Still Need a New Year’s Resolution? Resolve to Think Differently About Women’s Empowerment

January 5, 2015

Women’s empowerment – especially economic empowerment – is a hot topic these days. Donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation are investing in grand challenges and global initiatives to empower the world’s most vulnerable women. Publications about the business case for women’s empowerment are here, there, and everywhere. Giant corporations are doing empowerment-themed marketing, such as the Like a Girl and Not Sorry campaigns. Womanifesto activists in India made women’s empowerment a core focus of the 2014 election campaign. 

In the USAID-funded Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project, we too are talking about women’s empowerment. Late last year we released a framework on Women’s Economic Empowerment: Pushing the Frontiers of Inclusive Market Development. We titled it this way because we hope that it will get people to think differently about how markets can be an empowering force for marginalized and exploited women in economies around the world. Here are some of the core principles of that framework:

  • Empowerment is about more than just access. It’s about agency, voice, power, and influence, too. Development programs have been getting better at increasing women’s access to resources, goods, and services. Yet women still disproportionately lack control over those resources or the ability to take advantage of new market opportunities without retribution from family members or society.
  • Facilitate institutional change to address inequality. Gender inequality gaps are systemic. There is not a country or sector without gender gaps that usually disfavor women. If we want to see broad-based reduction in these gender inequality gaps in market systems, we have to start transforming the market structures that perpetuate inequality and build up the ones that reverse it. 
  • Women need to be leaders of change and not just the recipients of change. Look at your programs and proposals. Is change something that is only happening to women? If so, how can you approach activities differently so that women are part of the change process?
  • Know which rules to change and which to keep. Many market institutions and businesses have been built by people – both women and men – who have gender biases or been influenced by policies that were based on gender discrimination. Other norms and policies are positive and promote empowerment and equality. We call these the gendered “rules” of market systems. When your program is transforming institutions to enable empowerment, take time to understand and address the underlying norms and influential policies. 

This framework isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. It builds on excellent theories and research by experts like Naila Kabeer, and agencies including the International Center for Research on Women, the World Bank, and AgriProFocus. But as USAID and others are ramping up market systems thinking and what that means in practice, we need this framework to set the foundation for how women’s empowerment becomes a critical piece of the equation. Check out the framework and let us know what you think. Your thoughts can help us push the frontiers of women’s empowerment even further.