Women’s Economic Empowerment; The Key to a Sustainable World

In 1970 economist Ester Boserup published Women’s Role in Economic Development, where she explained that women were being systematically left out of the development agenda, which in turn harmed the global economy because women are crucial to economic growth. Almost 50 years later, ending gender inequality and empowering all women and girls, is still crucial to development and is an important focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While SDG5 outlines a number of goals to achieve gender equality, one issue at the forefront of achieving many SDGs is women’s economic empowerment: defined as women’s capacity to participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth processes in ways which recognize the value of their contributions, respect their dignity and make it possible to negotiate a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) investment in gender equality produces the highest returns compared to all other development spending. Higher female earnings translate into higher investments in children’s education, health and nutrition; and when more women work economies grow.

So why aren’t women economically empowered? In countries all over the world constraints such as adverse social norms, discriminatory laws and lack of legal protection, failure to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid household work and care, and a lack of access to financial, digital and property assets have held women back from economic growth, which in turn have held back the world.

Unequal opportunities in employment and wages are a major economic constraint for women. According to the United Nations (UN) Women, 700 million fewer women of working age had paid employment compared to men in 2016.  Women remain half as likely as men to have full-time employment and often earn up to one-third less than men, in part due to occupational sex segregation. Women are also likely to take on three times as much unpaid domestic work and care activities, and contribute nearly 58 percent of unpaid work to family enterprises and farms. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the value of unpaid care work performed by women is $10 trillion, or 13 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). If the employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men were closed women could increase their income globally by 76 percent, which is calculated to have a global value of $17 trillion.

Another constraint to women is a lack of financial inclusion; which means that formal financial services such as bank accounts, loans and insurance, are not readily available to them. Women around the globe have less access to formal financial institutions as compared to men and are less likely to have a bank account. In addition the credit gap for women-owned businesses is estimated at $300 billion globally. According to the World Bank, which aims for universal financial access by 2020, most of the 2 billion people worldwide who lack a bank account are women. This lack of financial inclusion continues to promote gender inequality and reinforce women’s economic subordination.

Women are kept from financial institutions because of sexist laws, and/or misogynistic social norms.  Legal barriers constrain women’s economic development in several ways. Not only do countries have laws that prevent women from opening a bank account, but according to the World Bank 155 of the 173 economies surveyed globally had at least one law blocking women’s economic opportunities. In 100 of those economies women faced gender-based job restrictions, in 46 economies women have no legal protection from domestic violence and in 18 economies husbands can forbid their wives from working.

Globally women make up 43 percent of the agriculture workforce, however, in many countries there are laws that prohibit women from owning land; in fact less than 20 percent of landowners are women. Women also have limited access to the resources and services they need for farming such as, fertilizers and seeds, education and extension services and livestock. If women had the same access to these resources, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), they could increase their yield by 20 to 30 percent, raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent and reduce the number of starving people by 100 to 150 million.

If gender inequality as a moral imperative is not enough to convince the world that women’s economic empowerment is important, there is mounting evidence that it benefits everyone. When women have access to the same economic opportunities as men, and the legal protections in place to ensure those opportunities they will: devote more of their household budget to their children’s education, save more money overall, have children that are less likely to become sick or be undernourished as well as grow the overall global economy.

The good news is the development world understands this, and has made women’s economic empowerment a major focus of the SDGs. Additionally, the UN Secretary-General established the High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment in January 2016 to provide concrete guidance to governments, the private and public sectors and civil society to implement change. Women’s economic empowerment is the pre-requisite for sustainable development, ending poverty and achieving a better world by 2030.

A number of Global Washington members work tirelessly to improve the lives of women, allowing them to look toward a brighter future for themselves and their families. Below are descriptions of just a few of these organizations, highlighting current projects. Learn more about these members and others on GlobalWA’s interactive map.

Agros: The mission of Agros is to see rural poor families own agricultural land, attain economic self-sufficiency, realize their God-given potential, and pass on to future generations the values and resources that enable them to flourish. A critical driver of successful rural development is ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources for women, and that they are full partners in the community development process, ensuring that women occupy positions of community leadership. agros.org

Awamaki: 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. awamaki.org

Health & Hope Foundation: Health & Hope Foundation delivers dental, vision, and medical care, via portable clinics, to communities lacking healthcare access. Needs for education, light, water, sustainable businesses, and sexual safety are addressed within our programs and partnerships with specialized NGOs. Our focus is impoverished women and children of Tanzania and the Philippines. healthandhopefoundation.org

Landesa: For nearly four decades, Landesa has worked in over 50 countries to help secure land rights for more than 120 million of the world’s poorest families. In 2016, 8.1 million women and men gained more secure rights to their own plot of land as a result of Landesa’s work. Given the centrality of women’s land rights to a host of development and human rights outcomes, the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights works to prioritize and integrate a gender lens in all of Landesa’s projects and initiatives. The Center also develops and implements innovative pilot projects to strengthen women’s rights to land www.landesa.org

Mona Foundation: Since 1999, Mona Foundation has partnered with 32 grassroots projects in 16 countries assisting tens of thousands of marginalized children to receive a quality education and to raise the status of women and girls. In 2015, Mona supported 13 projects in 8 countries serving 150,000 children and their families in Mongolia, the Brazilian Amazon, India, Haiti, Panama, China, Vietnam and the U.S. Mona also seeks to collaborate with other organizations to share learning, participating in committees and fora such as the Brookings Institution’s annual CHARGE strategy meeting on the education of girls and Boston Foundation’s annual Haiti Funders’ Conference among others. monafoundation.org

Partners Asia: Partners Asia supports emerging leaders and community-led initiatives which improve the lives of the most vulnerable people of Southeast Asia. Partners Asia improves women’s access to the legal system by supporting lawyers who will defend women in court — and ultimately help change legal procedures and laws. The organization also supports the establishment of women’s savings groups to support one another and build community. partnersasia.org

Thriive: Thriive’s mission is building shared prosperity in vulnerable global communities. The organization does this by making pay-it-forward loans to small businesses so they can grow and create jobs. 51% of Thriive businesses are owned by women who became more successful, created jobs for other women, and helped strengthen their communities with pay it forward donations of products or job training. thriive.org

Women’s Enterprises International: Women’s Enterprises International reaches across cultures to transform lives and communities by partnering with women’s groups; empowering and equipping women to break the cycle of poverty and live into their God-given potential. WEi is a Seattle-based nonprofit, dedicated to creating opportunities that equip women in Kenya and Indonesia to overcome poverty and transform their lives and communities for over 16 years.  womensenterprises.org