Making the Economic Case for Women’s Empowerment

The Center for American Progress (CAP) held an event on International Women’s Day this past Tuesday featuring speakers in the international development sector who discussed their work in relation to the topic “Strategies for Women’s Economic Empowerment.”

The keynote speaker was Ambassador Deborah L. Birx, MD, current US Global AIDS Coordinator, and US Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy. Birx described her work at PEPFAR (the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) in reduction of HIV/AIDS infections—a disease that affects 28-29 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa (70 percent of the world’s total number of HIV infections).

Birx’s keynote address was followed by a panel session featuring Akanksha Hazari, social entrepreneur and founder of Indian mobile tech company m.Paani; Hajime Takeuchi, chief USA representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA); Chris Jochnick, CEO of the NGO Landesa and former director at Oxfam America; and was moderated by CAP senior fellow Molly Elgin-Cossart. Speakers talked about their inspirations, approaches, and challenges to programmatic work as well as the progress that’s been made.

Five key overlapping themes can be extracted from their experiences:

1. Make Data Actionable and Visible – Targets Matter

Ambassador Birx emphasized the data-driven approach embedded in PEPFAR’s work. Though previous efforts provided antiretroviral therapy to mothers and young children successfully reduced pediatric infection by 65 percent, the increased survival rate resulted in an increased population of adolescent girls—who are the most at-risk population for HIV/AIDS—for whom there was no targeted AIDS program. Additionally, despite the drop in incidence rate, the number of new infections was still an alarming 2.5 million per year, revealing that new programmatic solutions must be developed in support of the girl child, and inspiring the new target of reducing new infections to 200,000 per year.

Birx also stressed the importance of data collection from site-level upwards to avoid the “tyranny of averages” and avoid obscuring innovation and process improvements happening on the ground that can be scaled up.

Multiple panelists confirmed the importance of age and gender disaggregation in data collection to ensure that programs evolve generationally and that country-level data doesn’t skew towards reflecting male outcomes.

2. Women’s Economic Empowerment Goals Require Holistic and Multi-Pronged Approaches (that Solve More than One Problem)

In a complex world, women’s economic empowerment can be one goal pursued on the path to solving another or attacked from many different angles, with the synergy from multiple efforts scaling up positive outcomes.

PEPFAR recently announced the DREAMS partnership, which combats HIV/AIDS beyond standard public health approaches by addressing other social ills affecting adolescent girls and young women that often make them vulnerable to contraction of HIV/AIDS.

By targeting factors like cultural gender biases, school drop-out, economic disadvantage, and gender-based violence, PEPFAR is able to support more than one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals the UN has set for 2030. “A 40 percent decline [in HIV/AIDS infections] requires the whole of a community, whole of a family, and whole of a school system that values young women and keeps them safe,” said Birx.

Social entrepreneurship can also support women’s economic empowerment. Akanksha Hazari’s company m.Paani serves rural Indian communities by offering reward points for the purchase of consumer goods like groceries and toiletries. The reward points can then be spent on additional household goods. In the hands of women, Hazari has seen the most impact at the family level, with women spending rewards points on books and school supplies for the children or on water filters for their homes.

Landesa, as Chris Jochnick explains, is a nonprofit that works to increase female land ownership. While such ownership has been correlated with better crop choices on agricultural land, decreased domestic violence, and better outcomes for families, women ownership is often thwarted by discriminatory policies such as land inheritance rights or cultural and community level discrimination. Influencing countries to change their policies, or even encouraging local governments to have women sign the land registry form (or add two lines on the form so both a male and female head of household can sign), Landesa can improve women’s status and self-determination.

3. Gender Equality and Empowerment Must Be Reflected Within Our Own Organizations

Hajime Takeuchi remembers a time when none of the managers at JICA were women, while most of the supporting staff were. Even today, Japanese women feel pressured to choose between their career or marriage, with a common saying that “marriage is retirement.” However, in 2002 JICA set up guidelines for dealing with gender-related issues and after Japanese Prime Minister Shinz­o Abe spoke at the UN General Assembly in 2014 about the importance of women in the workforce, Takeuchi says 30 percent of professional staff are now female—with one female vice president appointed last year.

JICA also integrates gender measures in its evaluation of programs to finance and support. In addition to increasing programs that directly target women and impact women’s status in society, all projects are evaluated for gender diversity on the team and whether women are provided with proper opportunities to give input and work on programs.

4. Woman-Centered Design Is a Necessary Part of the Process

For product and service-based interventions, design must be focused on what is appealing and accessible to women. For Hazari, this means m.Paani beta tests their products and apps with women of all ages and demographics from housewives to working women to determine how they discover products, how their tech literacy and language literacy levels vary, and even what color schemes and hooks to use to engage women. Women-centered design ensures that solutions have maximum impact: though m.Paani chooses to offer its solution through mobile technology because technology adoption is ongoing in rural India, one of the major challenges is that many women don’t yet own their own cell phones or know how to use one.

5. The Economic Argument for Gender Equality Is Undeniable and Persuasive

By focusing on women’s economic empowerment, these activists hope to change the conversation on gender equality. When I asked how we can scale up or unite these distributed efforts to alleviate the position of women around the world, Jochnick offered a practical perspective and suggests activists may not be fully taking advantage of the “low-hanging fruit.” In many countries, the economic and business argument (or “appeal to self-interest”) for gender equality hasn’t been made, even though it may be more convincing than the legal or moral argument. If a bank is systematically discriminating against women by offering loans at higher interest rates (which leads women to turn elsewhere for the financial resources they need), it’s forgoing an opportunity to increase its revenue. Elgin-Cossart cited a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute Report that finds advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025.

Along the same lines, Takeuchi recognized that with a declining population, it is in Japan’s best interest to incentivize women to get jobs, being the quickest and easiest way of increasing the workforce.

“Every day, millions of women and girls are denied basic human rights and opportunities,” concluded Carmel Martin, executive vice president of policy at CAP. She continued:

They’re kept out of classrooms and boardrooms, they face sexual violence and exploitation, they lack access to fair wages, good jobs, and quality healthcare. Gender inequality is one of the greatest injustices of our time—but it isn’t just a moral issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a national security issue. Economics are stronger, countries are safer, and our world is more sustainable when women are empowered to meet their full potential.

Recording of the session can be found here.