For several years now, gender experts within the development field have been rallying around an argument that no one can deny: supporting women’s rights is the “smart” thing to do. They have sold the economic argument for empowerment to donors and policy-makers and have managed to bring women’s economic empowerment to the center stage of development talk.
That is a good thing, one should argue, and certainly, the data is there. UNWOMEN says that increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth, and both the World Bank and the IMF are constantly reminding us that greater gender equality can enhance economic productivity and improve development outcomes.
And yet, there is room for critique on an approach that has contributed to further depoliticizing the women’s rights agenda within development policy-making.
Seeing women only as economic agents serves a development model based on the idea that inequalities can be erased through only economic growth, fails to give the full picture. While increases in education account for about 50% of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years, significant gains in education have not translated into better labor market outcomes for the majority of women. Economic growth itself cannot transform harmful gender norms and barriers to empowerment for women. For that, local communities, men and women together, must be given the resources and support needed to transform their own social ecosystems. Most economic empowerment initiatives today fail to look at this and definitely fail to allocate funds to women’s groups or community associations to do so.
Putting forth the economic argument for empowerment might bring in new champions for women’s economic empowerment, but it certainly doesn’t for the broader feminist agenda of dismantling patriarchal systems and values. Feminist economists are urging development practitioners to look at how existing methods used within standard models are overlooking fundamental drivers of gender inequality. Entrepreneurship models brought in through trainings and workshops mostly reflect a western kind of entrepreneurship that doesn’t always match local markets, traditions, or social norms. And while every woman should be free to become a successful entrepreneur, that vision of success is also one that often fails to resonate with local women. A Women Thrive Alliance member from Zimbabwe once told me “they want us all to be entrepreneurs. They think they can come and train us and give us business skills and we will all become entrepreneurs. I don’t want to be an entrepreneur!”
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against economic growth, increased female participation in the workforce, or stronger investments in women-focused economic programming. But, the fact of the matter is, there cannot be a sustained decrease of poverty if the root causes of inequality are not addressed.
One thing I know for sure is that the U.S. government has never solely addressed gender inequality through economic empowerment only. Yet it seems the new administration’s understanding of women’s empowerment is a strictly economic one. President Trump has promised to look at women’s economic empowerment issues during his presidency, nominating Dina Powell to join him at the White House to focus on entrepreneurship, economic growth and the empowerment of women. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson also used the economic argument for empowerment, saying that he has seen firsthand the impact of “empowering women’s participation in economic activities in the lesser developed part of the world.”
The development community needs to come together to show the new administration that women’s rights require an integrated, intersectional, and holistic approach and that rights cannot be traded for economic opportunities alone. That a woman’s path to empowerment is not restricted to her capacity to gain an income. There is a reason that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment incorporates issues of violence, economic empowerment, political participation and reproductive rights. Only by working on all fronts to ensure women their full rights will we create economic freedom and empowerment for all.