Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Education

On to the inaugural post! Today I’d like to broach the topic of Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE). In the world of development, this is as close to the Holy Grail as we have come to achieving true poverty alleviation. Its worth pausing for a moment to dig deeper into we actually mean by WEE. I have been reading through a terrific research report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled “Women’s Economic Empowerment: Navigating Enablers and Constraints” (by Abigail Hunt and Emma Samman) which you can find here. In it, the authors state the definition of WEE as follows:

“Women’s economic empowerment is the process of achieving women’s equal access to and control over economic resources, and ensuring they can use them to exert increased control over other areas of their lives.” (Taylor and Pereznieto, 2014).

While I think this idea really broadly covers the aspirations of WEE work, I think it’s a little vague and begs for more detail over how exactly control and access lead to increased empowerment. Critically, what emerges is the ability control and access have to generate power for social and economic change. The authors go on to refine their definition of WEE as a,

“Process whereby women’s and girls’ lives are transformed from a situation where they have limited power and access to economic assets to a situation where they experience economic advancement.” (Taylor and Pereznieto, 2014)

In my opinion then, the true value of WEE is the ability to not only provide control and access but also to seed transformative power changes in society at the micro (individual, household, familial, regional, etc.) and macro (economic, state-level, international) levels. The report continues to expand on 10 “key factors” that can enable or constrain WEE. I hope to get into most of these factors in the future but for now I want to focus on the first, and in my estimation one of the most important – Education and Skills Development.

I have really positive news to start with – most people fundamentally believe in equal access to good education for both boys and girls (OECD, 2012b; Jones et al., 2014b;Purewal and Hashmi, 2015)! This is really an understated achievement of shifting cultural norms, and is worth its own moment of pause and reflection. While this may be self-evidently important, I think a powerful statistic shared in the report elucidates why we should be concerned with equitable access to quality education as a transformative social justice practice: “An additional year of primary school for girls can later increase wages by around 10%, rising to 15-25% for each extra year of secondary school, and nearly 17% for tertiary education.”

But don’t dwell there too long because unfortunately we don’t actually see this professed equity play out in the real world. According to UNICEF, in 2013 there were nearly 63 million girls of primary or secondary school age who were not enrolled respectively around the world. That figure is nearly the entire population of France. So what exactly are the barriers to female participation and access to quality education?

The short answer is there are a lot of reasons. It would take hundreds of pages to go into the details for all of them so I’ll just mention a few along a micro and macro split. At the micro level, some of the most important causes include young/child marriage. For example, according to ODI’s research report Gallup notes that in 29 Sub-Saharan African countries in 2015 “…married girls aged under 18 with a secondary education was 16% compared to 36% of unmarried girls.” While both numbers are starkly low, one is significantly lower.

Another important reason mentioned in the report is a lack of household resources. This can range from lack of financial resources to purchase school uniforms, textbooks, notebooks and pencils, and even tuition fees. Furthermore, in places like India where I worked for several years on issues of primary school education, there is a distinct and unfortunate cultural preference to send boy children to school over their girl siblings when resources are limited. (Author’s Note: A further blog post will provide more substantial data and research to back this up, as well as personal observations from my own professional experience). Conversely, programs that aim to alleviate these financial burdens have seen interesting and hopeful reduction rates in dropouts for adolescent girls (Duflo et al., 2006). A few other considerations at the micro level include “institutions that are inhospitable to girls who are menstruating, pregnant, or have children, curricula that reinforce traditional gender roles and a lack of female teachers.” (UNFPA, 2014)

At the macro level, data suggests that while most people are negatively impacted by external shocks (economic crises, wars, famines, natural disasters, etc.), girls’ lives and access to education are severely affected. One of the most interesting and disheartening consequences of economic shocks occurs when household mothers are driven to pursue more paid economic activities. According to the ODI research report, “girls are often the first to be removed from school to take on extra domestic responsibilities, including looking after younger siblings.” The disproportionate burden that is placed on women and young girls to manage household and informal sector care is evident in school dropout rates in periods of economic contraction (Stavropoulou and Jones, 2013). Even worse we find that “4 of the 5 countries with the largest gender gaps in education” are facing war or insurgency.

I want to end with a reflection on what this last piece of information tells me. Something I think is becoming abundantly clear through the data is the tremendous improvements to WEE gained through the modern infrastructure of multinational cooperation and stability. Rash wars, interventions, or escalations of tensions not only damage nation-states and the infrastructure of international stability – they disproportionately affect women who are often the first to be stripped of the progress and advancements of the 21st century.

More on that later…thanks for reading.


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