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Itad’s 4 top takeaways from the SEEP Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum

Mollie Liesner blogs on her top 4 takeaways from the SEEP Women's Economic Empowerment Forum in Bangkok.

Did you know that there are more CEOs in Australia called John than there are CEOs that are women? And that in 95% of economies in Sub-Saharan Africa there is at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities? These laws include everything from restrictions on married women opening bank accounts, to signing contracts and travelling outside the home.

There are barriers to women’s economic empowerment in all parts of the world; both developed and developing countries. Last week the SEEP team brought together leading stakeholders working towards Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) to facilitate dialogue, build learning connections, and promote policies and practices which address these inequalities all around the world.

So, what were the hot topics and key developments that everyone was talking about at the forum? Here are my four most interesting takeaways from the week:

  1. Social norms present some of the toughest barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Presenters including Oxfam, Banyan Global, and CARE all shared experience from their programmes where norms around women’s roles in the household, their bargaining power, social status, and mobility prevent transformational change for women. Referring to harmful cultural norms, Naila Kabeer commented in her opening key note that ‘the failure to factor in (these) non-economic constraints means that programmes may fail’. The feedback from practitioners is that whilst most WEE programmes are ‘norms aware’ – they seek to circumvent norms through workarounds – there is still work to do in making programmes ‘norms transformative’, which would entail directly addressing harmful social norms. More work needs to be done to integrate this thinking into financial inclusion programmes in particular, and more guidance is needed on how to measure changes in social norms. As monitoring, evaluation and learning specialists, this is where Itad can play a role, drawing on our experience from social norms programmes such as Voices for Change (V4C).
  2. Women are not a homogenous group. This was a recurring criticism of WEE programme design across the board at the conference. There was a common recognition that more needs to be done to recognise how different groups of women have different needs and face varying barriers. Best practice for WEE programmes needs to include an understanding of these differences across ethnicity, religion, age, marital status, and education. The UNCDF’s new Participation of Women in the Economy Realized (PoWER) initiative presented a great example of how these nuances can be integrated into an analytical framework.
  3. There is room to be more ambitious with our definition of empowerment. There still needs to be more clarity on what we mean by economic empowerment, and we need to be more ambitious than simply aspiring to increase the economic resources women have access and control over. Naila Kabeer gave a fantastic talk arguing that this limited understanding of empowerment is a ‘truncated understanding of the challenge of change’, and that we need to go beyond this and aim to increase women’s voice, confidence, safety and role within communities. A good example of this came from Sonia Jordan’s presentation on how ELAN RDC is going beyond increasing women’s access and agency, to aspiring towards genuine and transformational changes to women’s roles within value chains.
  4. The legal side of things really matters. To improve WEE, we need to address the laws that treat men and women differently in ways that affect women’s economic opportunities. The World Bank presented its 2016 Women, Business and the Law report, which found that only 18 economies in the world, including Namibia and South Africa, have no legal barriers to women’s economic opportunities. Itad manages the cross-DFID lesson learning workstream of TheBusiness Environment Reform Facility (BERF) programme and recently worked on this research showing that the strongest evidence that business environment reform improves women’s economic empowerment are in land titles and labour laws.

These issues all pose complex questions, and there is a lot of work to be done to find answers, but the biggest strength of the conference was how it inspired and rejuvenated attendees. It was invigorating meeting people from all over the world and hearing about the exciting advances being made to increase WEE. So, lots of work to do, but lots of energy to do it!