Claiming your rights takes money in the bank: Why women's economic empowerment is a crucial step to women's rights

by 27th Jun 2014
A female road maintenance worker in Pakistan counting her salary during a cash distribution at a mobile service vehicle of Tameer Bank A female road maintenance worker in Pakistan counting her salary during a cash distribution at a mobile service vehicle of Tameer Bank © CARE/Wolfgang Gressman

A researcher working for CARE International sent me an expert survey. The questions began, “What is your definition of women’s economic empowerment?” I thought long and hard. I finally answered: An economically empowered woman is one who can leave home if she has to.

Many people probably answered that economic empowerment is about being able to educate children, feed families, or invest in communities – all those things we hope women will do with their money once they have it. They will do those things, I am sure. However, the question of empowerment should look first to what economic engagement does for the woman herself: does it help her get an education or realise a dream?

Personal sovereignty

These aspirational things are important. But at the most basic level, economic empowerment is about having personal sovereignty. It means not having to stay where you are unsafe or treated cruelly because you don’t have the means to take care of yourself.

We are learning that a primary condition of economic empowerment – and therefore personal sovereignty – is being able to have and to control your own money. These are definitely two separate things. Too many times in field work, we see women who can’t leave abusive environments, whether they work or not, because their family members (usually, but not always male) take their money away.

Power and control

This is such a common problem that many employers and governments are now looking to find ways to help women control their funds, to put a practical, secure step between their earnings and the grasping, sometimes violent, intimate.

One of the most vivid illustrations I ever saw of the need for such services was a factory in Sri Lanka, where the management watched with dismay as operatives walked to the gate on payday where a crowd of men demanded their paychecks. The company finally put an ATM in the shop so that women might have more success keeping their own earnings.

Claiming rights

We know now that the likelihood of that cash being put to the best ends (education, nutrition, and so on, especially for children) is substantially increased if the woman can keep that money under her own control. It’s not enough for them just to earn the money. Access to the financial system plays an important function in the push for women’s freedoms.

There are many countries around the world where women have rights they cannot claim because they do not have the means to leave the village, to secure outside help, or in any way enforce what is legally theirs, whether it is safety or property. There comes a point where we must realise that legal rights are paper fictions that only become meaningful if those who hold them can claim them. That often takes money – and access to financial services.

Sign the petition

Based on the premise that access to the financial system is an important means for securing women’s rights, as well as their well-being and ability to help children and communities, a petition has been launched calling for women’s financial inclusion to be included in the new Sustainable Development Goals framework. Please sign the petition on and help secure economic autonomy – and with it better access to rights – for women all over the world.

This blog was first published on the Double X Economy website.

Linda Scott

Linda Scott is Emeritus DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation,  University of Oxford. She works with companies, NGOs, and governments on global programmes to help women economically. Her partners and funders have included the World Bank, CARE International, the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, UNICEF, Oxfam, and the Department for International Development (UK), as well as more than a dozen multinational corporations.

Chosen as one of the top 25 World Thinkers of 2015 by the UK’s Prospect magazine for her leadership on women’s economic empowerment, Scott writes a blog called The Double X Economy and curates an annual symposium, The Power Shift Forum for Women in the World Economy. Scott’s vision of the Double X Economy was featured on the Financial Times’ ‘Thinking Big’ series and has been covered by The Economist, BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other world media. Scott has blogged for the World Economic Forum, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Harvard Business Review, and Forbes.