The dark side of women’s economic empowerment

Michelle Higelin

25 Nov, 2016

Today (25 November) marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and for those of us working in the development sector it can be a moment to reflect on our own programming approaches.  In many cases, these make an important contribution to the global campaign to end GBV however increasing evidence suggests that narrowly defined work to economically empower women may be doing more harm than good. 

This was a topic at the recent ACFID and DFAT workshop on Ending Violence Against Women (VAW) in Canberra on October 12, through a discussion on intersections between VAW and women’s economic empowerment (WEE). 

Preliminary findings from ActionAid’s thematic evaluation reviewing Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP) projects in Palestine, Pakistan and Uganda have found that women’s increased income is a touchstone for conflict between women and men, particularly around the use of and control over this income. Negotiation skills become a critical component of effective interventions to ensure that increased income actually results in increased control over resources and to diffuse any negative tensions. For many women consulted, while economic empowerment can pose risks, economic dependency on men is worse, so building women’s income and assets must go hand in hand with strengthening their individual and collective power.

Research undertaken by Plan International in Zimbabwe on changes in gender relations affirms that access to income does not automatically result in the empowerment of women or a reduction in violence against women.

Structural discrimination and inequality are perpetuated by a cycle of violence that does not stop when women are empowered economically. It requires rights-based programming that recognises women’s economic rights and goes beyond metrics such as increased earnings.  This calls for tackling unequal power relations, gender norms and normalised cultures of violence, as well as paying increased attention to interactions with women’s undervalued and unpaid burden or work.

For many women, their unpaid work changes little as they increase their engagement in paid work. In fact, a study by IWDA and ANU on WEE and GBV in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea has found some men opting out of income generation activities as women brought more money in. For women, ‘slave-like unpaid care’ serves as form of indirect violence against women.

The workshop highlighted the need for deeper analysis and research into the unintended consequences of WEE and for effective program design to include GBV risk mitigation strategies.  A number of agencies are working on practical tools and guidance to mitigate these risks and ensure more robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks that better capture these intersections and effective strategies for addressing the potential for harm.

With women’s economic empowerment firmly established as a priority under DFAT’s strategy for gender equality and empowering women and girls, it is critical to ensure interventions are paying adequate attention to both positive and negative intersections between VAW and WEE in program design, monitoring and evaluation.  Linking GBV prevention and response with initiatives aiming to increase women’s earnings, assets and economic participation is also a crucial strategy for managing risk.  Otherwise, women’s labour could continue to be site of gender-based violence, exploitation and abuse.

Michelle Higelin is the Deputy Executive Director of ActionAid Australia and Co-Chair of the ACFID Gender Community of Practice.

ActionAid is using 16 Days of Activism to call on Australians to take the pledge to take action for women’s rights in 2017. Head to to sign the pledge and read the stories of 16 powerful women activists.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign takes place from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. Join the conversation online through #16DaysofActivism and read more from UN Women here.

  • Michelle Higelin
    Michelle Higelin

    Michelle Higelin is the Deputy Executive Director of ActionAid Australia and Co-Chair of the ACFID Gender Community of Practice.

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