What we learned and the way forward

Here we draw some lessons that could guide the way forward.

Root causes of women’s economic inequality

Women’s economic empowerment (WEE) is essential to achieve women’s rights. It also stands to benefit families, communities, societies and economies. This is globally recognized in the Sustainable Development Goals. And yet, only a minority of women is economically empowered in this world, in spite of the crucial economic roles women play.

The root causes of this contradictory state of affairs can be summarized as:

  • The patriarchal and neoliberal capitalist conditions in which the majority of women live. These conditions limit the bargaining power of women and keep them in a subordinate social status. As a consequence, women tend to be exploited as cheap labor or altogether excluded from paid work. Hence, decent work opportunities for women are few.
  • The burden of unpaid care and family work. More than half of the world’s work is unpaid work, invisible in statistics, and most of that work is done by women. The burden of this work severely restricts the time and energy that women can spend on paid work.

This state of affairs implies that WEE is not easy to achieve. It is important that we learn from past experiences. In this section we focus on lessons to be drawn from Dutch experiences in development cooperation. The order in which the lessons are presented is not necessarily an order of priority (also see: interview Mushfiqua Satiar - Early Married Girls Part 1)


Lessons learnt about WEE from Dutch development experience

WEE benefits from a two-track approach of stand-alone gender activities and gender mainstreaming. The gender stand-alone activities, notably the support to women’s organizations, serve to reinforce and amplify the voices of women in developing countries. Moreover, stand-alone activities allow to try out innovative approaches that focus on overcoming gender bias. Gender mainstreaming by contrast allows to reach scale. In MFA this is on an upward track, though further upgrading needs to be continued.

WEE requires substantial funding. The Netherlands has provided serious funding for gender stand-alone activities over the years. By contrast, gender mainstreaming is too often hindered by the fact that serious gender analysis, planning, implementation, monitoring and learning require extra budget. Budgets for these activities are to be allocated within project budgets.

WEE strategies are complex and non-linear, and need to engage multiple stakeholders from private and public sector as well as civil society, at various levels. Working on WEE has to be adapted to the context, addressing several drivers of WEE as relevant to that context. The framework developed by the UN High Level Panel on WEE (see bullet 2) provides guidance.

This complexity demands gender expertise. Adequate gender expertise has to be assured in project cycles. This need not always be a specialized person. A basic level of gender expertise needs to be expected as a basic competency of all development cooperation staff and implementing partners’ staff. And though complex, WEE is no rocket science. There are ample guidelines and instruction materials available on any driver of WEE and gender in any sector.

Globally there is still a lack of data and proven concepts on WEE. Gender analyses and gender impact assessments that guide WEE project formulation and implementation may present gaps in available data and information. Consultation of the women concerned may reveal important collective knowledge and experience, and is crucial in any project preparation. Their voice in decision-making on the project is essential. Still, activities may have to rely to a certain extent on informed guesses, and trial and error, which may be the only way to make progress on WEE. Therefore, it is important that results and assumptions are closely monitored during implementation, in consultation with the women concerned. These monitoring findings should be used for improving project implementation as well as for general learning on WEE.

Projects should thus contribute to building a body of data and knowledge on WEE. Data and experiences in separate projects should be collected, analyzed and linked to each other. Explicit learning agendas in programs are helpful. Documentation of lessons learned reinforce institutional memory.

Digitalization offers opportunities to overcome a number of gender-related constraints, such as lack of mobility, time, information and control over income. There is still a digital gender gap, although the covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns have given a boost to digital access. Now is the time to build on this progress by systematically exploring the options to overcome WEE hurdles through digital means. (Also see: Interview Mushfiqua Satiar: Covid pushed women in the IT-sector)

Working on diversity and inclusion within WEE partner organizations, such as MFA, companies and NGOs, enhances the chances of success of their participation in WEE activities. There is a positive correlation between organizations’ internal and external gender policies. Commitment of the leadership, and concrete and positive guidance to middle management have proven to be critical success factors.

Enlisting the support of (Dutch) private companies for WEE has not proven easy. Dutch companies are certainly no international frontrunners in this area. Engaging companies on WEE apparently requires a package of services to the individual companies. Such packages are for instance provided in sustainable value chain development and Market Systems Development programs. An organizing entity is needed for developing and implementing such approaches, such as the roles IDH or 2SCALE take on. The commitment of such an organizing entity to WEE is key to successful mainstreaming of WEE programs that engage the private sector in development efforts.

Working on WEE is not without risks for participants. In certain cases, fierce conflicts may arise between stakeholders. Women risk to be the weaker parties, and women who claim or defend their rights may be threatened and even attacked. This is one of the reasons why the women themselves are to be leading in deciding what to tackle in WEE activities. They can best decide for themselves what the risks are and what they are willing to risk. It is also important for MFA to identify risks. It is good practice that MFA protects women’s rights defenders within its possibilities.

Women may need training and capacity building to fully express their voices. To increase effectiveness of WEE activities support to strengthening the capacities of women’s organizations may be required. Strong women’s organizations are more likely to achieve lasting change in women’s positions.

WEE is more successful when men and boys are also engaged. Promoting their commitment to gender equality is key to changing negative stereotypes, social and cultural norms, and harmful attitudes and practices. If well informed, men and boys are likely to support women’s economic activities and respect them for it. If not, women may face resistance and even domestic violence. Furthermore, the hierarchic framing of society has led to an overrepresentation of men in leadership positions. Their awareness and support is essential for changing the gender-discriminative norms and attitudes in society.

And lastly, climate change has become a threatening factor for WEE. Women feel the disproportional impact of climate change on their livelihood options. At the same time, women have the local knowledge for local options for climate adaptation. WEE activities often offer opportunities to include climate change adaptation in their approaches.