What is Women’s Empowerment?
Simplified, it is the actions that result in women being able to own and control property. It is primarily financial, but extends into the areas of body autonomy (the ability to chose what is done with your own body), childcare, education and violence against women because they all directly impact a woman’s ability to work, run a business and/or manage property.
Addressing inequality and Human Rights violations are key to resolving poverty. When inequality is high, poverty goes up; when inequality is low (and equality is high), poverty goes down.
It’s an important economic concept that has been thoroughly examined, discussed and researched by academics and activists all over the world (see references below).
My Own Experience
Since I’m just a poverty survivor and not a world-renowned academic expert in economics (or anything else), allow me to provide a ground-zero perspective from life here in the United States of America.
The examples I have collected show how an individual is kept in poverty or under absolute financial control of another individual. Therefore, it is important to understand that placing one person in a family (or community or collection of humans) under the absolute control of another person contributes to poverty overall.
The most simplistic explanation for this statement is this: If the controlling person is wealthy, the person they control is impoverished because they care unable to own property.
However, these human rights violations continue the cycle of poverty in many other ways. If a woman is unable to make decisions, maintain control over her body or well being, is subjected to violence, or is simply trapped in her home, then she is not contributing her full potential to the household or the community. Also, if something happens to the individual who is controlling all finances, leaving him unable to work, then the entire family becomes homeless.
For the purposes of this answer, I will focus on the effect on the women (specifically). Please understand that there are others who are effected, both directly and indirectly, by these issues.
Image source: Asterisk Gallery: No Moms Allowed: Teen Hangouts Through History
(Note: this is NOT a photo of my mom. Technically, it’s a 1950s photo, but the hairstyles remind me of photos of my mother during her late teens.)
During the late 1970s, my mother told me the story of her first drivers license. She a navy child, so my grandfather was out at sea when it came time to go to the DMV, take the test, and get her license; so, my grandmother took my mother in herself.
The man behind the counter asked one question: “Where’s your father?”
They explained the situation and he flat out refused to allow my mother to get her license without a man present, providing his permission. She was not allowed to drive until my grandfather returned home. You can imagine how infuriating it was for both my mother and my grandmother.
Why this is important
Not being able to drives means being shut out of nearly all forms of employment in the far majority of people in the USA. It also significantly restricts movement and the ability to complete simple daily tasks, like shopping for food and going to the doctor.
Simply making divers licenses available to women (and punishing this sort of discrimination on the part of DMV workers) improves both women’s rights and women (economic) empowerment.
Images Source: NIH: Domestic Violence in the 1970s
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I had a stay-at-home-mom and lived in a house surrounded by houses filled with stay-at-home-moms. Some of the women were literally trapped in their homes without a vehicle or access to public transportation (at that time, it did not exist outside of the city). A few were doubly trapped by an abusive spouse.
Domestic violence was also common. Not just in my little town – everywhere.
This was when the women’s movement was picking up steam and making a lot of progress, but deep social and political change always seem to take an extra 5–10 years to reach the deeply rural areas and the states located in landlocked areas between the coasts. It took a while, but it did, finally, arrive.
Why this is important:
Without realistic options for income, these women were unable to escape violence and abuse against themselves and their children. Without employment they could not escape. Employment was not possible until after they managed to escape. It was an impossible situation.
When domestic violence awareness campaigns reached all corners of the USA, and changes to the laws provided all people of all ages protection from violence and abuse, then large numebrs of women were finally able to achieve both physical and financial freedom.
Image Source: 1985 cover of TIME | Current & Breaking News | National & World Updates
As a teenager in the 1980s I found myself faced with some strange contradictions. There were people who were claiming that women had achieved equality and feminism was dead (sound familiar).
Yet, at the exact same time, many of my classmates were getting pregnant due to many difficult realities. Chief among them were the anti-birth control and anti-abortion sentiments of the local religious and political leaders and the disturbingly common occurrence of date rape.
While the majority of teenage girls simply gave their babies to family members to raise, there was a not-insignificant minority of teenagers who were forced to marry their boyfriend and/or rapist. I listened to more than one story that roughly translated into the following process:
- Boy ‘likes’ girls and wants to control her (permanently).
- Boy rapes girl.
- Boy tells everyone, including girl’s parents, that they had sex and the baby was his. There may not be a baby on the way. This did not appear to matter.
- Girl is now socially tied to boy. Other teens and adults perceive her as ‘his.’
- Boy continues to rape girl until she gets pregnant.
- Boy demands marriage.
- Parents force marriage, while trying to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing.
- Girl is now physically, socially and financially trapped by boy.
This is not a relic of the past – it continues to happen.
Why This is Important:
Body autonomy is about significantly more than ‘wanting to be a parent.’ It’s about physical safety and freedom – literal freedom.
No human being, regardless of age or gender, should be subjected to rape. Laws are in place to protect the victim, but they are difficult to enforce. The circumstances are also frequently complicated, particularly when it’s ‘date rape.’
The ability to prevent a pregnancy under any circumstance is the last line of defense against this particular kind of predator. Therefore, birth control is absolutely necessary in the fight against rape, domestic violence, and women’s inequality.
The ability to raise a child as a single parent, and still pursue a career and/or life goals is something our entire society MUST support, because it provides freedom to girls facing this kind of abuse,
The ability to address everything that goes along with a teen pregnancy, including medical care, without being forced into a marriage, is also absolutely necessary.
Those who have access to these necessities are also provided access to the possibility of a financially independant and reasonably secure future.
Image Source: Huffington Post: Why Anita Hill’s 1991 Testimony Is So Haunting Today
I started working full-time after college. Then I went to grad school, and returned to working full time immediately after. That makes the 1990s the decade of my introduction into the regular workforce. Here are somethings that I heard on a regular basis during that decade (said to me directly and to other women):
- Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.
- You’re young and married. You’ll be having babies soon. We don’t expect you to stick around.
- We need someone to take notes. [Name of only female in room], you can be the secretary for the meeting.
- The best job [a woman] can get is secretary (nurse, teacher, [other stereotypically female position]).
- You should wear clothes that are tighter (more revealing, more fashionable, etc.). If you want to get ahead, you have to learn to work it. Don’t you want to succeed?
I could go on but you get the idea.
While all of these things were frustrating, uncomfortable and occasionally infuriating; none of them were perceived as harassment. In fact, the possibility of harassment didn’t come up until the Anita Hill hearings brought the topic into the TV sets and living rooms of every American with access to standard news channels. Even then, the focus was on extreme examples of sexual harassment.
Therefore, I will put aside the general atmosphere that was prevalent a few decades ago, and focus on the one specific comment that had real and far-reaching consequences for every working woman in the USA:
- Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.
This is just one of the many excuses/responses to questions about pay disparity that I, personally, encountered. Attempts to pursue this line of inquiry, or negotiate for a simple pay raise, were usually (invariably?) met with threats (direct or implied) of dismissal.
(Note: Reason it’s important will be explored in 2000s)
2000 to Present
Image Source: Equal Pay For Equal Work (Also see: Equal pay for equal work – Wikipedia)
While being held back in the pay-scale during my 20s was frustrating, I didn’t realize just how important it was until many years later. The problem is this:
- New employers base their pay-level offering on the amount of money previous employers have already paid you.
Requesting pay history and verifying the amount former employers paid is standard background check process. These are also standard discussion points during the interview process.
When it comes time to talk salary, it’s ALLWAYS based on information the new employer has on what previous employers paid. If you made $30,000 doing the same (or similar) work at your last company, why would the new company pay you significantly more? The fact that the men in the company are getting $90,000 during their first year, is irrelevant.
Bottom line: Your price has been set.
Why this is important:
Women consistently making 70% of the salary earned by men (across all professions) has serious implications for total household income. It reduces a woman’s ability to sustain herself and her children without a roommate or a husband. It significantly reduces her ability to find a job that pays a living wage, if she happens to be an unskilled worker.
However, it also has wider implications that directly affect men. The existence of wage disparity establishes a process by which some people are financially discriminated against. This process can be…and often is…applied to any group of people, as the company sees fit.
This isn’t about finding the best candidate or paying for a stronger skill set. Wage disparity is the act of paying significantly different wages to people who are doing the exact same work.
This perpetuates poverty by systematically restricting select groups of people from accessing key resources.
What the Academics Have Said
There are many highly respected academics and activists who have been saying poverty is reduced when women are economically empowered for a long long time. Here are a few examples of published academic papers that illustrate this fact:
- UN: Gender and Poverty Reduction
- World Bank: How Empowering Women Can Help End Poverty in Africa
- UN Univ: Female Empowerment and Extreme Poverty Reduction
- World Bank: Empowerment and Poverty Reduction
- UN Women: Women’s Empowerment Principles
For an excellent speech on the effects of violence (specifically) and unenforced laws (in general) on poverty, please watch this TED talk:
Ted Talk (YouTube.com) Gary Haugen: The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now
Originally posted in response to How powerful is female empowerment in resolving world poverty? on Quora.