Prior to joining the staff of PRB, I spent two years in Senegal working with the nongovernmental organization, Tostan, on issues of education, health, governance, economic growth, and the environment. I was quickly convinced that women’s economic empowerment was central to empowering African communities. Most convincing was meeting Ramata Sow, a young woman with a small business in a village outside of Kaolack. Before age 18, Ramata started a shop in her village selling food, candy, and other basic supplies. Her confidence in managing her shop and the freedom her income gave her to make decisions about her life demonstrated the importance of economic empowerment for women worldwide.

Beyond my personal experience, women’s economic empowerment is becoming increasingly recognized as a crucial component of international development, critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030. Policymakers and donors are eager to learn about the most effective strategies for improving women’s economic empowerment and the impact this has on development. Given this heightened interest, understanding whether other investments can lead to improvements in women’s economic empowerment is important.  Can health sector investments, particularly reproductive health, be an effective strategy for improving women’s economic empowerment?

This is the subject of recently published report, “The Effect of Reproductive Health Improvements on Women’s Economic Empowerment,” by Marlene Lee of PRB and Jocelyn Finlay of the Department of Global Health, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Based on rigorous causal analysis undertaken as part of the Population and Poverty(PopPov) Research Initiative, the report focuses on the effect of improvements in reproductive health on women’s economic empowerment.

The research described in the report finds that improvements in reproductive health do indeed improve women’s economic empowerment—that is, a woman’s opportunity to improve her economic condition and capacity to make independent financial decisions. Research shows that reproductive health has the following positive impacts:

  • Increasing the prevalence of contraceptive use leads to gains in women’s labor force participation, agency, and education.
  • Increasing the average age of first birth improves rates of school completion and women’s participation in the workforce.
  •  Having fewer children and increasing spacing between births increases women’s participation in the workforce.

However, the relationship between increasing access to reproductive health and improving women’s economic empowerment isn’t always straightforward. The report questions the use of workforce participation as an indicator of women’s economic empowerment, given that women are forced to work out of necessity, and not by choice, in many cases. Women with more children tend to work more, often simply to meet the needs of their families. Unfortunately, more work hours do not clearly translate to increased economic empowerment.

Other findings cast doubt upon the assumption that making contraceptives less expensive is enough to meet women’s unmet need for contraception and increase contraceptive use. The report documents that lack of transportation, provider attitudes, and availability of a range of family planning methods are bigger barriers to contraceptive use than the cost of the contraceptive itself. I saw this myself in Senegal when I heard stories of women going to the local health clinic for family planning only to realize that the clinic was faced with stock outs and had a limited range of methods available. Also, women in traditional societies who postpone marriage and delay childbearing thanks to access to contraception, increased agency, and an understanding of the reproductive health and economic benefits that these choices can bring, can feel less empowered as they have fewer opportunities to marry and face stigma from family, friends, and community members for not following social norms. For these women, the question becomes: Can you truly empower women if you don’t change norms and attitudes in their communities and families?

Key recommendations for policymakers and advocates include:

  • Address the unmet need for family planning through increased access to and improved quality of family planning services.
  • Address barriers to the uptake of contraceptives other than cost, including transportation and availability.
  •  Consider the impact that cultural norms may have in minimizing the positive effects of improvements in reproductive health on economic empowerment.

Leaders across the world can use this information in their efforts to empower women and make progress towards the SDGs. Goal 5, which centers on women’s empowerment and gender equality, is particularly relevant and includes targets on health and human rights. While gaps remain in our knowledge base, this report can inform policy and advocacy efforts to achieve these targets and create an environment that empowers women across the globe. My ultimate hope is for stories of empowered women like Ramata Sow to become commonplace in Senegal and worldwide. Only then can we get closer to ensuring that every girl entering adulthood will be able to realize her full economic empowerment.