How Women’s Economic Empowerment Energizes Political Participation

By Joanne Lu


Zipporah, 23, who goes by “Zippy,” didn’t believe she had much of a future in Kenya. After receiving financial training and being connected to a business mentor, Zippy has become a leader in her youth group, as well as a savvy entrepreneur with two clothing shops and a cybercafe. She now sees herself as someone who can effect change in her community, and she says she intends to run for local office in the next election. Photo: Corinna Robbins / Mercy Corps.

Last November, American women made history when a record number of women won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This was not just a win for women. Research shows that when women have decision-making power, communities as a whole benefit.

Yet in many developing countries around the world, women struggle to even have a voice in their own homes. However, global development practitioners are finding that when women have more economic freedom, they often also gain voice and agency at the household level, community level and even beyond.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Globally, they bear the lion’s share of unpaid household work, which according to a recent Oxfam report would be equal to about $10 trillion in annual sales at a single company – or about 43 times that of Apple. If they do have access to employment opportunities, they’re often insecure, low-wage jobs, according to UN Women. Gender discrimination also hampers their access to assets – like land and loans – and their ability to make economic and social decisions.

All in all, poverty cannot be eradicated without gender equality.

Gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and reduced inequalities icon

That’s why development organizations and agencies have been focused on reaching women with economic empowerment programs. These include savings, cash transfers, microcredit, financial literacy training, skills training, cooperatives, market access, and other initiatives to help them gain access to economic resources.

The UN identifies three economic interventions that have  proven to work for all women: savings, child-care provision and land rights. Other interventions are rated as proven or promising for poor, very poor, young and/or all women. For example, networks and mentors are promising for all women, while conditional cash transfers and demand-driven job services are proven to work for young women.

Global Washington member Awamaki helps women’s associations start and run small businesses that create artisanal products. According to Awamaki’s founder and executive director, Kennedy Leavens, the organization was founded on the belief that “income in the hands of women is the best way to lift communities out of poverty.”

“Women know what their children and their communities need and they make those investments when they have the means to do so,” she says.

At the household level, the extra income allows women to have more say in economic decision-making, often for the benefit of the whole family. Studies have found that women spend about 90 percent of their earned income on their families – for better food, school fees, health care – compared to men, who spend 30 to 40 percent on their families. For some, the extra savings, loans or income means they can start a business that serves their communities, as well.

But perhaps the most transformational impact is the empowerment.

CARE actually defines women’s economic empowerment as the process by which women increase not only their right to economic resources, but also their power to make decisions that benefit themselves, their families and their communities.

“When women earn an income, it makes them no longer dependent on men, so they have respectability,” says Conchi Maravilla, a coordinator for Oxfam’s Saving for Change program in El Salvador. “The women support each other, and it radiates out into the community.”

Oxfam’s Saving for Change program is a village savings and loans program that teaches women how to save money regularly, borrow from the groups’ pooled funds and repay loans with interest. Gathering regularly for savings groups, cooperatives or other economic activities has been shown to increase women’s confidence, facilitate collective action and improve their ability to negotiate with men.

According to Oxfam, “empowered women members” of their Saving for Change program have since asked for a suite of training modules to further increase their economic and political participation. For example, the “SfC + Citizenship” module teaches members about ID cards, paying taxes, having birth certificates for their children, voting, running for office and holding local leaders accountable for public services.

“Saving for Change is as much about strengthening member’s voices as it is about increasing their financial inclusion,” the organization’s website says.

According to Oxfam, participation in the savings groups are empowering women to get involved with – and even elected to – local decision-making bodies like village and municipal councils and water boards.

“Women participate in a more active way now,” Carlos Antonio Diaz, the mayor of Gualococti, El Salvador, told Oxfam. “Their capacity to speak out is more developed, and they have more positive self-esteem, which is important. They are more active than men in the community here.”

Women’s economic empowerment is an end goal in itself even as it serves as a means to women’s political participation. In the same way, women’s political participation is an end, but it can also be a great means of accelerating sustainable development, economically and otherwise.

Some suggest that gender equality in politics promotes gender equality in the workforce, which, according to a 2015 study, could double women’s contributions to global GDP growth. Women who have been empowered by financial inclusion programs are also influencing public policy from local to national levels for better labor laws, better representation in government, and greater investments in education and health for women and girls.

As Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International, said a few years ago, “…when you have more women in public decision-making, you get policies that benefit women, children and families in general.”

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The following Global Washington members are supporting women’s economic empowerment and increased political agency.


Awamaki partners with women’s artisan cooperatives to create economic opportunities and improve well-being. The women knit, weave and host tourists in the rural Peruvian Andes. The organization helps them start and run successful cooperative businesses so they can earn income and lead their communities out of poverty.


Founded in 1945 with the creation of the CARE Package®, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization working in 93 countries to fight global poverty. Women and girls are at the heart of CARE’s community-based efforts to improve education and health, create economic opportunity, respond to emergencies and confront hunger. For over 25 years, CARE has been providing economic opportunities to women through its globally-recognized Village Savings and Loans Association model.  A VSLA is a self-managed group that meets regularly and provides a safe place to save money, access loans, and get emergency insurance. CARE has directly supported nearly 7 million members in VSLAs across 45 countries. VSLAs provide unparalleled access to savings and credit for low-income women, accelerating their economic success and ability to navigate life’s inevitable shocks. The social networks they create empower women to join forces, raise their voices and achieve their goals. In Niger alone, one-third of women participating in local government come from VSLA groups initiated by CARE.

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization and the leading certifier of Fair Trade products in North America. The organization’s rigorous standards around agricultural and factory production help protect fundamental human rights, ensure safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, and deliver additional economic resources to producing communities. Additionally, Fair Trade standards include a baseline price to protect farmers when the market dips too low, and ensures that producers earn additional Community Development Funds to address their pressing needs. Many groups vote to spend this money on projects that benefit women, like cervical cancer screenings, scholarships, child care centers and microloans for income diversification. 

Global Partnerships

Global Partnerships’ Women Centered Finance with Education and Health investment initiatives have invested $187 million in 65 partners in 17 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa. Through these strategies Global Partnerships invests in enterprises that deliver credit to female microenterpreneurs along with access to a savings account, education and/or basic health services. With access to these services, women living in poverty are able to improve their health and economic position as they practice prevention, seek timely treatment, make more informed decisions, smooth household income and consumption, build assets, and better deal with health and economic shocks.

Grameen Foundation

Grameen Foundation is dedicated to enabling the poor, especially women, to create a world without poverty and hunger. The foundation’s programs connect poor rural women and their households to essential financial, health and agricultural products, while also building empowering ecosystems that support women’s breakthroughs. Access to financial services and training, in combination with structured “gender dialogues,” propel women’s economic empowerment. Working through women’s self-help groups and community partners, Grameen Foundation guides dialogues about traditional gender roles and their impacts on family well-being. This integrated approach increases women’s autonomy and encourages more gender-equitable decision-making in households on issues from finances to family planning. With increased capacity and autonomy, women are able to achieve greater economic empowerment in the family and beyond. 


Landesa champions and works to secure land rights, a powerful tool to promote social justice and create opportunity for millions of people living in poverty around the world. For women especially, land rights can be transformative to their social and economic empowerment within households and communities. Equipped with secure land rights, women gain a stronger voice in household decision-making, spending, and management of their land. The resulting benefits can include greater savings and financial stability, improved nutrition and food security, and increased spending on education and health care, creating a ripple effect for women, their families, and whole communities. For more than 50 years, working across 50 countries, Landesa has helped strengthen land rights for an estimated 125 million families.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps helps girls and women build economic independence by providing financial services such as grants, loans and community savings groups, mentorship and job training. For example, in Kenya, Mercy Corps helped girls develop skills to manage and sell small livestock, like bees and chickens, which improved girls’ average monthly incomes from $6 to $56 in West Pokot and from $26 to $87 in Turkana. Girls who participated also reported a 50% increase in household decision-making since the start of the program. Engaging women in household decision making and local governance is vital to creating inclusive governance and economic systems. In Mali, Mercy Corps worked with 120 women leaders to build basic leadership skills, enhance understanding of local governance processes and develop advocacy skills. Following the 12 months of training, 38 of the women leaders ran for office in local elections and 14 were elected. In 2018, Mercy Corps impacted the lives of more than 6.9 million women and girls through opportunities to improve their education, health, leadership and livelihoods.

Oxfam America

Oxfam is a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and social injustice. Globally, Oxfam works with 22.1 million people in more than 90 countries to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty and hunger. Oxfam works to increase women’s access to and control over resources as part of a larger focus on gender justice, aiming to transform gender power relations and norms through campaigning, programming, advocacy, and research to facilitate women’s articulation of their own voice and agendas. For over 13 years, Oxfam has been working through its Savings for Change program to build resilience and increase women’s empowerment by providing basic financial services to women around the world, as well as training in business skills, agriculture, active citizenship and advocacy, and mobile banking. Saving for Change is as much about strengthening member’s voices as it is about increasing their financial inclusion. Oxfam believes that strengthening women’s agency and space is an essential precursor to achieving gender equality as well as political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security.

Street Business School

Street Business School (SBS) provides entrepreneurial education and confidence to women living in poverty. On average, graduates triple their income, going from $1.35/day to $4.19/day. This change in income is life-altering for alumni and their families. With increased earnings, SBS graduates educate their children, provide healthcare, increase their family’s daily meals, and discover their influence. SBS sees dramatic shifts with graduates’ confidence, creating a stronger voice in their families and their communities. SBS has trained 46 other NGOs how to incorporate this program into their communities because its partners share the belief that when a women is economically strong, the holistic benefits to all are invaluable.

Upaya Social Ventures

Upaya Social Ventures creates dignified jobs for women living in extreme poverty by building scalable businesses with investment and consulting support. Of the nearly 12,000 jobs created by Upaya’s investment portfolio companies, half are held by women, most of whom are entering the workforce for the first time. This is no coincidence, since half of Upaya’s active portfolio is comprised of women-led social enterprises. Upaya places a strong emphasis on investing in women entrepreneurs, a population largely underfunded in comparison with their male counterparts. The organization believes the more it demonstrates women’s success in entrepreneurship, the more likely it will be to kick-off a chain reaction of women-led ventures, job creation for women, and growing prosperity overall.