Women’s access to employment, business opportunities,
and financial resources are widely seen as critical to achieving
the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
over the next 15 years. With increased attention to women’s
economic empowerment among donors and policymakers
across the globe, we are at a pivotal moment for reviewing
the current state of the research on women’s economic
empowerment to identify gaps.
This report reviews the Population and Poverty (PopPov)
Research Network’s most rigorous results from the past
10 years with attention to the effect of reproductive health
improvements on women’s economic empowerment.
We also draw on results generated outside the network
over the same time period, provided that they address this
causal relationship and use rigorous statistical methods.
As an initial step, the report reviews the evolving definition
of women’s empowerment, drawing in particular on the
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) definition
of economic empowerment. This definition is particularly
relevant to the Population and Poverty (PopPov) Research Initiative objectives:
"A woman is economically empowered when she has
(1) the ability to succeed and advance economically, and
(2) the power to make and act on economic decisions.”1
Consistent with this definition, the organization also
proposes specific measures of economic empowerment at
the individual, household, and community levels, which are
present in PopPov and other research on women’s economic
empowerment. ICRW separates the measurement instruments
for women’s economic empowerment into three categories:
reach and process indicators (participation); economic
advancement indicators (skills, income, work environment);
and power and agency indicators (decisionmaking, autonomy,
self-confidence).2 ICRW also suggests a range of survey
questions at the individual, community, and national levels to
collect the necessary data.
Our review of findings revealed:
- Improvements in reproductive health do lead to
improvements in women’s economic empowerment.
- Expanding contraceptive use improves women’s
agency, education, and labor force participation.
- Higher maternal age at first birth (reducing adolescent
childbearing) increases the likelihood of school
completion and participation in the formal labor market.
- Longer birth intervals increase labor market
participation, as does having fewer children.
Gaps remain, however, in measuring women’s work and in the
full exploration of women’s economic empowerment. Despite these gaps, several specific findings already suggest
directions for policy action to increase women’s economic
- Increase access to and use of contraceptives
and quality family planning services. Unmet need
for family planning and low contraceptive use in many
(African) countries keep women from achieving their
desired family size and also limit women’s economic
- Expose the colonial roots of restrictive laws that
institutionalize incentives for low contraceptive
use, increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancies.
In Africa, the colonial legacy of the stricter laws
in French colonies governing contraceptives, as
compared to British colonies, resonates today in
lower contraceptive use and higher fertility despite
liberalizations in the laws since independence in
- Attack barriers to contraceptive uptake other
than cost. In the developing-country context, the cost
of contraception is not a major barrier to uptake of
contraception.3 Family planning policies that address
other barriers to uptake, such as availability or cost
of transportation, are more effective in increasing
contraceptive use. Many of these costs that impede
uptake must be overcome even before individuals
consider the price of contraceptives.
- Provide information services and couples
communication training to promote agency for
women and couples. Most measures of empowerment
include considerations of employment and agency. For
this reason, informed decisionmaking (one measure of
agency) is a key component of economic empowerment;
the measure of work in itself does not signal empowerment.
Women may work because they are forced to, and some
may not work because they choose not to. In the sub-
Saharan African context, an additional child means that
a woman is 6 percent less likely to work, and that impact
is particularly strong for older, educated women. This
finding suggests that women who are likely more informed
by experience and education choose not to work. But it
is unclear whether these women have information about
family planning and if they have the power to influence
men’s fertility preferences. This finding, in conjunction with
results on household decisionmaking, calls into question
the use of labor force participation as a measure of female
economic empowerment. It also raises the issue of
whether a composite measure of empowerment is needed.
Informed women who decide to have more children and to
work more have agency and economic participation.
- Consider how cultural norms mitigate positive effects.
For individuals who move against cultural norms such as
early marriage, the long-term outcomes can have a negative
effect on their overall empowerment. Also, in contexts where
contraceptive use has not been accepted as the norm, all
women do not benefit equally from their use.
Marlene Lee is program director in International Programs at
PRB. Jocelyn Finlay is a research scientist in the Department
of Global Health and Population of the Harvard T. H. Chan
School of Public Health.
- William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,Women’s Economic Empowerment
Strategy (Menlo Park, CA: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2015).
- Anne Marie Golla et al., Understanding and Measuring Women’s
Economic Empowerment: Definition, Framework, and Indicators
(Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women (ICRW),
- Mahesh Karra, presentation made at World Health Organization (WHO)
Technical Meeting, Financing Family Planning, Washington, DC, 2014.