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Understanding the barriers to economic empowerment

By Ollivier Girard/CIFOREmpowerment as discussed here refers to a process by which women, either as individuals or in an organised group, are able to identify the main causes of their deprivation and poverty, and act to change the relations of power that suppress their voice and autonomy. Empowerment occurs across the intertwined social, economic and political spheres of women’s lives. Women’s economic empowerment through the realisation of their right to employment, access and control over income, and their enjoyment of decent working conditions enables their social and political empowerment. Similarly, the removal of discriminatory laws against women, improved access to information and their collective organising to gain a stronger political voice can open up new economic opportunities or improve women’s working conditions. Therefore, the process of empowerment is continuously reinforced across social, economic, and political spheres.

There exist multiple persistent barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Starting from birth, girls’ nutrition and health condition fare worse than boys, girls are less likely than boys to attend and finish school or acquire the skills needed to obtain higher paying jobs. Discriminatory social norms and a lack of access to quality sexual and reproductive health services leaves many adolescent girls and women unable to freely choose their partners and determine the number and spacing of their children. This has a direct impact on their health, the time they spend caring for children, and their opportunities to engage in paid work. Girls’ and women’s disproportionate responsibilities for unpaid care and domestic work deprive them of their rights to an education, employment, political participation and time to rest and participate in social activities. In total women end up working longer hours than men due to domestic chores and the care they provide once they return home from work. The prevalence of violence against women and girls within the home, in public spaces and in the work place, suppresses women’s voice and empowerment.

As a result, women’s labour force participation is lower than men’s and they are more likely to find themselves in informal employment. In Africa and Asia, more than 75 percent of women’s employment is in the informal sector without access to basic social security. Gender segregation within the labour market means many women find themselves in the lowest paid and most precarious forms of work within the informal sector. While the gender pay gap persists across the world with women earning less than men for work of equal value, women are overrepresented amongst the working poor due to their low wages and lack of access and control over natural resources. Women are also less visible as members and leaders of trade unions or workers’ associations that defend their labour rights.

Economic crises and climate catastrophes which are ever more frequent threaten women’s already precarious livelihoods. The negative impacts of crises are most pronounced for women in the informal sector and migrant women workers who do not earn a living wage and lack access to basic social security provisions and quality public services. Multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, migrant status, sexual orientation and location are reinforced by economic and political systems that benefit from women’s lack of economic empowerment. The wage gap between women and men allows large corporations to benefit from a cheaper workforce. Women’s organising is therefore central to understanding and overcoming these barriers and the realisation of women’s rights to decent work.

The resources cited below describe and explain the processes at play that undermine women’s engagement in paid employment, their lack of access to natural resources, and their resulting poor working conditions. Understanding the barriers women face is a starting point to exploring, in subsequent sections, how social protection can support women’s economic empowerment across a life cycle – from childhood, employment to retirement.

Recommended reading

Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016: Transforming economies, realising rights
UN Women 2015
This report focuses on the economic and social dimensions of gender equality, including the right of all women to a good job, with fair pay and safe working conditions, to an adequate pension in older age, to health care and to safe w...
Economic crisis and women's work: exploring progressive strategies in a rapidly changing global environment
J. Ghosh / UN Women 2013
This report examines the gendered impacts of on-going global financial and economic crises in the labour market. It focuses on issues of women’s employment and decent work, particularly taking into account the implications for t...
Paid work, women's empowerment and gender justice: critical pathways of social change
N. Kabeer / London School of Economics 2008
This paper explores the contradictions and contestations that characterise debates about the relationship between paid work and women's empowerment.  It suggests that this absence of consensus appears to reflect difference...
Work and welfare: revisiting the linkages from a gender perspective
S. Cook; S, Razavi / Political and Social Economy of Care (UNRISD) 2012
This paper takes a gender perspective to examine the relationship between employment and social policy. It challenges key assumptions about the translation of patterns of growth into welfare outcomes that are made in most poverty- and...
Women workers and the politics of claims-making in a globalizing economy
N. Kabeer / Political and Social Economy of Care (UNRISD) 2015
This paper draws on empirical studies to examine how the politics of claims-making by women workers in the Global South have evolved in the context of increased globalisation. The paper distinguishes between three categories of women ...
Women’s economic empowerment and care: evidence for influencing
L. Rost; K. Bates; L. Dellepiane / Oxfam 2015
Care responsibilities is being increasingly identified as a factor restricting women’s empowerment outcomes, yet there is limited evidence on determinants of long hours or gender inequality in care work. To gain a clearer unders...