Women’s economic empowerment: balancing rights with responsibilities

Efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment must address women's economic rights and their economic responsibilities

It is a triumph of gender activism that women’s economic empowerment has won increasing recognition as an issue of human rights. As more and more women join the ranks of entrepreneurship, they are poised to make a real difference, not just to our economies but to the very essence of our societies. For that to happen, they must be empowered to balance their economic rights with their economic responsibilities. Efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment must address both sides of the equation.

Research shows that social entrepreneurship is a top business interest for women worldwide. While men still make up the majority of the world’s social entrepreneurs, the gender gap in this field is significantly smaller compared with commercial counterparts. Studies also show that male entrepreneurs are more likely to focus solely on making a profit, while women are more likely to emphasise social goals and values. The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women empowers women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies and our experience confirms this trend, as many of the women entrepreneurs we support run businesses which seek to generate social impact as well as financial security.

One of these women is Nonkululeko, a South African mentee in our Mentoring Women in Business Programme. She founded a non-profit enterprise which assists young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education. Another mentee, Sofia, runs a business which supports Mexican artisans to supply their goods to the tourist industry, while other women entrepreneurs in our programmes operate enterprises which tackle a range of social issues like violence against women, environmental sustainability and unemployment.

Social justice is a crucial motivator for many of the women entrepreneurs we support. Take Comfort in Ghana, for example. Comfort saw an opportunity to support women who gather and process shea nuts – strenuous work which is often poorly paid. To help support these women and give them fair wages, Comfort started her own shop selling shea products. Today her company works with over 300 shea producers across the country, including a number of women-led cooperatives, and over 5,000 shea nut pickers.

It is encouraging that many women entrepreneurs develop business models which not only meet their own needs but also generate some kind of social impact and, in many cases, actively advance gender equality. But we cannot assume that women will naturally choose to employ responsible business practices, or that they will have access to the tools and skills needed to do so. Projects that seek to promote women’s economic empowerment must therefore support women to both realise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.

Capacity building programmes for women, for example, could incorporate training on the importance of practices such as purchasing goods from ethical supply chains and implementing policies around safe working conditions, fair pay and maternity leave. This is particularly pertinent given that women-owned businesses are often concentrated in sectors like retail and services, where exploitation of cheap female labour in supply chains is prevalent.

Projects that focus on women’s economic empowerment could also implement measures which create a ripple effect. Send a Cow, for example, encourages its beneficiaries to give their first female calf to another family, in order to multiply the impact of its work. Our own Mentoring Women in Business Programme encourages women to pass on the skills and knowledge they gain during their time as a mentee; a recent evaluation showed that 80% of women shared what they had learned with others in their communities, with 50% going on to mentor others.

Policy-makers, activists and economists alike are quick to champion the economic rationale for women’s empowerment, citing compelling evidence which shows that closing the gender gap in economic activity will dramatically inflate GDP. But economic growth should not be the bottom line. Profitable businesses are not necessarily ethical businesses.

Empowering women to run businesses which are both financially successful and socially responsible will offer an even more powerful return on investment. Instead of lifting individual women or families out of poverty this strategy would help to forge a more equitable labour market for all.

Photo: Sofia (pictured right), is the founder of Mexikatekatl, which supports Mexican artisans to supply their products to the tourist industry. Photo by Rodrigo Cruz.
This blog was originally published by the Oxfam Policy and Practice Blog on 31st August. It is reprinted here with their kind permission.