Women’s economic empowerment | ActionAid UK

Women’s economic empowerment

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Stand with Women

Women’s rights are still in lockdown.

Right now, millions of women and girls around the world are fighting for their freedom, their futures and even their lives.

Covid-19 has made a bad situation worse, deepening inequalities and exposing a hidden pandemic of violence and poverty.   

But in communities large and small, away from the spotlight, women and girls are leading the change.  

ActionAid stands with women. Will you stand with women too?

Learn more about the campaign


$9 trn
the amount women in developing countries would earn if their pay and access to work were equal to men's1

the amount less than men women earn for work of equal value2

the number of years that a woman will work more than a man over her lifetime, including unpaid care3


What are economic rights?

Economic rights include the right to decent work, to equal pay and to land and adequate housing.1 These are rights that women living in poverty are often denied. 

Women who are also discriminated against due to other aspects of their identity - such as their age, religion or ethnicity - face even greater barriers to the fulfilment of their economic rights

The impact of unpaid care and domestic work

Globally, women take on three times as much unpaid care work as men.2 This includes caring for children, the sick and the elderly, taking care of household tasks such as cooking, collecting water and subsistence farming.

The poorest women in the world face the largest burden of unpaid work, because of the lack of public services and infrastructure - like healthcare and clean water - to support them. 

More women are getting paid jobs, but the amount of unpaid care work that they face at home is not being reduced at the same rate. This leaves many women facing a ‘double burden’ of work inside and outside the home. When paid and unpaid work hours are combined, women currently work longer days than men in nearly all countries.3

A young woman entering the job market today can expect to work four years more than her male counterparts over her lifetime, due to balancing paid work and unpaid care responsibilities.4

The time and energy spent on care work may not leave enough time in a day for decent paid work, for studying, for taking part in women's rights organisations, or for rest and leisure. This means that unpaid care responsibilities also narrow women’s choices in the type of job they get, often forcing them into informal, part-time or low-paid employment. This is often reinforced by social norms and perceptions around the role that women 'should' play in the family and in wider society. 

As a result, many women are financially dependent on male partners or family members. This can limit the choices that a women has, including her ability to leave a violent partner

Women’s lives are affected by the burden of unpaid care work at every age. Older women work for longer and girls are pulled out of school to do household chores, denying them their right to education.

Women face low pay and conditions at work

Women are more likely than men to have a job in sectors where pay and conditions are the lowest. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that in 2012 more than half of all employed women worldwide were in informal employment.5

Many women have no basic protection or rights at work, because their jobs are not covered by labour law. This means that they will not receive sick pay, maternity pay and cannot join a union, exposing them to high rates of human rights abuses, including sexual violence. Even when labour laws are in place, women employed in both the formal and informal sectors are at a high risk of exploitation because these laws are often limited and not implemented.

Women from developing countries are among the most vulnerable to exploitation in global supply chains. Approximately 80% of the world’s garment workers are women.6 They often work in dangerous environments. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing over 1,100 people, most of whom were young women from low income families. This was a stark reminder of the shocking conditions that women continue to face in the supply chains of international corporations, and the lack of recourse to justice.

Women’s rights organisations and movements play a critical role in protecting and advancing the rights of workers. ActionAid has been supporting workers' rights groups in several countries to campaign for fairer pay and safer, more humane, working conditions.

The gender pay gap

When women are paid for a job, they earn on average between 10% to 30% less than men for work of equal value.7

The ILO estimates that at the current rate of progress it will take 75 years to make the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ a reality for women and men.8 Women’s unpaid care work contributes to the overall gender pay gap, as this effectively means that women are subsiding the economy with free and often invisible work.

Economic policies driving gender inequality 

Women's economic empowerment is affected by economic policies, including how governments raise and spend taxes, and shape trade and investment deals. This is because these policies have a direct impact on the quality and availabity of public services, which women are dependent on because of their unpaid care work, and which are vital in tackling violence against women and girls.

Economic policies determine how many decent jobs are created for women, as well as protecting the rights of local communities who challenge abusive practices by powerful corporate and state actors.

Fiscal, trade and investment policies must be proactively designed to promote and protect the rights of all women and girls. 

Social and legal barriers to economic empowerment

Legal barriers to economic empowerment include difficulties in getting an ID card or passport, opening a bank account or accessing credit, having maternity and paternity leave and owning and inheriting property128 out of 143 countries have at least one legal difference that restricts women's economic potential.1 

Even when women have legal rights in these areas, social norms can stop them from claiming them. ActionAid helps women to understand their rights and how to claim them.

Women’s rights organisations and movements 

When many women raise their voices together, they gain strength, courage and protection. This is why women's collective action - in women's rights organisations and movements, unions and cooperatives - is vital in women's economic empowerment and in tackling violence against women and girls.

Women’s rights organisations and movements have fought long and hard to highlight injustice and demand greater accountability from governments, helping to shape policies that advance women’s rights. For example, the efforts of women’s movements from countries across the world helped ensure there was a specific target on addressing women’s unpaid care work in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Educating women and girls

As well as being a fundamental right, educating women and girls is a crucial step in supporting women’s economic empowerment.1

Educating girls has enormous and far-reaching benefits to their rights. It reduces rates of child marriage, promotes healthier and smaller families, improves jobs opportunities for women and empowers women to become leaders at community and government levels.2 

Around the world, 263 million children are still out of school, and twice as many girls as boys will never even start school.3 These has been an increase in the numbers of girls in education over recent years, but this is not always translating into better employment opportunities for women.4 

This shows how entrenched gender discrimination is in wider society, including in labour markets, and the huge burden of unpaid care that falls on women of all ages.5


Page updated 8 October 2020