When India assumed the G20 Presidency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “We have to maintain women-led development a priority in our G20 agenda.” Women-led development envisions women as active change agents of India’s growth story rather than passive recipients of development. With a similar ambition and the recognition that the newly articulated Sustainable Development Goals would not be achieved without due emphasis on gender equality, the G20 first initiated the W20 as an engagement group for women's empowerment in 2015 under Turkey's presidency. The W20 under India’s G20 presidency can prove to be influential in shaping the gender agenda premised on reflections from the Global South and other key considerations towards making contextually relevant commitments.
An analysis of G20 communiqués from 2008 by the G20 Research Group reveals that the G20’s attention towards gender equality has gradually increased since 2009’s London Summit. Since the launch of the W20, the body has devoted between 8-23% of communiqués’ word share towards gender. The research also reveals that between 2008 and 2021, the G20’s gender commitments focused on increasing women’s labour force participation and improving their workplace conditions. From 2015 onwards, the ambit widened to issues concerning women entrepreneurs and farmers, and later to digital skills development and greater women’s participation in education in STEM fields. In 2017 and 2018, the G20 committed to ending gender-based violence. In 2020 and 2021, the G20 recognised the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and committed to not widening existing inequalities and undermining the progress of recent decades. Under Indonesia’s chairmanship, the G20 Conference on Women’s Empowerment emphasised key areas that require significant investment. These include investing in high-quality, inclusive, and affordable care facilities, digital technology, and MSMEs infrastructure and tools. The development of sex-disaggregated data and domestic policies was also recommended.
Over the years, the chairmanship of the G20 has distinctively moulded the narrative towards driving impact on gender equality. Goal-oriented, tangible and measurable efforts towards women’s empowerment by the forum include the 2014 Brisbane Summit's goal of reducing the gap between men and women in the labour force by 25% by 2025; and the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) at the 2017 Hamburg Summit. However, not every chair nation has driven the body towards tangible goals or actual financial outlay towards achieving women’s empowerment. For example, while the G20 did launch the Private Sector Alliance for the Empowerment and Progression of Women's Economic Representation (EMPOWER) under Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship, it was not launched with unanimous support. Research on the G20’s compliance towards their commitments indicates that members averaged 62% compliance with the 24 assessed gender commitments made between 2008 and 2021. This is much lower than the G20’s 71% compliance average across all subjects. Evidently, on the issue of gender equality, the G20 can do more to meet its own commitments, make more tangible and actionable commitments on gender, and do more towards monitoring and evaluating its own compliance to commitments.
India’s focus areas for the G20 include women-led development, which can be seen as both a continuation and expansion of the Indonesian-led agenda. To mainstream gender considerations into G20 discussions, the W20 under India’s leadership has identified key priority areas to include: women’s entrepreneurship, grassroots women's leadership, bridging the gendered digital divide, education, skill development and climate change.
When launching the logo, theme and website of India’s G20 presidency, the Prime Minister said that “G-20 will not be limited to Delhi or a few places. Every citizen, state government and political party should participate in it.” Recently published W20 India newsletters exemplify this message, as they encapsulate national and regional meetings, institutional partnerships and public outreach programs with rural and urban women, youth and policymakers. The W20 India Plan has adopted a decentralised approach by including voices from rural, tribal and slum areas through gram sabha resolutions and choupals (community spaces) for greater representation.
This engagement with grassroots women, if well structured, can be instrumental in realising W20 India’s priorities. Grassroots women denote women living in poor urban or rural communities and are especially susceptible to risks and vulnerabilities given their economic, social and political marginalisation. W20 India can be an excellent forum to integrate grassroots knowledge into the wider G20 narrative and co-create solutions that mirror the idiosyncratic lived realities of disadvantaged women. In the context of a post-pandemic world where existing inequalities are aggravated, it is especially pertinent to involve grassroots women in identifying and addressing their unique needs.
Promoting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment is at the top of the W20 India agenda. However, there is scope for a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to generating tangible and sustainable commitments.
The need for an intersectional lens: Currently, the W20 agenda does not acknowledge gender issues as existing beyond the binary of men and women, thereby undermining the complexity of gender relations. Power relations between men and women and gender roles can affect women’s full participation in private and public life which has far-reaching consequences for women’s agency and gender equality. Therefore, it is crucial to engage men and boys as allies in challenging negative stereotypes and gendered social norms. It is also important to mention that gender equality and inclusive development cannot be achieved without gender equity. For example, the needs and concerns of cisgender women and trans women may significantly vary. Poor women with caste privilege may need different opportunities than poor women from oppressed castes. Thus, taking cognisance of intersectionalities and structural barriers to gender-inclusive economic growth is essential for the success of W20 India. Otherwise, it may lead to superficial recommendations on policies and interventions without creating a lasting impact.
Championing perspectives and learnings from the Global South: India has reiterated the crucial role of its G20 Presidency in representing the concerns of the Global South. However, it remains to be seen how the W20 plans to collectively address the needs of women across the Global South. While presenting significant gains in women’s empowerment at home, it will also be crucial for India to draw valuable lessons from success stories from the Global South and incorporate them to form robust recommendations that are not only relevant but also viable. Among G20 members from the Global South, women own 51% of entrepreneurial ventures in Mexico and between 50-60% of MSMEs in Indonesia are women-owned whereas, in India, only 18% of all registered MSMEs are women-owned. The W20 can take cues from other G20 countries on eliminating structural barriers to enhance women’s entrepreneurship, and on the other overarching priorities while taking cognisance of unique contextual realities.
Mobilising and channelising development finance for gender equality: G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant has emphasised the need for the G20 to push for strategies to increase access to affordable development finance. Collaborative philanthropy can be one of the ways to mobilise and create a corpus fund as a long-term commitment to support gender equality funding. While the G20 may garner consensus for global philanthropic alliances for this purpose, the W20 may guide the course of development finance into particular areas of intervention to attain gender equality in line with the identified priorities. Philanthropic funding has largely focused on the issues of reproductive health of women, family planning, gender-based violence etc. W20 deliberations shaped by insights from the grassroots can boost the investment case for other important determinants of gender equality and women-led development with respect to women’s entrepreneurship, education and skilling, climate action, etc.
Identifying key entry points within each priority area for targeted recommendations: Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) does not automatically translate into gender equality without addressing the root causes of deep-seated inequalities that require multilayered, contextually relevant solutions. We know that education and skill development of women and girls is one of the stated priorities of W20 India, but it is not clear which specific barriers it is trying to remove – whether it is child marriage, lack of attendance, illiteracy among rural women, gendered social norms and expectations, violence against women, etc. Similarly, women's entrepreneurship is influenced by myriad supply and demand side constraints besides socio-cultural, financial and other obstacles. The W20 India should make an effort to unpack the broad priority areas into specific focal points for targeted measures and viable proposals in order to be truly transformative. Failure to recognise the root cause(s) affects discernment of the key entry points that may severely limit the effectiveness of W20 India’s recommendations.
The pandemic has significantly reversed the progress made on gender equality on several fronts in the economy, health systems, at home and society at large. Hence, it will be interesting to see how the W20 deliberations unfold, given that it may play a critical role to accelerate the attainment of gender equality. Thus far, W20 events in India have aimed at spreading awareness, establishing local knowledge networks through partnerships with select universities, and signing MOUs with local non-profits to promote the core agenda through their grassroots networks. Additionally, the W20 plan identifies the UN ecosystem, the International Labour Organisation, multilateral financial institutions, and international Chambers of Commerce among others as key stakeholders. Tracking how the W20 will engage with the global community, private sector, philanthropies as well other G20 working groups and engagement groups will also be crucial. The W20 cannot possibly remedy all the facets of gender inequality but can attempt to identify key enabling and constraining factors that directly or indirectly impact gender equality and women’s economic empowerment; through a more inclusive and multidimensional approach.
Nibedita Hatibaruah currently works as a senior consultant at Sattva Consulting. Her prior work experiences include extensive work with state and central governments on issues of skilling and livelihoods. She is a Chevening Scholar and has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy (MPP) from the London School of Economics and an MA in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Kaajal Joshi currently works as an analyst at Sattva Consulting. Her prior work experiences include work with global and Indian consulting firms, think tanks and non-profits on regulatory policies, gender, rural development, education, and foreign policy. She has a BA in International Affairs from the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, Washington DC. Views expressed here are the authors' own.