Young Women’s Conference of Decisions for Life project

From Monday 9 to Wednesday 11 May, 2011, more than 100 women from 23 countries met in an International Young Women’s Conference, in the next stage of a campaign to empower young women workers around the world. The conference was held in De Burcht in Amsterdam, in the framework of the Decisions for Life (DfL) campaign, and organized jointly by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the UNI Global Union, the Wage Indicator Foundation and the AIAS. The Decisions for Life campaign aims to raise awareness amongst young women (aged 15-29) working in the service sector about their employment opportunities and career possibilities, family building and the work-family balance, in short, to empower young women and showing them that they have choices in life. The 14 countries initially involved are Brazil, India, Indonesia, the CIS countries Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and the southern African countries Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Decisions for Life was awarded a substantial grant from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of its strategy to support the UN Millennium Development Goal 3 (MDG3), ‘Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women’. The DfL campaign was facilitated by online information through the respective national Wage Indicator websites, particularly on statutory minimum wages and on workers’ and women’s rights, as well as by meetings and training sessions in 12 of 14 countries. Here, female organizers of the unions affiliated with ITUC and UNI, but growingly also from other unions, played major roles.

The Young Women’s Conference was dedicated to Tabisa Sigaba of the South African Decisions for Life team, a young woman who passed away suddenly because of a tragic accident. She came up with the idea to organize an international conference with young women. Conference languages were English, Portuguese and Russian. The opening ceremony started with a moving memorial address of Tabisa’s friend, Sisanda Mbokotho, campaigner of South Africa’s SACCAWU union. Next, the four central moderators, Nina Benjamin (South Africa), Yuliya Stankevich (Belarus), Ira Rachmawati (Indonesia) and Egidio Raposo (Mozambique), opened the debate on the meaning of Decisions for Life for each and about expectations from the conference.

In her opening address, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said that “the DfL campaign is already making a difference, as many thousands of young women are joining their union through this campaign because they see that being in a union improves your chances of having a better income, getting better working conditions and achieving work-life balance.” As an example, ms Burrow mentioned that in Indonesia, 15,000 young women have joined as new members to the unions. She said that unions recognise that young people as a group are not homogenous: Especially young women workers are more vulnerable and face particular disadvantages in entering and remaining in the labour market. According to ms Burrow, the estimates say that some additional 45 million young people per year are going to be added to the unemployment statistics: “The world simply has to see more and better jobs if we are going to tackle these problems.”

The moderators pursued the plenary debate, trying to find how the participants traced the Decisions for Life topics of young women, before Maarten van Klaveren, researcher at the AIAS, presented ‘Key facts on young working women’. Van Klaveren is the main author of the overview studies on women’s work and employment in the 14 DfL countries, with AIAS colleagues Kea Tijdens, Nuria Ramos Martin and Melanie Hughie-Williams as co-authors. Van Klaveren highlighted the major differences across countries in for example fertility rates and HIV/AIDS prevalence, but emphasized that in most countries the burden of poverty, particularly in the crisis, has fallen heavily on (young) women. In contrast, literacy progress is near-universal, albeit that school enrollment rates in most countries hide considerable drop-out rates among girls. Better education has resulted in rapidly growing shares of skilled women in the respective workforces, with in five of 14 DfL countries even higher shares of skilled females than skilled males. These high shares show a high correlation with the shares of women working in commercial services. Yet, the AIAS researcher added that in most countries majorities of young women are still in informal labour or working on a casualised basis, and that such labour implies large sectoral wage differences. Moreover, in all 14 countries even in formal employment the gender pay gap remains very high — at least 25%.

In the afternoon of the 9th, the full Tuesday 10th, and on Wednesday the 11th before lunchtime, the conference participants shared experiences of two years of campaigning in parallel workshops and plenary sessions, with moderators from the participants’ ranks. The six thematic areas were: maternity protection; sexual harassment; HIV/AIDS; choices about family and work; sharing responsibilities and combining family and work, and equal pay. The main achievements and challenges under each area, respectively at the workplace, at home, in the union, and at national / governmental level, were debated. Approaches and methods of empowering young women were shared and compared. It became clear that in all countries represented the campaign had gained momentum, with often impressive results. Campaigning through face-to-face meetings and training sessions and using the Internet had indeed had mutually reinforcing effects. Already before the Amsterdam conference, the DfL campaign had reached out to almost 100,000 women. Recognizing that, as the ITUC DfL brochure stated, the campaign has the potential to multiply that figure many times, the debates got a strategic focus, under the common denominator ‘Moving the DfL Campaign in your country, region and around the world – A plan of action up to 2015 and beyond’.

As a result, in the final Wednesday afternoon meeting the participants unanimously adopted a Declaration in which they demand that the ITUC and UNI, and their affiliates and the WageIndicator expand Decisions for Life to other countries and fully support, integrate and mainstream DfL methods. The Declaration then specifies five ways, stressing demands in the organisational and facilitating sphere, like these three: building a modern trade unionism which is inclusive for young women and includes a young women-centred approach reflected in trade union policies, actions, structures and in the composition of its membership and leadership – at all levels; helping to build spaces where young women feel safe to meet and talk and receive education which assists them to make decisions in life; providing to young women vital labour market information about wages, salaries, law in national Wage Indicator websites plus in print, radio, television discussion, including trade union media resources and social networks; to encourage young women to use the WageIndicator instruments. The reactions on this Declaration of the ITUC staff members in the conference room were highly positive, and clearly the international union umbrella is committed the integrate DfL methods and best practices in its policies and activities.

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The DfL country overview reports can also be downloaded as AIAS Working Papers

 
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