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The business of women’s economic empowerment

13 October, 2023

When global crises pile on top of each other, gender equality is often one of the first things to be sidelined, recognised by policymakers as something important but not urgent among so many other pressing problems. But as Melinda French Gates argues this week in an Op-Ed in the Economist, gender equality, in particular women’s economic empowerment, is a vital part of the solution to the challenges we face, with a clear correlation between women’s economic agency and poverty reduction.

In her article, French Gates notes the tension between women in emerging economies’ dependence on starting a business as a prime way of earning an income, and the numerous barriers – from lack of access to startup capital, high interest rates, their lack of credit histories and gender discrimination in credit decisions – that make doing so incredibly difficult.

But she also references how governments are beginning to find ways to address these challenges. For example, in India The National Rural Livelihoods Mission provides affordable credit to women who are part of informal savings and loan groups, an initiative which is being explored in some of Africa’s economies. Investing in digital public infrastructure (DPI), such as digital banking, gives women safe spaces to save, and crucially transfers the control over how money is spent from the male head of a household to the woman, positively shifting gender norms more broadly.

Beyond access to finance, women’s economic empowerment is also affected by factors which limit their productivity and ability to work, including – but not limited to – other gender norms. Poor access to contraception and the disproportionate amount of time that women spend caregiving limits women’s decision-making agency at home and hinders their ability to realise their own economic goals, forcing them to make compromises such as reducing work hours or bringing children to work.

This should be the spur for businesses to consider their part in delivering gender equality, which is the focus of Sustainable Development Goal 5, and to make sure that the economic empowerment of women does not get lost among other competing priorities. When women do better, everyone does better.

By Rosie Serlin

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