Empowering women economically key to sustainable, inclusive development

Integrating Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) into MDF’s approach

Rice women farmers timor

Women planting rice in Timor-Leste. 43% of all agricultural roles globally are carried out by women

By James Maiden

MDF recently published a new strategic guidance note about integrating Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) into the MDF approach. It focuses on using WEE as a pathway to improving gender equality – one of the overarching and cross-cutting goals for MDF.

“We are trying to aim for a fair and equal society where men and a women have equal rights and equal access, but there is a very economic reason as well,” said Vicky Carter, MDF Results Measurement Manager and one of the authors of the paper.

MDF is integrating this framework across the board in diverse sectors from leather in Pakistan, to manufacturing in Timor-Leste, to tourism in Fiji, and agriculture across all the countries it works including Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

“Women are such big parts of our economies but we completely undersell and underrate what they do. This means many roles in the sectors we work in remain hidden and are not being undertaken very well or very efficiently.”

“Roles that could be improved for women and could make our sectors work better just end up staying in these stagnant old-fashioned ways of doing things,” she said.

It is widely known that high economic involvement of women leads to stronger, more sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

On the one hand, this can be done by improving women’s leadership and managerial roles. But on the other, it doesn’t help the large numbers of women in non-leadership functions. In agriculture, for example, women make up 43% of the workforce in developing countries in supportive roles and are vital to their economies. This work and its contributions are less visible and less recognised. Helping these women in their support roles is also crucially important.

MDF, which works to stimulate growth through the private sector is striving to create opportunities for WEE in women-led activities such as in tourism and garments, as well as women owned businesses.

It is also importantly striving to create opportunities for women in the less visible support roles in agricultural sectors, such as planting, maintaining and harvesting crops, post-harvest preparation, tending livestock, and irrigation among others.

Because of the lower visibility of this type of work, women’s roles are often not upgraded over time, such as through technology improvements or in the provision of critical information on improved farming methods.

“In agricultural sectors women are hugely involved and it is vital that we improve those roles and make those sectors more efficient and all round more productive and more economically viable,” said Vicky Carter.

MDF follows international best practices by using five “domains” in its WEE framework to define how its programmes can and should advance WEE and the areas they need to explore when analysing the economy, designing a partnership and analysing results from a partnership.

The first domain and overall objective is economic advancement, which relates to improving women’s income, access to finance and financial support.

The next two domains involve strengthening women’s agency and include decision-making authority and influence such as finances and trade relations, and manageable workloads for women.

The final two domains involve improving women’s access including access to opportunities and life chances such as skills development or job openings, and access to assets, services and needed supports to advance economically.

In Pakistan, a country that ranks second bottom of the Global Gender Gap Index, MDF is working in the leather sector, for example, to improve the job opportunities for women working as stitchers.

Here women may be working for the first time, so this helps them to enter the workplace and to build up their skills. Not only are they receiving their own income streams for the first time, they are building workplace connections, and building relationships they might not have had before.

New and improved jobs for women are also being provided through several partnerships in the tourism sectors in Fiji and Timor-Leste. At the Balibo Fort Hotel in Timor-Leste, the majority of staff employed and trained from the surrounding villages are women, and the hotels manager, Luisa is a key example of a WEE success story.

“Giving women the opportunity to work and earn their own income can really have a deep impact on their decision making and influence,” said Vicky Carter.

But even increasing incomes of women who work as unpaid family labour can improve their economic empowerment. Ms Carter recalled a sugarcane farmer in Fiji who by using aglime (a product to address soil acidity) from one of MDF’s partners to improve the soil on her farm and increase yields had generated additional income. As a family they had prioritised investing in a washing machine – slashing the time she spent per week washing her families clothes.

“Either directly through our activities we can make a change, or purely by having additional income in the household it enables women to make some kind of change that secondarily improves their agency or other access areas as well,” she said.

But one of the challenges of WEE is that there are so many different social dimensions beyond just the economics – many of which are intangible and unseen. There are hidden forces that are often very difficult in a short period of time to change because they may be intergenerational and require a whole, large shift in thinking.

“We can’t define the success of what we do with WEE purely as how much scale we reach,” said Vicky Carter. “Often little sparks of change are very significant.”

To read the full strategic guidance note “Women’s Economic Empowerment: How women contribute to and benefit from growth” click here.

Vicky Carter is the Results Measurement Manager for MDF

James Maiden is the Communications Manager for MDF