Prior to the pandemic, women accounted for 39% of the world’s total employment. By 2020, they represented almost 45% of employment losses globally. At the same time, women-led businesses were disproportionately affected, experiencing larger declines in sales and profits, and were also more likely to close down. Additionally, many women with neither businesses nor formal employment lost their livelihoods during this time, in part due to women dedicating more time to unpaid care work.
These outcomes highlight the importance of investing in various types of economic opportunity programs to support women in accessing skills training, employment opportunities, market information, financial services, and assets. But to address the root causes of gender inequities, programs need to work with women, girls, men, and boys to address women’s control over their income, assets, time, and bodies, as well as their ability to make decisions related to education, job opportunities, household income, savings, and spending. It’s a tall order and requires looking at women’s economic empowerment holistically by focusing on the different paths that women either choose or end up on and then considering how programs can meet them and support them where they are.
At the International Youth Foundation, our mission of connecting young people with opportunities to transform their lives is guided by three strategic objectives, one of which is youth economic opportunities. Within this objective, IYF identifies three solutions:
Solution 1: Workforce Development & Employment
Challenges for women pursuing employment opportunities often begin with barriers to education and skills development. In many parts of the world, women and girls are denied the right to education, limited in what they can study and where they can work, and lack support from their families and communities. In an IYF research initiative in South Africa focused on exploring gender within the automotive component manufacturing sector, women shared their experiences with negative stereotypes, including perceptions that engineering is a career for men and that women should stick to teaching and nursing. A gender-transformative solution to workforce development and employment requires advocating for girls to have the opportunity to go to school; facilitating access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects; ensuring women have adequate facilities in their places of work; promoting women’s access to skill-building and other training opportunities; and ensuring equitable pay.
As part of IYF’s High Gear initiative in South Africa, we are intentional about supporting gender-equitable approaches. For example, the project works with industry partners to promote inclusive workplace practices and policies through its Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) Grants Advisory Service. This project component supports partners in accessing skills development funding from the public sector and leveraging funding to advance inclusive workplace skills development practices and policies, including advancing the inclusion of young women in the workplace. These efforts allow us to both engage private sector partners to integrate gender-equitable approaches into their practices, while also addressing women’s immediate needs for skills development or enhancement.
Solution 2: Entrepreneurship & Social Entrepreneurship
Globally, men outnumber women entrepreneurs three to one. Yet, until recently, Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rate of female entrepreneurs with approximately 26% of female adults involved in entrepreneurial activity, accounting for approximately 13% of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This reality points to the significant potential of supporting women entrepreneurs. Like women seeking workfoce development and employment opportunities, women entrepreneurs require skills development, support with unpaid care work, access to finance, a business support network, personal agency to defy existing social expectations about women in entrepreneurship, and support from their family, peers, and community.
Formative research from the Integrated Youth Activity (Kefeta) project in Ethiopia has identified a number of challenges for young women trying to secure employment or start a business, including unmet needs for family planning, impeding domestic chores, and lower rates of employment compared to young men. These challenges are addressed through strategies to engage more young women in skills development, such as employability, entrepreneurship, and business development; utilizing the project’s youth hubs for referrals to youth-friendly health services; and facilitating youth leadership activities that address inequitable gender and social norms.
Solution 3: Livelihoods & Financial Inclusion
The gender poverty gap has increased worldwide since the pandemic. This is due in part to the limited growth of local economies, but also gender inequalities that result in women having less access to education, few or no assets, and limited access to finance. Addressing poverty alleviation requires understanding women’s specific barriers, whether it has to do with literacy or numeracy skills, facing the threat of gender-based violence at home, not having access to transportation to participate in income-generating activities, or other barriers. What is clear is that these approaches need to support both women’s livelihoods and income generation along with financial inclusion to ensure women understand their financial options and can set financial goals for themselves or their families.
As part of the Takunda project in Zimbabwe, IYF contributes to the project’s goal of sustainable, equitable, and resilient food, nutrition, and income security for vulnerable households. Among other activities, IYF is charged with promoting life skills training for youth, especially women in informal businesses, to support income-generating activities. Training on stress management, assertiveness, developing confidence, goal setting, and assessing personal values are linked with IYF’s work on unlocking youth agency. IYF is also establishing gender-responsive youth information hubs to serve as places young women and men can go to access information about schools and ward centers, as well as facilitating the development of youth and women-friendly financial products.
Investment in women’s economic empowerment is an investment in sustainable development. Supporting women’s economic growth results in greater gender equity, but also contributes to local and national economies—shaping economic and social policies and even community norms to be more inclusive and facilitate opportunities for other young girls and women in the future.
Elizabeth Salazar is IYF’s Senior Technical Advisor for Economic Opportunities.