Women’s Economic Empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa: Introducing the Study

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Pre-COVID-19, global progress had been made towards this goal both in policy and practice. Illustrative advances include decreasing the number of child brides and increasing awareness of girls’ rights to be spared from female genital mutilation (FGM), in addition to important legislative advances in Northern Africa and Western Asia, as detailed in the UN Women Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020 report. However, additional efforts are needed to support women’s independent access to income and control over economic resources, as Chapter Four of the UN report highlights. The 2020 SDG report highlights how COVID-19 has exacerbated the burden of care shouldered by women and girls through unpaid domestic and care work. Increasing women’s economic participation in the formal economy can support their household’s income and increase women’s control over economic resources.

A growing body of research expounds that enhancing women’s economic participation can also improve national economies, increase households’ living standards, enhance the well-being of children, and increase women’s agency and overall empowerment. Enhancing women’s economic empowerment (WEE), however, requires a detailed understanding of the economic sectors at a country-level to be able to identify the potential for women – including young women – to contribute to and benefit from these sectors.

The quest for this understanding has inspired the present collaborative research project across 13 countries in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA), with key partners: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mastercard Foundation, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), UN Women, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (U.S. OCDC) and Euromonitor International Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

This ambitious research program will identify growing economic sectors in each of the SSA countries that hold the most promising and lucrative opportunities for women, as well as the shifts in the underlying enabling environment (e.g., policies, skillsets, etc.) that are required to help support women’s success. The study begins with an overview of the macroeconomic context for women’s economic empowerment in each country. It proceeds to conduct a detailed economic sector analysis through a gender-sensitive lens, identifying barriers to and opportunities for women’s economic empowerment in key economic sectors per country. Finally, the research will bridge to action by formulating policy recommendations that are tailored to relevant industries and governments. More than the research, the program is innovative in the collaborative methodologies employed – maximizing the potential for the results to be mainstreamed into the work of donors, governments and private sector actors. The project will be governed by three organizational committees including a Steering Committee with representatives from each partner organization, local working groups located in each of the 13 countries, and a sector-specific expert panel in key thematic areas. By adopting an inclusive and collaborative approach this research maximizes the potential for uptake by donors, civil society and most importantly, policy makers.

This study will also provide key entry points for work with co-operatives. The ICRG has found evidence from its WDDCM global research that cooperative membership provides measurable economic improvements, including higher incomes, for women members across regions. The collaborative WEE research initiative will examine the potential that cooperatives offer as a pathway to greater economic empowerment for women across Africa in priority sub-sectors and countries.