Women's Economic Empowerment and the Global Goals for Sustainable Development

What is women’s economic empowerment?

The term women’s economic empowerment is generally used to describe an increase in women’s economic opportunities and participation in economic activity (usually through paid work), and improvements in women’s agency and control over economic resources and decision making. A complete picture of women’s economic empowerment needs to consider not just the market economy, where women participate in the labour market, but also the care economy, which sustains and nurtures the market economy.

It is important to conceptualise women’s economic empowerment therefore as not an increase in labour force participation of women, but instead an increase in decent paid work that empowers women, as well as provides support for their unpaid care work responsibilities. This can lead to:

  • Optimisation of women’s economic participation, by enabling them to work without deepening their time poverty, or them worrying about the amount and quality of care their families were receiving. This in turn will help make it possible for them to choose better-paid and more empowering types of work (access to work and conditions at work place), rather than being forced into low-paid ‘flexible’ work.
  • Sharing of the gains of women’s economic empowerment across all females in the family, so that younger girls and older women are not left to carry the burden and disempowered as a result; and that economic benefits are not eroded because of the cost of substitute care. 
  • Sustaining the gains of women’s economic empowerment across generations, by ensuring that childcare arrangements do not deteriorate but rather improve, as a result of their mothers’ paid work.

Women’s economic empowerment and the Global Goals for Sustainable Development

On 1January 2016, the 17 new Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) came into force. Each goal has a series of specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. Several of the goals are relevant for the area of women’s economic empowerment.

Goal 1 pledges to end poverty in all its forms, everywhere. This goal has a number of targets, including:

  • By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.
  • Create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

Goal 5 pledges to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Its targets include:

  • Recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.
  • Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.

Goal 8 pledges to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Included in its targets are:

  • Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro, small and medium sized enterprises, including through access to financial services.
  • By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.
  • Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment.

Goal 10 pledges to reduce inequalities within and among countries. Its targets include:

  • By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.
  • By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status
  • Ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard.
  • Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality.

What are the gaps, opportunities and challenges around the SDGs and women’s economic empowerment?

The SDGs present a range of positive opportunities for the inclusion and recognition of women’s economic empowerment into the development agenda for the next 15 years. Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, Research Fellow at IDS, commented that “the new framework is very ambitious with 17 goals, 169 targets and 100 proposed indicators, but the existence of targets on recognising unpaid care and domestic work (Goal 5.4), as well as on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls (5.2) – two areas that were absent from the MDGs, but are quite crucial for women’s economic empowerment, are welcomed. Particularly with unpaid care work, its inclusion suggests the possibility that it will become more visible in public policy spaces. This could mean a recognition of women’s unpaid care work in the design and implementation of women’s economic empowerment programmes and policies.”

The broad global coverage of the SDGs, especially when compared to their predecessors, the Millennium Development goals (MDGs), is another positive feature. As Nesbitt-Ahmed noted, “I would also add the fact that these are global goals that all countries must adhere to is an added bonus; as well as the fact that the goals to some extent are interwoven - and so would need to work together to ensure they reach their targets.”

However, when taken as a whole, there are some gaps in the goals’ coverage when it comes to ensuring that the different needs of women, men, girls and boys are recognised and accounted for. IDS Research Fellow Deepta Chopra pointed out that “the inclusion of the clause of ‘nationally appropriate’ sharing of responsibilities within the household (Goal 5) leaves open the risk of countries hiding behind dominant patriarchal norms rather than putting in place measures for behaviour change for men to take on any care responsibilities”. She also argued that “there is a lack of importance given to the redistribution of care responsibilities from the household to the state, which needs to be brought into the indicators being currently developed, in order to ensure the adequate implementation of this target”.

Nesbitt-Ahmed argued that “there is definitely a need for Goal 5 (and all goals in fact) to be viewed with an intersectional lens, as women and girls are not homogeneous, and so will have different experiences, and this needs to be accounted for. So a greater understanding around how different forms of inequality interact is essential.”

Indicators to measure progress on the global goals are currently being developed. On 30 March 2016 the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) will meet to continue this process. A list of proposed indicators can be found here.

When thinking about the proposed indicators relevant to women’s economic empowerment, Nesbitt-Ahmed commented that “the state’s role in ensuring quality and accessible public service provision seems to be largely absent in the proposed indicators for Goal 5.4 (for example, the percentage of eligible population covered by national social protection programmes; and the average number of hours spent on paid and unpaid work combined). Greater emphasis also needs to be placed on redistributing care responsibilities from women and girls to also include men and boys.”

In January 2016, a High Level Panel on Women's Economic Empowerment was announced by the UN. One of the aims of the panel is to provide specific recommendations for the implementation of SDGs 5 and 8. The panel will hold its first meeting during the 60th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2016. Find out more here