International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on how much progress has been made globally for women, and to commit to deepening our efforts where women still lag behind men. One of the most important areas of focus is women’s economic empowerment. Equitable societies with high quality of life driven by collaborative and inclusive economic development strategies are within our reach. But not without intentional investments in women’s economic empowerment.
Fragile, conflict-affected, and violent states undermine economic development. The growing number of conflicts around the world creates unpredictable and unfavorable market conditions. Economic growth requires stability, and the instability associated with uncertain political environments reduces the pace of economic development.
The ravages of war and conflict diminish a productive workforce, and the psycho-social effects on the population are long-lasting. According to the World Bank, conflicts drive 80% of all humanitarian needs, while reducing GDP growth by 2 percentage points per year on average. What’s more, the share of the extreme poor living in conflict affected states is expected to rise to nearly 50% by 2030.
Despite these disheartening statistics, we’ve learned that one of the most important ways that we can reduce the impact of fragility, conflict, and violence is to promote women’s economic empowerment and include women in the journey to economic reconstruction. Most recovery efforts actually undermine women because they focus on re-integrating men, often former combatants, and fail to protect the spaces that women carved out during conflict and where they could potentially create ongoing economic development opportunities. As economies shrank during the early phases of post-conflict transition, female workers in the organized sector were generally first to lose their jobs. These positions are particularly important during reconstruction because they often form the bedrock of community resiliency.
So, what can be done to put women entrepreneurs at the center of post-conflict reconstruction?
First, we must recognize the new roles that open up to women when conflict upends the existing social order. Gender norms that previously hindered women’s economic participation become more fluid in times of upheaval. When men take up arms, women fill the economic roles that were previously unavailable to them. In some cases, women engage more deeply in informal income-generating activities, either in the arenas that existed before conflict or in new forays created by conflict. In other cases, such as in the U.S. during World War II, women enter new sectors of the formal economy, replacing the male workers who are in the military.
In Sierra Leone, where civil war tore the country apart for more than a decade, men actively recruited women into breadwinning roles so men were free to fight, and women could financially support families and, indirectly, the war efforts.
In Northern Uganda, women’s involvement in income generating activities grew during the conflict there. Inside refugee camps, women developed and expanded new kinds of economic activities. Some brewed and sold local beer. Some started catering businesses, while others sold humanitarian aid. Informal women-to-women loan programs facilitated investments in fledgling businesses.
In one of the few studies to focus expressly on the issue of women’s economic activities during and after conflicts, USAID examined the effects of conflict and reconstruction on women’s economic empowerment. They collected data from six distinct cases, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, and Rwanda. The study found that women could work for many industries and in many occupations during the conflict which were closed to them earlier.
If harnessed, women’s economic empowerment can drive the growth that countries need to remain stable and peaceful. According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, if women’s participation in the economy was the same rate as men, this could add up to $28 trillion or 26% of incremental global GDP into the world economy by 2026.
The private sector has an important role to play in women’s economic empowerment, and some of the most promising investments and results stem from the private sector’s engagement on these issues.
Women need leadership training to nurture the skills they employ during conflict, and then translate them into post-conflict reconstruction roles. To address this need for women’s economic empowerment, the ExxonMobil Foundation has invested in the Global Women in Management (GWIM) program – housed now at Counterpart International in our WomenLead Institute. Since its founding in 1978, GWIM has graduated thousands of dynamic women leaders worldwide. They form a global network of astute women leaders and as they re-invest in their communities, they impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Despite the obvious challenges, there are examples of successful post-conflict engagement of women by the private sector. In 2013, Kate Spade and Co’s “on purpose” label established a social enterprise in Masero, Rwanda with a focus on empowering women in post-conflict settings. The social enterprise model that they used applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being rather than a focus solely on shareholder profits. All employees of the enterprise development have an ownership share of the business. The women received psycho-social support, and many leveraged their new income to access better healthcare, higher quality food, and education for their children.
These and other private sector efforts provide an opportunity to redress economic inequalities in existing systems, and to formulate policies and structures where both women and men will benefit. Managed correctly, addressing women’s economic empowerment will help the world emerge with a healthier pattern of growth, and on a faster track to poverty reduction and development.
The first step is just getting women into this conversation. At the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum, 78% of the attendees were men. The failure to have this conversation around women’s economic empowerment and the failure to promote women entrepreneurs – especially in post-conflict situations – fails everyone.