face: no access to financing.” 

If these barriers are to be broken down, we must work on social norms and eliminate unconscious biases and stereotypes, which is what the UN Women are striving to do with their various programs focused on promoting the advancement of women. 

Marie-Noel Vaeza, taking a selfie with others. (Photo credit: Pablo Sanhueza)

We have to accelerate the pace for the advancement of women. It is absurd to continue discriminating. What we need to do as society is to start working and advocating toward gender equality. Women represent 50% of the world population, and women’s contribution to global gross domestic product (GDP) is 37%. Women are on the front line of the response and bear greater physical and emotional costs, as well as a higher risk of infection in crisis response.”  

And yet, Women are underrepresented as voters, as well as in leading positions, whether in elected offices, civil services, the private sector or academia. 

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“Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth,” says Maria-Noel. “What we need to guarantee is that human rights, that are women´s right, are respected, guarantee their participation in decision-making spaces, in political parties and in all aspects of society. And that is why the work that we do at UN Women is so important, we focus on priority areas that are fundamental to women’s equality, and that can unlock progress across the board.” 

Moving forward: UN Women’a 4 areas of focus

Moving forward, the UN Women will continue to focus on priority areas fundamental to women’s equality and create programs that will further the advancement of women. Four primary areas of focus are: Political empowerment, economic empowerment, eliminating violence against women, and promoting peace and security. 

Maria-Noel Vaeza, UN Women. (Photo credit: Rodrigo de la Fuente).

Political empowerment: For this, we are working with the electoral tribunals to train women candidates. We have a wonderful platform that is active and has more than 5,000 women who want to be candidates or who are already candidates so that they can continue to be trained in negotiation, public policies. Today, 70% of the parliaments are made up of men, 100% of the presidents are men and 85% of the mayors are men. We have to move the needle and reach this parity. Our goal is parity. 

Economic empowerment: In this line, our priorities are the care economy and gender-sensitive financing and investments. 

Eliminating violence against women and girls is fundamental. To this end, I place great emphasis on prevention, because not enough is being done, and on access to justice. 

And finally, everything related to women, peace and security. Working on how women are placed at the tables to negotiate social peace, for preventive diplomacy, to avoid the conflicts that occur every day in our region and all that is humanitarian aid.

Additionally, this year the UN Women will focus on having women at the center of the response for COVID-19, to ensure women’s needs are taken into consideration for the recovery plans. They will be working intensely with the establishment of care systems in the region, to recognize, redistribute and reduce unpaid care work. Innovation will be at the center of the UN Women’s work moving forward as they also continue to focus on the overall advancement of women and further gender equality.