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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Economic Empowerment of Women

Almaz Negash

In the 21st century, women enjoy more freedom and power than ever before. However, they are still disadvantaged when compared to men in virtually all aspects of life. Women are deprived of equal access to education, health care, capital, and decision making powers in the political, social, and business sectors. Whereas men are credited with performing three quarters of all economic activities in developing countries, women actually perform 53 percent of the work, according to the United Nations. The 1995 UN Human Development Report, states that "an estimated $16 trillion in global output is currently 'invisible,' of which $11 trillion is estimated to be produced by women."

The world has recognized the vital importance of education as a main aspect of human security and as a means to empower women. According to the UNDP Human Development Report, women in Africa represent 52 per cent of the total population, contribute approximately 75 percent of the agricultural work, and produce 60 to 80 percent of the food. Yet they earn only 10 percent of African incomes and own just 1 per cent of the continent's assets. These numbers indicate the tremendous challenges women face on their road to gender equality. Despite repeated efforts made by governments, NGOs, and multilateral development agencies, the majority of women in the developing world are still relegated to micro enterprises and informal tasks.

In addition, women still make-up the majority of part-time and temporary workers in developed countries. Consequently, these women working in informal economies are likely to have less access to basic health care services, education, financial capital, political appointments, employee rights, and land ownership.

For example, in Southeast Asian countries, Khadija Haq states that women are still underrepresented in the government and civil services, and face a persistent gap in education and job opportunities. However, there is wide consensus that investment in the economic empowerment of women can and will help reverse these trends.

Increased income controlled by women gives them self confidence, which helps them obtain a voice and vote in:

Household decisions such as domestic well-being decisions. For instance, women tend to use income clout for more equitable decisions about sons and daughters' diet, education and health.

Economic decisions: acquiring, allocating, and selling assets.

Fertility decisions: economically empowered women tend to have fewer children

Land use and conservation decisions: rural women tend to favor sustainable environmental practices since they are usually the ones that collect the families' natural resources such as water and firewood.

Female economic power also enhances the "wealth and well-being of nations." Women who control their own income tend to have fewer children, and fertility rates have shown to be inversely related to national income growth. Women are also more able - and generally more willing than male counterparts - to send daughters as well as sons to school, even when they earn less than men. In turn, a woman's level of education affects her decision-making process when it comes to questions about contraception, age of marriage, fertility, child mortality, modern sector employment and earnings.

But women's economic empowerment must not be examined in a vacuum. Unfortunately, widespread cultural and economic practices work to prevent empowerment. To fully assess the opportunities and obstacles that exist, the intersection of political, social/cultural and environmental conditions must be analyzed alongside traditional economic indicators. Factors impacting women's economic empowerment include:

Violence: women are the predominant victims of conflict, sexual violence, injury, death, intimidation and human trafficking

Lack of adequate access to education, training and technology

Lack of access to clean water, sanitation

Lack of access to responsible health care/reproductive health (one of the costs of widely available pre-natal screening in India has been the selective abortion of female fetuses, 10 million in the past two decades - this has led to one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world with 927 girls to every 1000 boys in 2001).

Lack of access to credit/finance, safe work conditions, living/minimum wages

Cultural practices, tradition, religious interpretations of women's status

Women's lack of knowledge about rights and laws (economic, social, political, religious)

Lack of adequate representation in decision-making positions and governance structures

Need for comprehensive global statistical data on the informal economy and the collection of gender-specific data. Must be analyzed to bring out the linkages between informal employment, poverty and gender inequality.

The real tragedy is that women are often better economic stewards of capital than men. Research has shown that women are more likely to reinvest profits back into human capital than are men. When women have economic power - defined as control of income and capital (land, livestock, etc.)-they gain more equality and control over their own lives, while contributing directly to their children's development (nutrition, health and education) and thereby indirectly to their nation's income growth.

Women's economic empowerment could ease corruption and violence, promote greater environmental sustainability, and through education, contraception, and lower fertility rates, help lower HIV/AIDS rates. If this kind of process is accepted by society, then it should be apparent that women's education and economic empowerment is not only a matter of human rights but also human security. On this specific issue, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen writes;

Human Security is integrally connected with securing human capability, and thus applies directly to the contribution of education in removing the "downside risks" among the general class of objectives included under the broad hat of human development. Human Security stands, thus on the shoulders of human development with a particular adaptation of rich vision and perspective, and this applies especially strongly to the critical role of elementary education.

Yet, there exist many impediments to women's economic empowerment. Recently, the World Economic Forum ran a study on 58 countries to assess the size of the gender gap. The Forum's analysis concluded that no country has managed to close the gender gap with the exception of the Nordic nations. For example, Sweden scored high in its efforts to advance women's participation in all aspects of societal structure, while the United States ranked 17th, Mexico 52nd, Jordan 55th, and Egypt 58th. These findings suggest that the world has a long way to go to bring women to the forefront of economic, social, and political participation.

Unless women's economic security is strengthened, we will not be able to eliminate poverty, achieve gender equality, or realize any genuine progress on the UN's stated Millennium Development Goals.

Below are just some of the statistics that highlight the discrepancies between men and women in the contemporary world.

There are 135 million children in the world between 7 and 18 who are not receiving any education at all, of which approximately 60 percent are girls.

Of the girls who do begin primary school, only 1 in 4 is still in school four years later

The gender gap increases at higher levels of education.

Two-thirds of the 880 million illiterate adults around the world are women.

When women's income increases, money is more likely to be channeled back into families and they are more likely to educate daughters.

Each additional year in school raises a woman's earnings by about 15 percent compared to 11 percent for a man.


Women represent half the world's population, and gender inequality exists in every nation on the planet. To discriminate and prevent half of humanity from reaching its full potential is economic folly. Denying women and girls equality and fairness not only hurts them, but also hinders the rest of society.

As described earlier, in the majority of poor nations, mothers, not fathers, have the most influence on their children. Mothers are the ones who dictate the decisions on whether or not children are sent to school, what school they go to, and how much time they spend working for the family. Until women are given the same opportunities that men are, entire societies will be destined to perform below their true potentials. Other large global humanitarian issues such as poverty, unemployment, population growth, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and violence are all intertwined with the gender equality issue. Thus, concerted action to educate women, give them equal access to credit, and generally empower them, are critical components in battling all of the above-mentioned ills. Until societies, governments and non-governmental organizations around the world come together and make a concentrated effort to empower and grant equality to women, the world will be stuck in the past, and human well-being will never truly realize its full, vigorous potential.

Almaz Negash is a fellow in Global Leadership and Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She co-facilitated the theme on the economic empowerment of women for the first Women Leaders Intercultural Forum.

Dec 1, 2006
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