When It Comes to Women’s Empowerment, It’s Time to Focus on Rights

Women celebrate International Women's Day in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in 2005. Photo by United Nations, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

March 10, 2015
  • Racheal Meiers

    Former Director, BSR

Racheal Meiers, Director, Inclusive Economy, BSR

A few weeks ago, I participated in a small conference organized by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), MamaCash, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and the Oak Foundation, among others. The event brought together women’s rights activists; philanthropies focused on investing in women; and representatives from the private sector who are supporting, or interested in supporting, women’s empowerment.

The meeting explored a worrying trend: the growing disconnect between the private sector’s investment in women, and the efforts of women’s rights organizations. Two dimensions of this disconnect struck me as particularly important. First, most corporate investments today focus on the “economic empowerment” of women exclusively, without examining or investing in other aspects of empowerment, such as legal rights, harmful norms and practices, or women’s leadership. And second, those investments tend to focus on building individual empowerment, rather than on tackling systemic barriers to gender equality.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a very positive development that the business community is focusing more attention on women and has increased its awareness of the opportunity that women and girls represent to the global economy. With the business community this engaged, progress toward gender equality and women’s full economic participation seems inevitable. But while there are plenty of examples of economic empowerment leading to broader empowerment, this isn’t guaranteed.

Barriers to Women’s Economic Empowerment

Women who own small businesses may benefit from business training and better access to markets but can still struggle to maintain and grow their businesses if laws or social norms limit their property ownership or ability to seek and obtain capital. Women who find a reliable, wage-earning job in the formal sector may see their status improve in their family, but those wages may be controlled by the male head of the household. Finally, significant tensions exist between "unpaid care work"—that is, the household responsibilities predominantly held by women—and formal work opportunities, productivity, and mobility for women.

More troubling are widespread violations of women’s rights, which prevent them from taking full advantage of economic opportunities. A 2013 study by UN Women quantified the cost of domestic violence in Vietnam as nearly 1.4 percent of the country’s GDP. The report’s calculations included loss of earnings, out-of-pocket expenses for medical and legal support, and familial impacts, such as children missing school due to violence. Child marriage likewise reduces years of education for girls, affecting future earnings. Violence and harassment, as well as more subtle controls exercised against women to limit their choices or control over their general and reproductive health can result in unplanned pregnancy, poor maternal health, or sexually transmitted infections—potentially limiting women’s opportunities to thrive in the economy.

These trends all point to one conclusion: To truly achieve women’s empowerment, we need to focus on women’s rights alongside economic opportunities.

Four Components of Women’s Empowerment

Drawing on good work by AWID and others, we can define women’s empowerment as consisting of four overlapping components: Political rights, social-cultural value, sense of self-worth and agency, and socioeconomic opportunity. The first three elements are foundations for enabling the fourth. How women are treated under the law, how they are treated by their families and communities, and how they treat and see themselves all affect whether they are able to take advantage of material opportunities such as employment, access to new markets, access to products and services that can improve their lives, or access to opportunities to use their voice and influence change.

In this context, it’s in everyone’s interest—business, civil society, government, and community—to support all four dimensions of women’s empowerment.

How Business Can Advance Women’s Rights

There are a few ways companies can move beyond or adjust their current women’s empowerment activities to take a more integrated approach. Companies can:

  • Engage governments in key operations and sourcing countries and include women’s rights issues and gender equality broadly in policy discussions.
  • Speak out about gender equality and critical women’s rights issues in relevant markets. Corporate brands and voices can help break the silence on violence against women, harmful traditional practices, or broader discrimination and the devaluing of women in communities.
  • Apply a gender lens to business practices and to those of suppliers. Gender biases are often unconscious, and this can unintentionally create risks or reduce opportunities available to women. When a gender lens isn’t applied, violations or risks may be missed, such as forced pregnancy testing, childcare centers that don’t comply with the law, or sexual harassment.
  • Consider supporting grassroots women’s rights organizations in strategic countries and communities. These groups work to change both the legal and social system and to inspire women with their own potential. With average annual budgets of US$25,000 even very small investments can make a big difference for these groups, which, in turn, can support larger corporate commitments by contributing to an “enabling environment” for women’s economic empowerment. Women’s funds, such as the Global Fund for Women and Mama Cash, can help companies identify relevant organizations and distribute funds locally.

Empowered women will bolster our economy today through contributions to production, innovation, and consumption. These women will also invest in our future economy through their support for the health and education of the next generation. Supporting their economic participation effectively requires a holistic understanding of gender equality and its barriers. Women’s rights that are guaranteed by law, dictated by communities and families, and internalized in individuals form the basis for women’s economic empowerment.

On this International Women’s Day, I hope business considers its opportunity to empower women through investment and engagement in women’s rights, just as companies are growing women’s economic empowerment.

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