IWD 2017 CPAN Blog series: #3 - What can be done to empower the poorest women and girls?

This blogpost is part of a series entitled IWD 2017 CPAN Blog series, which have been published in celebration of the 2017 International Women’s Day. The aim of this series is to emphasise the need to economically empower chronically poor women and girls

By: Kate Bird

Interventions to empower women cannot focus exclusively on women themselves as the site for change, as this would ignore the structural and relational nature of the barriers to women’s empowerment. Bundled interventions or an ecosystem approach to WEE, with interventions addressing challenges in different institutions or sectors, are likely to be the most effective.

Enabling environment

Reform to laws, rules and norms may be necessary, including those to counter discrimination. Gender-responsive PFM (public financial management) may be necessary, as it can help ensure that public finance is monitored to ensure that the public sector provides a level playing field and that public services reach out to chronically poor women and girls. It is likely that regulatory and legal reform will be necessary to, for example, improve business registration, fair contracts and improved processes for the settlement of disputes. Specific anti-discrimination legislation may also be needed. Constitutional reform to allow for gender equity, is often a first step.


Educated chronically poor women and girls gain a flexible and transportable asset and this contributes to their economic empowerment. Education helps transform gender relations, changes how women and girls are valued by others, and increases their agency, opportunities and equity, especially for the poorest. Reducing gender disparity in accessing education is an important first step. Interventions may include bringing schools closer to girls’ homes, making schools less hostile for girls (sanitation, reduced SGBV), using a rights based approach to develop inclusive education, using quotas and reduced entry requirements and supporting alternative basic education, plus the use of mother languages, increasing the numbers of women teachers and reducing the costs of schooling (including through conditional cash transfers). 

Information and communication technologies

Enabling the poorest women to access information and communicate with others is a crucial ingredient to their economic empowerment. Reducing the digital divide and increasing women’s access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) can provide women with access to geographically remote ‘reference groups’, giving them information about women’s lives and choices elsewhere. This raises awareness on the agency and power women can achieve, providing a stimulus for action and can also link individual women to social movements, making it possible for them to engage in collective action. It can also provide them with access to key market information and distance learning opportunities.

The limited literacy and skills constraints and infrastructure barriers need to be overcome. This requires interventions in education and training, electricity and internet connectivity, availability of affordable and accessible hard and software – this is a significant challenge for the poorest women.

Financial services

Autonomous access to financial services is crucial if women are to be able to operate as independent economic actors. Regulatory reform, supported by public information campaigns are needed in many countries. Building savings is particularly important for chronically poor and marginalised women and girls, as it provides them with a flexible asset, buffering them from their extraordinarily high risk burden. Most chronically poor women are still excluded from formal banking services, but extending savings opportunities to the previously unbanked is possible through savings and loans groups, ROSCAs (Rotational Savings and Credit Associations), and extending ‘mobile banking’ using ICTs.

Business Development Services

Interventions providing entrepreneurship training alone and grants alone do not increase the success of poor women entrepreneurs. Combinations of grants and training with follow-up tailored technical assistance are more successful, but models which provide women with limited short term credit, on-the-job training and membership of a group providing mentoring and encouragement (e.g. Avon South Africa) has been found to be highly successful in terms of income growth and increased agency.

Asset ownership and control

Access to and control over productive assets is a critical element of economic empowerment. This is particularly true for rural and self-employed women and even more strongly true when they are chronically poor. Chronically poor women may be excluded from access to or control of collective or private and household assets.

Savings: When women have savings over which they have autonomous control, gender-based asymmetries in power within the household may be less acute, as their ability to express their choices and preferences increases. (See above for how improved financial services can help chronically poor women save).

Productive assets: Livestock, for example, is an important store of value for rural households and can be sold to meet contingencies. Breeding flocks gain value and animals play a substantial role in rural livelihoods. Very poor women and girls can save and build wealth by starting low on the ‘livestock ladder’, keeping a small number of chickens or ducks and moving up through sheep, goats or pigs to cattle. Increasing women’s ownership of livestock can be supported by targeted intervention, e.g. goat lending schemes or programmes to counter patriarchal norms around livestock ownership and livestock markets. Microfinance and social protection interventions can both seek to build women’s asset holdings.

Increasing women’s ownership and control of land: Change to the institutions around land ownership including markets, inheritance, marital settlements and titling are highly contested, as it goes straight to the heart of patriarchal norms and customary settlements. As a result, progressive change tends to be slow, incremental and needs high level political support, engagement from grass-roots social movements and buy-in from ‘street level bureaucrats’ and the judiciary. Where progressive change has occurred, there has been a long timeline often spanning decades and including constitutional change, legislative reform and changes in both local and national gendered norms and institutions around land, inheritance and marriage. A study of chronically poor women’s land rights identifies that:

  • Where individualised tenure already exists, it is important to ensure that women have rights to buy, rent and inherit land (including through inter vivos gifts) and that any interventions support the co-titling of land;
  • Interventions support efforts to ensure that it is legally and socially acceptable for women to purchase, sell, rent in or rent out land in their own right;
  • Where communal land management systems exist, modify both customary law and practice to support gender equity. This should include enabling women to inherit land, receive a share of property following separation or divorce and receive inter vivos gifts of land and other assets;
  • Under both statutory and communal land management systems, reforms to marital and divorce laws should ensure that women obtain equitable control over land and other assets during marriage and that they retain rights following separation and divorce.

Reforms to increase chronically poor women’s access to land may well require constitutional reform (to embed gender equity and the primacy of legal over customary systems), reforms to marital and inheritance laws, joint registration of land (by both spouses), marriage registration, reform to customary law and extensive institutional reform. The complexity and long duration of such an exercise means that enabling chronically poor women to build other assets (including human capital assets, productive and consumption assets) must take place in parallel.

Market power

Providing women producers, traders and processors with market price information, makes their gender-based losses transparent. Poor women’s negotiating position may be improved by joining a producer association. Support to these associations, to professionalise them and ensure that they are democratic, inclusive, well managed and capable of entering into policy dialogue - with other actors in the value chain and the state - can enhance women’s negotiating power. Chronically poor women may have limited voice within such group settings and complementary measures are necessary ensure that they can engage and further build their market power. This may include interventions to address the discrimination and exclusion they face on the one hand and to build their status (through enhanced asset accumulation and education) and their self-efficacy through assertiveness and negotiating skills training on the other.

Decent work and labour rights

Improving the quality of jobs could ensure that women both earn a decent wage and have access to benefits such as maternity leave, sick pay and other forms of social protection. To achieve this, governments need to support implementation of the Decent Work principles, improve labour regulation and inspection including for informal sector and domestic workers. Domestic workers and homeworkers can be provided with better working conditions by providing them with legal status and recognition as workers. The informal sector, a major employer of poor women, should be enabled rather than penalised. This might include improved regulation to extend financial services to the poorest, providing business development services and basic infrastructure to enable micro-enterprise development and self-employment for poor women in both rural and urban areas. Social protection, such as the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia, can help to reduce gender inequalities in the household, in the labour market and at community level. Where designed into the programme, decent work and labour rights can be supported. Finally, reducing child labour and helping families keep their children in school through the provision of conditional cash transfers will have the dual benefit of building the capabilities of poor girls and keeping them out of what is often drudgery intensive and dangerous work.

Collective action and social movements

Women’s political activism is necessary to challenge exploitative relations that hold back women’s economic empowerment and to drive equalising change in policy and practice. External support can assist this collective action. However, social movements can ignore the needs of the poorest and most marginalised women. This can be countered, and SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association, India) has worked to improve the employment conditions of women piece workers, through collective action and negotiation and WIEGO, a global policy network, has worked effectively to improve the status of poor working women. Change driven by such movements can be supported by political and policy interventions to address intersecting inequalities.

The bundle of interventions laid out here identifies some of the practical measures that will build women’s economic empowerment. Tailoring them for local context and working with local people, national women’s movements and national leaders is needed to correctly identify what the priorities are for both legal reform and how best to improve what actually happens on the ground. Working together we can drive forward progress in gender equity – and this is vital if we are to truly leave no one behind in achieving the SDGs.

For more on this topic, visit the project page Donor’s best practices in reducing chronic poverty among women and girls

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Photo credits: Students at Al-Yaqeen Nursery and Primary School, Suleja village, Niger State Arne Hoel / World Bank Photo ID: Hoel_100914_DSC_4361