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The UN’s Generation Equality Forum (GEF) aims to build on the legacy of Beijing Platform for Action adopted more than 20 years ago. Co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France, the GEF sought to catalyse political action and funding to make the rhetoric of gender equality a reality. The $40bn in committed investments represent a major step-change in resourcing for women’s and girls’ rights, as lack of financing has been a major reason for slow progress in advancing gender equality.  

The GEF took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has further intensified gender issues — from a rise in women’s unpaid care responsibilities to a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.

UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said: “The forum’s ecosystem of partners — and the investments, commitments and energy they are bringing to confront the greatest barriers to gender equality — will ensure faster progress for the world’s women and girls than we have seen before.”

Some activists are already questioning this optimism based on past experience.

In his address to the GEF, President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised that no woman should be denied the rights, opportunities and resources required for a secure, just and prosperous life. “In SA, we are working to shift economic power into the hands of women through, among other things, earmarking 40% of all public procurement for women-owned businesses.”

Sadly, the commitments he highlighted point to old news, which the government committed to on Women’s Day in 2020.

Considering that a significant number of women in SA are operating as entrepreneurs or are self-employed, preferential procurement could be an effective tool to build economic resilience for women. The impact of Covid-19 on all sectors has pushed more women into entrepreneurship and self-employment. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found that 34.1% of women, as opposed to 17.4% of men, engage in entrepreneurship out of necessity.

The GEM also noted that about 45.8% of women’s business closures are directly attributed to financial reasons (45.8%), including 29.6% reporting closure due to lack of profit and 16.2% citing lack of financing. Research evidence indicates that economic participation by women has wide-reaching affects on, and long-term benefits for, local communities, as well as overall economic growth. To address the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, the GEM recommends mobilising financial investment and nurturing entrepreneurship ecosystems by integrating suppliers, customers, partners and collaborators in value chains.

The sectors where women predominate continue to be hard hit by Covid-19, with many women-owned business forced to scale down or close, having a rippling negative effect on their families. Government support for these groups has been weak, and while some are trying to recover many have ceased to exist. The systemic corruption that infiltrated the personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement also showed how corruption can divert funds from competent suppliers to corrupt networks — further excluding women from procurement opportunities.

The reality is that corruption has a gendered impact, adding another layer of systemic discrimination that affects women. A UN Office on Drugs & Crime study highlights that women as primary family caregivers are more likely to be affected by corruption in sectors, such as health and education; and sexual favours are offered or demanded because women can’t afford to pay monetary bribes to public officials.

Research published by the University of Pretoria in 2020 highlighted continued challenges facing the public procurement system. These include contracts management, lack of skills and capacity, poor planning, lack of accountability and unethical behaviour.

The government has yet to indicate what concrete steps will be taken to make the 40% a reality. Data from the BBBEE (BBBEE) commission shows that preferential procurement for women across sectors is a distant dream. In its 2020 report, the commission notes that the manufacturing sector showed the best progress at a meagre 10.5%. The tendency to solve these systemic and implementation challenges with more laws and regulations is our biggest failure.

If we are to see preferential procurement as a solution to women’s economic empowerment we need to do much more than throw targets around. Discrimination against women is so deeply sewn into the fabric of our society that all our progressive legislation and institutions are failing to address the sphere where action is most needed — the economy.

The government and companies should make an effort to understand how women-owned businesses operate and adapt systems of procurement to be responsive. UN Women notes that complex supply chain structures are difficult for women-owned and other small businesses to penetrate. The challenge is to rethink supply chain models so more women-owned and other small businesses can access it.

This does not mean lowering standards to accommodate women-owned businesses. Rather, the emphasis should be on removing barriers and developing the capacity of these suppliers to compete with other businesses. Supplier development encompasses a broad range of activities designed to improve the performance and expand the capabilities of suppliers and includes, outreach programmes, technical assistance, financial assistance and business mentorship.

Another challenge with public procurement is delayed payments, which can have a devastating effect on women-owned small businesses by reducing the working capital available to women-owned businesses and negatively affecting production capacity and profitability.

To alleviate the financial distress caused by delayed payments efficient and effective systems for processing payments are necessary. This is especially important in the government, where lack of payment has lead to the destruction of many businesses. Also noting that women are more likely to benefit from public procurement than private, the need to address this issue is critically important.

To be effective, procurement efforts must do more than simply open the doors to women-owned businesses. They must also address the structural barriers highlighted and recognise that an investment of effort and resources is required to level the playing field. Instead of deciding what women-owned businesses need from procurement, why not ask them?

• Motara, a gender specialist, is CEO of Tara Transform.

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