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There is no women’s empowerment without rights

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As “women’s economic empowerment” becomes a popular development term, we must examine whether such programs are actually ensuring women’s rights. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic and social rightsEspañolFrançais

Shahra Razavi
5 August 2015

In recent years, a wide range of actors have embraced the goal of women’s economic empowerment. The change in discourse is a significant achievement of the women’s movement, which has been able to catapult a concept that was developed in feminist research and advocacy networks into the mainstream of policy debate. However, up-take by powerful actors and institutions often means that such concepts (like governance and participation) are reinterpreted to fit the interests of those who use them. In the process, they lose their original clarity, becoming fuzzy and ambiguous.

This is quite clear in the way “empowerment” is being used these days. Some see in women a largely untapped market of consumers (good for boosting profits), while others talk about unleashing women’s economic power and potential as a means to solve the lingering problems caused by the global financial crisis and stalled growth (good for growth). No one would deny the importance of nurturing synergies between women’s economic empowerment and wider economic prosperity. Women’s participation in the workforce, for example, contributes to economic dynamism by bringing more income into the household, boosting aggregate demand and expanding the tax base.

Without a monitoring framework that squarely focuses on women’s rights, it is difficult to know what lies behind lofty claims of 'empowering women'. A fundamental question, however, is whether these presumed “win-win” scenarios stand up to scrutiny, and what is in it for women? Does it expand their practical enjoyment of their rights, as Barb MacLaren recently argued? Or does it simply harness their time, knowledge and resourcefulness to serve development ends with little or no benefit to women themselves?

This is where a strong anchoring within the human rights framework becomes essential. Without a monitoring framework that squarely focuses on women’s rights, it is difficult to know what lies behind lofty claims of “empowering women”. Indeed, as Greta Freidmann-Sanchez points out, increasing family income is by no means a guarantee of women’s empowerment. Going beyond headline figures, we need to ask if women’s participation in the workforce is translating into concrete outcomes in terms of their right to a safe and healthy working environment, fair and adequate earnings, and access to a pension, and whether they are able to reduce and redistribute their unpaid care work as they take on more paid work?

UN Women’s flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016, Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, shows that the world’s women are a long way away from enjoying their economic and social rights. Not only is women’s labour force participation lagging behind men’s (by 26%), there is a significant global gender wage gap (on average 24%) that has changed very little over the past decade. The bulk of women’s employment (75%) remains informal, with little or no social protection in developing countries. In the OECD countries too, while women constitute 44% of those employed overall, two-thirds of workers on involuntary temporary contracts are women. Last, and certainly not least, women around the world spend considerably more time on unpaid care and domestic work compared to men. This work is critical to (re)producing labor and building a foundation for all economic activity. But on average—across all economies and cultures—women do 2.5 times as much of this work as men. So far at least, the increasing rhetoric on women’s economic empowerment is not being matched by better outcomes for women.

Now that women’s economic empowerment is on the agenda of such diverse actors, we need to make sure that the right laws, policies, resources and social norms are in place to enable women’s concrete enjoyment of their rights. As Gita Sen has argued, “winning the struggle over discourse is only the first step.” In moving forward, advocates of women’s economic empowerment need to scrutinize the extent to which women are able to enjoy not only an equal right to work, but also their rights at work. Women’s economic empowerment cannot mean factories that collapse on their workers, casual work in global value chains with low wages, no right to social protection and conditions that quickly lead to “burn out”. Nor can it mean an extended “double shift” made up of paid work added to an unchanged load of unpaid care work.

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Demotix/Shafiqul Alam (All rights reserved)

Bangladesh's garment industry is that country's largest employer of women, but do the conditions and wages of this mode of employment, or other predominantly female-held economic roles throughout the world, constitute real empowerment for women?


Taking this agenda forward is not easy in a context marked by recurrent financial crises, structural inequalities and the ever-expanding role of globalized corporate interests. In the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, for example, there has been backsliding in women’s rights due to ostensibly “gender-neutral” fiscal policies. Austerity measures in the United Kingdom, for example, have had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment—who make up two-thirds of the public sector work force—and have eroded women’s financial autonomy.

However, as we show in Progress, there have also been many positive developments over the past decade that show how women’s rights to work and at work, as well as their access to social protection, can be realized. In Brazil, for example, women’s labour force participation rose from 54 to 58% between 2001 and 2009, and the proportion accessing jobs with social security increased from 30 to 35%. In India women’s organizations have worked with government at multiple levels to enforce the application of the state minimum wage in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), with positive “knock-on” effects on the wages paid to women agricultural workers in the vicinity. In a rising number of countries, in Latin America and the Caribbean (e.g., Chile, Mexico, Ecuador and Uruguay) and in East Asia and the Pacific (e.g., South Korea), significant progress has been made in expanding the reach of accessible and affordable early childhood education and care services.

Undoubtedly there are multiple synergies between women’s rights and broader prosperity—women’s concrete enjoyment of their rights to work and their rights at work also makes good economic sense. Investing in quality and affordable care services, for example, has the potential for a triple dividend: supporting and reducing the unpaid care work carried out disproportionately by women; contributing to the flourishing of children and care-dependent adults; and generating decent employment opportunities for paid care workers. But to make this happen, organizations of care workers and also of care-users need to be able to monitor the quality of services offered, the working conditions of care workers and the ways in which the funds allocated to the programme are spent. This highlights the broader issue of accountability for women’s rights that is a sine qua non of any agenda that is serious about empowerment, and the critical role of women’s collective action and participation in advancing rights. Now this would be an agenda worthy of the term women’s empowerment!

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