Exploring “A Feminist Approach to Women’s Economic Empowerment”

Monday 16th July 2018

Given the recent refocusing on women’s economic empowerment as a priority in the international development space, Oxfam Canada and the International Development Research Centre, in partnership with Global Affairs Canada, held a collaborative workshop June 21-22 to identify opportunities for taking a rights-based approach to supporting the female economy. Entitled “A Feminist Approach to Women’s Economic Empowerment” (WEE), the objective of the workshop was twofold: to identify a shared understanding of and best practices to support this kind of approach, and to build on the work that the Canadian government is doing as part of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, for which its federal aid budget will be increased to CAD$2 billion over 5 years. The workshop included representatives from a number of Canadian organizations as well as international gender experts, nonprofits, government representatives, researchers, foundations and other private sector actors. Rebecca Ruf, VP of Programs, represented the GBA at the workshop.

The workshop began with the presentation of a discussion paper that highlighted the evolution of feminist approaches over time: from relatively simplistic approaches that focused only on targeted interventions, such as microfinance or cash transfer programs, to a transformational approach that addresses not just individual needs but structural barriers. A study by the Canadian International Development Platform (CIDP) and Oxfam Canada was also highlighted, which estimated the global donor investment in WEE to be minimal. An OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) analysis estimated total donor investment in WEE at approximately US$8.8 billion in 2013-14, making up only 2 percent of DAC official development assistance in the economic and productive sectors. Further, the study found that only US$861 million targeted WEE as a principal objective. The study presented at the event expanded upon the DAC’s analysis using a new method that incorporates an analytical framework to reduce WEE definition inconsistencies. Based on this methodology, CIDP and Oxfam Canada estimate the total size of the WEE landscape in 2015 was approximately US$7.2 billion, of which only US$461 million targeted WEE as the principal objective.

The workshop then explored five themes that are central to a transformational approach to WEE but have received limited development assistance, with groups of experts discussing the main issues in each area, current best practices and key gaps:

  1. Economic rights, finance and decision making– Going beyond providing women with access to jobs, training, credit and financial services to incorporate other transformational areas such as women’s economic rights, eliminating legal discrimination, and providing adequate social and legal protections to women in the informal labor sector.
  2. Decent work and segregation– WEE programming has not sufficiently addressed the structural barriers that prevent women from accessing decent work. Some of the main issues include occupational segregation, inadequate social and legal protections, and gender segregation in education and training programs.
  3. The care economy– Women’s unequal burden of care is increasingly being recognized as a barrier to WEE, but very little funding is currently being spent to help create better solutions.
  4. Social norms and women’s agency– Focusing on economic inclusion alone is not enough; additional approaches that seek to promote women’s agency are also required.
  5. Gender-based violence– Although the prevalence of gender-based violence is known worldwide, the link between economic participation and gender-based violence is not incorporated in WEE programs.

A number of commonalities emerged across these five themes, including the need for a bottom-up approach from women’s rights movements and organizations; developing context-specific solutions that are based on local ecosystems; engaging the private sector effectively; and providing long-term organizational support that is part of core strategies – not just project-based support. The need to support local women’s organizations and the critical importance of an intersectional approach that takes into account the diverse needs of various groups of women were also highlighted.

The workshop ended with a productive conversation with Global Affairs Canada on the implications of implementing a feminist approach to WEE and the leadership role that Canada can take globally, with a number of initiatives already in place, including the creation of a new finance development agency, FinDev Canada, which announced its commitment to the US$3 billion 2X challenge earlier in June.