Women Who Are Moving The World Forward

Illustration: Ariel Davis
With headline news hitting everyone, everywhere, every hour of the day, it can be easy to hunker down and concentrate only on what's happening in your immediate area. But something key to remember is that few struggles happen in isolation — and these days, as people around the world become closer than ever, so many of our causes are interconnected.
Each year, UN Women hosts a Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), bringing together researchers, grassroots leaders, academics, policymakers, the heads of NGOs, and more to learn how women on the ground are changing their communities and the world in big ways, and to share information about the matters that affect women the most.
Five of these global leaders and experts sat down with Refinery29 to discuss their lives, work, and careers — and how they think women can move the world forward.
1 of 5

Shirley Pryce

Pryce is a human rights advocate and the chair of the Caribbean Domestic Workers Network. She sits on several boards and committees, including the International Domestic Workers Federation, the Association of Women's Organisation of Jamaica, the 51% Coalition, and the Consumer Affairs Commission.

How did you get into domestic work and what was your experience?

"I started domestic work very early in my life... I love it, but I encountered a lot of abuse in my journey... While I was a live-in domestic worker with a particular family, I started going to school for food preparation, baking, and decorating, and I had to start from scratch at university and go through the different modules. The family had two children that loved me to death, and I loved them; they were like my kids. I’d go to school in the evening and would come home in the night, and my employer or her kids would come down and let me in the house — but then they stopped opening the door. I would ring the buzzer, tap on the door, go around the back and knock, but nobody would allow me in... So what I had to do was sleep in the dog house... That was the permanent situation for about three months or so. In the morning, she would open the door very early for me to get in the house to make breakfast, and I would shower and prepare myself for work. She never once asked me, ‘Where were you last night? Where you sleep? I heard you knocking.'

"It was very bad. I had another experience when my daughter was boarding with someone I knew, and she got very ill... I asked my employers for time off, and they wouldn’t give it to me. I spent nine years with them, and they wouldn’t give me the time off to go. I realized that I needed to move on.

"Being a domestic worker was very fulfilling for me. I love the work, and I took pride in what I did, but after what happened to me, I went to a workshop for domestic workers, hairdressers, and gardeners, and we were challenged to go back and organize, so we’d have a voice. We formed the Jamaica Household Workers Association in 1990 launched in 1991. In 2013, we organized ourselves into a formal trade union and invited the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, who gave the blessing for the organization."

What was it like getting that organization, now union, going?

"We struggled, and there have been ups and downs...but I’m the only original member who never left. We started out with 175 members, and we went down to two members at one time. The manager for the Bureau of Men’s Affairs came over one evening and said to the two of us who were there, 'Every day, the two of you come here, but two persons can’t be an organization. Lock it down! You got to go out and mobilize!' Those were big words...

"It’s a lot of commitment. You have to love what you do... What I say to myself is, I don’t want another domestic worker to go through what I’ve been through."

Hearing about the things you experienced, I have to ask: Where does that meanness, that abuse, come from?

"It was [just] how domestic work would go at the time. When you’re live-in, you face a lot of challenges. I remember days when I would cook, and I couldn’t eat the food; my boss wouldn’t allow me to. I would cook the food and lay out the dishes, and when she came back home, she would say, 'Oh, put the food in the fridge for tomorrow. You can have some sardines'...

"When I got another job, the lady told me they would pay me two times what the [new employer] was offering me. I had asked them already if they could raise up my pay, because I was very challenged, but they had told me they were paying me well and nobody would pay the amount of money they were. [Still,] I left."

Were your challenges similar to ones that other domestic workers face?

"Yes. Some of the challenges they face are the long working hours. I had to be in the kitchen by 6, prepare breakfast for the morning, and get the kids ready for school. You have to work right through the day and then serve them dinner when they came home at night. I had to wait for them to eat, wash up all the dishes, and pack them away, because she didn’t like dishes in the kitchen overnight. My feet used to be swollen every day; I developed varicose veins from standing from the morning until night.

"Other complaints are that people would be fired without pay, or they’d be working without food all day... And then you’d get rampant sexual harassment in the workplace. Nowadays, I’m not getting complaints as much as before, but I think it’s because when you’re organized, things are so different."

What difference specifically?

"As an organization, we weren’t respected. Employers wouldn’t give us a second look... Now that we’re a union, and they know that we can go to court when we have a grievance, it’s a different thing. You approach the employer, and they come in and put everything right. Previously, we would just send our cases to the Minister of Labor, but now we can go straight to the Industrial Dispute Tribunal with our cases — and a lawyer that works with them volunteers with us.

"So having union women come into our life made a big change in our organization. We put on several workshops. Because we are based in Kingston, we extended 13 chapters all over the island and get to mobilize domestic workers in the parishes and set up leadership there. In Kingston, we meet every Friday... Now we get calls from employers looking for a good domestic worker from us, and from domestic workers wanting jobs or to join the union. We’re up to 5,700 members now across our chapters, and we are part of the Caribbean Domestic Workers Network."

What are your goals now, for the future?

"I’m fighting for government ratification of Convention 189 across the world, but more so in the Caribbean. As head of the Caribbean Domestic Workers Network, I’m sending letters to the Prime Ministers and the Minister of Labors reminding them about the convention and asking them to ratify it, so that laws are put in place to protect domestic workers... I know things have moved so far, but I’m a pusher. I’m a fighter. When the Prime Minister ratified the convention in September, I said, 'Sir, I don’t take promises lightly.' He said to me, 'Neither do I.'"
2 of 5

Ito Peng

Peng is a professor of sociology and public policy, and the Canada research chair in global social policy at the University of Toronto, as well as the director of the Centre for Global Social Policy, where she leads Gender, Migration, and the Work of Care, an international research project that examines the global migration of care workers and its impact on family, gender relations, gender equality, government policies, and global governance.

How has care become work?

"Over the last 10-15 years, social and economic changes across the world — from population aging and low fertility to shifts from manufacturing to a more service-sector economy — have impacted the nature of care. Governments are increasingly trying to figure out how to deal with the care of children, elderly people, disabled people, and other people who were traditionally unable to participate in the labor market, and who were largely cared for by family. So even though most of the care that is provided within families or communities is unpaid, it is nevertheless very important. There is a huge demand for care that families are not really able to adequately provide anymore. Personally, I am in my 50s, with two children and a long career, and I know what people are facing when it comes to this. Now that my children have mostly grown up, I now face care for my aging mother. After one period of care, there's another kind to deal with; that’s pretty tough, particularly for working women."

Why is this area particularly tough on women?

"Because there are a lot of women like me who must work and look after family, a lot of people are trying to outsource care... Changes in social and economic structures are creating a huge demand for care, but what's really driving it is the fact that fewer men provide care work than women, even though both men and women have to work. If men did more care work, there wouldn't be such a critical demand for women to outsource care to someone outside of the family. The second problem is that care is still not recognized as a legitimate form of work, so it doesn’t pay well, and women don’t want to do it. If care work was recognized, more women — and maybe men — might be willing to provide it without relying on migrant women from poorer countries."

What kind of relationships does this dynamic create among women from different countries?

"There is a huge demand for care everywhere, but particularly from rich countries in the 'global north': North America, Western Europe, and rich East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In these countries, the demand for care is really high and has compelled the women from poorer countries, like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, to migrate out as care workers, nannies, and caregivers. The result is a global care chain — a series of interdependencies created through care work between women across different regions of the world.

"Middle-class women in richer countries outsource care to women in poorer countries, who then leave their families and the care of their own children and parents to even poorer women in their own countries. This kind of system recreates the inequality that exists between rich and poor countries, but also perpetuates inequality between women across economic class, racial lines, and so on."

What do you think this shows about the work women do globally, and what does your research suggest could be done to create a more equitable system?

"Since we know that this interdependent dynamic intensifies inequality between countries and also between women within those countries, one of the first things we think about is what global governance and policy can do to mitigate some of those outcomes. That involves looking at the role of global organizations, international policies, and legal systems to make sure that inequality, and particularly human rights abuses, do not happen... For example, a policy that many countries have not yet signed onto is Convention 189, more commonly known as the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers from the International Labour Organization (ILO). ILO Convention 189 was passed in 2011, and it talks about the rights of the domestic workers, but so far, only 24 countries have ratified it. The U.S., for example, has not ratified it, but several U.S. states have adopted ILO Convention 189 recommendations in their state policies towards domestic workers.

"[We need] much more active and effective public childcare or more provisions for elder care, so that people don't have to rely on migrant domestics or migrant care workers. Our studies show that one way governments can ensure that care is provided is by [incentivizing] men to also participate in care, so that it doesn't just get left to women to deal with. That means we as people having to change the way we think, as well as employers possibly changing their employment practices. Positive social investment policies, like the government investing in childcare and child education, and in public eldercare programs would probably help families balance their work and care obligations.

"Finally...it's a matter of looking at what 'sending' countries can do to develop their societies and economies that doesn't always depend on sending their women and men out... A lot of these women...would much rather stay home and be with their families, but there isn't enough work to be done. So we also look to the more micro side, at what local individuals, communities, and social movements can do to address and change this system of global interdependence through care."
3 of 5

Heba Nassar (Egypt)

Nassar is a professor of Economics on the Faculty of Economics and Political Science (FEPS) at Cairo University (CU) and the vice president of CU. She has done extensive research on women's economic participation and human resource development, writing about areas such as labor markets, education, microfinance and small businesses, poverty, social policies, and more in the Arab world.

What are some of the challenges that you've seen young women in your region face when it comes to work?

"A woman might come out of school and have skills to enter the labor market, but with the same diploma, she cannot get to the emerging sectors of the labor market where there are higher wages. Entering that sector is very challenging...and women have less mobility than men in our region. Transportation is not so easy to get, and they might not get the chance to get a flat and live alone. So the first challenge is getting the training to enter, the second challenge is to proving themselves, the third is [finding out] how to balance her wishes to be a mother and staying in the labor market, and the fourth one is figuring out how to compete after having a child, because she may not have so much time for training and for work."

What are some of initiatives that can help with these areas?

"The first is upgrading women's skills, and the government, NGOs, and the private sector can work on that through things like mobile training courses and on-the-job training. Flexible hours and [the ability to] work from home are very important, and private sector [support] of things like nurseries, transportation, training, and equal chances is also important. There are many violations of the law by the private sector, and it can be very tough to get them to accept and promote women. Legislation gives us certain rights, but they are not always implemented. For example, if a workplace has 100 employees or more, there has to be a nursery — so they’ll employ 98."

What are the emerging markets where you see key opportunities for women?

"Information and communication technology (ICT), finance, banking, and more. Women are concentrated in education and culture, but they have to move to the emerging markets, and I think ICT in particular can play a role in empowering women. It's a good-paying sector, and they can work from home. But women in Egypt are not heterogeneous. There are women who are educated professionals and who could get [certain] chances, and there are others who are survivors and challenging [norms]."
4 of 5

Lucia Makamure

Makamure is the alliance & partnerships officer for Gender Links. A former journalist, her career began at the Zimbabwe Independent where she worked as a political reporter, and her work on gender, education, climate change, and human rights issues has been published in several publications in Southern Africa and internationally. Makamure is a 2016 Commonwealth Scholar currently studying towards a Masters of Public Policy and Management at the University of York.

What is the aim of your work at Gender Links, and what are some initiatives you're currently working on?

"Gender Links' work is around advancing gender equality in southern Africa. One of the biggest challenges that the region has at the moment is economic justice for women, and one of our current advocacy campaigns is professionalizing the unpaid care [work] of women. In southern Africa, for example, most women are involved in the agricultural sector and make a huge difference in terms of producing food in their countries. You’ll find, however, that that work is not recognized or remunerated. We think it’s high time that we have policies rectifying that."

Before we get into those policies, something that is really interesting about your work is your focus on how gender inequality intersects with climate change. How does the latter impact women in your region, and what does that mean in terms of "environmental justice"?

"In most communities that are affected by climate change, there are likely to be floods or drought... Because our society is mainly a patriarchal one, the women in families are the people who will spend their time looking for water. The girl-child is the most affected, because at some point, her studies will suffer. There is no way she is going to go to school when there is no water in the household and the expectation is that by [nature of] being a girl, it’s her responsibility to ensure that there is. The other challenge for girls especially is around sanitation issues. If there’s no water, even school ceases being a safe space. So we say that the effects of climate change in southern Africa carry a woman’s face."

And those effects are being felt pretty immediately.

"Yes. We've had horrible floods across the region recently; there were huge cyclones in Madagascar and Mozambique, and floods in South Africa and Zimbabwe. When such things happen, women, who are the primary caregivers, are taken off their productive duties to take care of the family. In some countries when the floods are so bad, it results in them losing their homes, and in most cases, the kids are not likely to be with their father [but] around their mother. She has to ensure that there is food for the kids, and sometimes they are forced into disaster camps where they or their kids may be exposed to gender-based violence. "

What are some of the policies that you think would make either a more immediate difference or a long-term difference?

"Southern Africa has [come] quite far when it comes to putting policies in place around gender equality; our biggest challenge now is implementation. We have sustainable development goals at the global level, protocol on gender equality in Africa, and at the regional level in southern Africa, we also have our own gender equality instrument. All these policies are brilliant, but when it comes to implementation, it’s sad. In a region where we have so much, I don’t think there would be any reason for us to still be talking about these issues 20, 30 years later. But if we do not guard against this now, despite sustainable development goals and any other policies that will come, we’ll still be talking about this. It’s high time that we started concentrating on implementation, action, and results. We’re done talking."

Are there one or two policies in particular that you think need to be focused on?

"I spoke about unpaid care work. At the regional level in South Africa, we have an instrument that we call the Southern Africa Protocol on Gender and Development. It has a brilliant provision around the recognition of unpaid work of women, but most of the countries in the region don’t have a policy [implementing it] or haven’t done much if they do. The issue started getting attention around the height of the HIV [cases] in southern Africa because most of the people who were involved in care work were women – and they were not being remunerated. Because there was a lot of debate around the issue, quite a number of countries adopted a policy, but some of those policies came up with women getting less than $50 a month. What does $50 a month do when care work is your full-time job?"

And when you don’t have the time to pick up another job.

"Exactly. So as long as the situation is like this, the economic justice of women in southern Africa and the world at large will never be fully realized."

Who do you think should be held accountable?

"Our governments! It’s their duty to look after us; it’s their duty to protect us. They have to step up for gender equality. There's no two ways about it. I’m not based here in the U.S., but from where I’m coming from, there seems to be a backlash on women’s rights. So for us right now, despite the brilliant work that we are doing, our biggest challenge is that most women’s rights organizations have been forced into closure because there’s no funding. The situation is much worse in the global south, but no one wants to fund women’s rights anymore.

"I’ll give the example of a pizza: donor funds [may] come into the global south, but women’s rights is just one part of that piece of the pizza. Leaders can’t come here and talk about sustainable development work and improving the lives of people when they’re not putting money into that work. They should put their money where their mouth is."
5 of 5

Diane Elson

Elson is an emeritus professor in the department of Sociology at Essex University, a visiting professor at the WiSE Research Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, which analyzes public policy through the lens of gender, a research associate at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy. She has served as chair of the UK Women’s Budget Group and as vice president of the International Association for Feminist Economics.

How would you define "feminist economics" for people who may be less familiar with that term?

"Different people might define that in different ways. I define ‘feminist economics’ as an approach to economics that looks at economic policy from the point of view of women's rights — something that stretches well beyond the paid workplace and encompasses education, health, and family life. It also encompasses unpaid work and social security. We need to rethink the way we teach, measure, and conduct public discourse about economics. When people hear the word economy, they tend to think only of paid work. Unpaid care and domestic work are disproportionately done by women and girls, and this disproportionate responsibility is one of the barriers to the achievement of equal pay."

As someone who's worked in this field for so long, what would you say are some of the challenges to engaging government organizations and policymakers?

"Governments are always more willing to make statements in favor of gender equality and women's empowerment than they are to actually making it happen. It's important to ask what is actually being done to implement any commitments they make, when they make them. Are those commitments on paper, or will they be solved by passing a new law? However good that law is, have they thought through what resources behind it might be needed to make sure that it can be implemented?

"Governments and the political context of countries can change. Take Canada, for example. Until recently, it was extremely difficult to get the government to implement policies that would improve the lives of low-income women. There were lots of setbacks, and funding for a lot of women's organizations in Canada was cut. But after 10 years, a change of government and power has taken some steps at least to counteract those cuts and move forward again on gender equality and women's rights."

The issue of unpaid care labor has come up with almost every woman I’ve spoken to for this story. How do you see the dial being moved on that in any way?

"I think we have made some progress in getting people to recognize this work as important economically and socially, and [have] even taken some steps to start including it in statistics. What we need now is investment to reduce the amount of unpaid work that there is. In Western Europe, we can take for granted that when we turn on the tap or flick a switch, water or electricity will come. There are some issues that need to be addressed about whether this is affordable for everybody, but we also have big problems on the issues of care for the frail elderly. It's very important in countries with aging populations that governments invest in care services for frail, elderly people and in childcare services for preschool children. Public investment is important, so that good-quality services are provided and that the people who provide it are paid a good salary, get professional training, and that they’re not treated as a second-class labor force that's paid barely the minimum wage.

"Another thing we have to do, particularly in higher-income countries, is redistribute the remaining unpaid care work so that men do more of it. I do see a generational shift of men who are more interested in being hands-on fathers and reducing their hours of paid work so they can contribute more equally. [But] then, they face barriers of employers who are not so willing to recognize that men have care responsibilities. Employers can’t just think, Yes, we have to accommodate mothers because they'll need shorter hours of work or time off to look after their children; they have to do the same for fathers.

"The greater responsibilities to unpaid care and domestic work that women have constrain the kinds of jobs they can do. For instance, because of those constraints, a lot of women with children can only take part-time jobs — and part-time jobs receive worse pay, often don't have pensions, paid sick leave, promotion prospects, or the social benefits attached to them that full-time jobs have.

"Occupational segregation is a big issue. Some jobs, particularly those in care and retail, are disproportionately filled by women. Other jobs, like construction, are disproportionately filled by men — but guess which jobs get paid more. You need to be just as careful taking care of people as you do when building a wall, but you get paid more money for building a wall than for helping people with disabilities improve what they can do, for example. Something we need to tackle is getting more pay for these jobs, which are typically thought of as women's jobs, and the other is getting more men to do these jobs, even though more men won't go into those jobs unless they get more pay. So even though it's not a policy that's typically labeled a gender-equality policy, raising the minimum wage does a lot to reduce the gender pay gap and disproportionately helps women."

You mentioned the upcoming U.K. elections with Theresa May. In the run-up to the presidential elections in the U.S. last year, there was a lot of conversation about the importance of having women leaders to advocate for feminist policies, and that has continued. What does that mean to you in the context of your elections?

"I want to see more women leaders, and I want to see more women in parliaments, but I want them to put forward policies that will actually benefit women. I won't be supporting Theresa May in the U.K. just because she is a woman, and I didn't support Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s just because she was a woman. Both of them had policies that actually make the lives of low-income women in particular more and more difficult. It's good to see women leaders, but I want to know what their policies are."