‘When more women work, economies grow’ Q&A with CARE women’s economic empowerment expert

Joanne Owens is CARE Canada's senior manager for women's economic empowerment (photo of Joanne at right while on a project visit in Pakistan). In this interview, Joanne discusses how women's financial inclusion supports development, the barriers women face when trying to access financial services, and how men and community leaders can be involved in finding solutions.

How does women’s participation in the labour force differ from that of men?

Around the world, women are more likely than men to face exploitative and unequal working conditions. Women earn only 77 per cent of what men earn, and many face legal barriers to employment. It is not unknown in some countries, for example, for husbands have the legal right to prevent their wives from working. When women are able to work, it is often in informal, casual, and low wage positions that lack social and labour protection in law or in practice. In many cases, social and cultural gender norms relegate women to work that is unpaid, and unrecognized – for example, household and care work.

What prevents women from accessing financial services?

Many barriers that prevent women from accessing financial services. These range from social and cultural obstacles, to brick and mortar, as well as legislative/regulatory barriers.

The social and cultural barriers are at family, community and institutional levels. For example, a woman may not be able to open a bank account without permission from her husband, or the bank may require the signature of a male relative.

In terms of brick and mortar, bank distance is often a major hindrance to women’s ability to access financing. Women may not be able (or permitted) to travel to the bank. Though technology can play a role in bringing banking closer, such as through mobile banking, there are also barriers to accessing that technology, including ownership and control of mobile devices, financial literacy, and so on.

Finally, on the policy and regulatory side of the equation, the fees for depositing or withdrawing funds may be greater than the amount wishing to be deposited; and the requirements to open an account – known as “Know Your Customer” regulations – require forms of identification that many of the world’s poorest people do not have. Further, many women lack property rights, and therefore the collateral required to access finance.

What strategies can help increase women’s access to the formal market?

Removing gendered barriers is essential to ensure that women have equal access to productive resources and economic opportunities. This includes (but is not limited to) greater access to financial services, access to and control over land, and skills development. It also involves working at household and community level to advocate for women’s empowerment – changing perceptions of the role of women, and enabling them to have equal access to and participation in the economy.

What role do men play in women’s economic empowerment?

Men, women, communities, the private sector, government – all have a role in eliminating the barriers to women’s full economic empowerment. Men have a key role in challenging negative gender norms. This begins at the household level, where gender norms often have men boxed into seeing themselves as the sole wage earner and decision-maker. Encouraging men to take active roles in unpaid care and domestic work and adjusting perceptions around women’s productive and reproductive roles goes a long way in enhancing women’s economic empowerment. At the community and institutional level, men can (and often do) champion the equal place of women outside the home, and the elimination of the barriers preventing women to achieve their rights.

How does women’s financial inclusion and economic empowerment promote development in other areas?

When more women work, economies grow. This makes women’s economic empowerment an issue of social justice and gender equality, as well as an important tool to help women, their families and their communities escape poverty and build prosperity. It is known, and we have seen in our projects, that money in the hands of women tends to result in greater spending on their families; increases in women’s income and control over spending results in increased nutrition, health and education for children and a decrease in child marriage. All these factors contribute to breaking the poverty cycle.

What motivates you, as a professional, to work on women’s economic empowerment? Is there a particular moment or experience that stands out for you over the course of your career?

Though a privileged woman in Canada, I have experienced my unfair share of discrimination based on my gender.

Falling in line with Canadian statistics, I graduated with a higher student loan debt than my male colleagues, began with lower paying jobs, and took longer to repay my debt. As a result, more of my income went to interest, thereby delaying my ability to save or purchase assets.

Still, I am still incredibly privileged – I had access to education, to credit, and to dignified work. I am a single mother with a teenage daughter – but I am not questioned by my community for not having married my daughter off, or for going to work, or for having not just a bank account in my name, but one for my daughter as well.

The challenges women and girls face in the Global South are amplified a thousand times. But they are not insurmountable.

Just as I want my daughter to be able to participate fully and equally in our social and economic communities – so too do the mothers we work with. I do what I do so that mother’s around the world can earn an income, go to the bank, produce ID, open an account, and begin saving for their daughters’ and sons’ futures – without barriers[MS1] . The positive impact that savings and economic participation has on women influences the role they have in their homes and communities.

On a recent project visit in Pakistan, I met women who, through access to dignified work, skills development, savings, and entrepreneurship, transformed their lives and the lives of their families. Now living with steady incomes, they are putting their daughters and sons in school. They are not marrying off their young daughters, and have actively prevented other child marriages. They are investing in the health of their family and they are accessing formal banking.

Who wouldn’t want to contribute to this?

Though my work is professional, my motivation is deeply personal.

Learn more about CARE's work to promote women's economic empowerment.