Supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment in Fragile States

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Updated: Aug 21, 2023
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State fragility is a critical development challenge that poses a major threat to global economic growth. Ongoing conflict and fragility reduce a state’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth by two percentage points per year on average. Two billion people currently live in countries where development outcomes are crippled by fragility, conflict, and violence. Without clear action, the OECD estimates that more than 80% of the world’s poorest will be living in fragile contexts by 2030. Employment and income generation are fundamental solutions to fragility, providing communities and individuals with venues for survival and recovery.

However, while fragility impedes development and human potential globally, it disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society, including women. The World Bank estimates that over 264 million women live in the 36 countries formally classified as fragile and conflict-affected. These women face multidimensional oppression, including increased rates of discrimination, poverty, and gender-based violence. These cross-cutting challenges place further stress on women’s economic opportunities. Fewer than 20% of women in fragile states are employed for pay, compared to an average of 60% in post-conflict or peaceful states.

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According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, if women participated in the economy at the same rate as men, the global GDP would grow by approximately 26% by 2025, adding an additional $28 trillion to the world’s economy. As such, women’s economic empowerment, defined by The World Bank’s Gender Action Plan as “making markets work for women and empowering women to compete in markets,” must be at the forefront of the global agenda pertaining to fragile states.

Gender Inequality in Fragile States

While women have made notable progress towards gender equality over the past 50 years, significant gender gaps persist in global labor force participation, earnings, and productivity. Over 552 million women have joined the labor force within the past 30 years; yet, globally, only 52% of women participate in the labor force, compared to 82% of men. These gaps increase dramatically in fragile and conflict-affected regions, with only 21% of women involved in the labor force in the Middle East and North Africa, compared to 77% of males. Overall, only four in ten women are likely to obtain paid employment in fragile states, compared to seven in ten men. This equates to a total of 30 million women missing from the formal labor sector in fragile states.

While excluded from the formal sector, women seek employment opportunities in the informal sector and are more likely than men to be self-employed. On average, six out of ten working women in fragile states are employed in agriculture, three in services, and one in industry. Despite women’s overwhelming participation in the agriculture sector, women are still denied access to resources, services, and markets. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same access to resources as men, agricultural productivity on women’s farms in fragile states could increase by upwards of 30%, and agricultural outputs could increase by 4%. As food insecurity can serve as both a cause and consequence of state fragility, the underutilization of women’s agricultural production potential creates a vicious cycle, driving increased rates of food scarcity and malnutrition, which in turn drive fragility.

To this point, approximately 75% of children in fragile states are malnourished. This demonstrates the intrinsic connection between women’s labor force participation and overall country development and growth. Fragile states see increased rates of conflict, population growth, and poverty, while simultaneously experiencing decreased health and education outcomes. The fertility rate in fragile states averages five children per woman, double the average of non-fragile states. This is due, in part, to significantly decreased levels of access to contraception for women in poor, rural areas.

Constraining Factors Limiting Economic Empowerment

While the constraints facing women in fragile countries are similar to those women face elsewhere, the barriers are often more severe and pervasive. Lack of access to education, diminished healthcare, weak institutions, and violence that permeates all levels of society are all factors which compound upon existing barriers to impede women’s economic empowerment in fragile countries. These obstacles stem from both adverse social norms, as well as restrictive and discriminatory legal policies. In 2016, the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel identified four main constraints to women’s economic empowerment. The following graphic illustrates these constraints as well as compounding barriers.

Adverse Social Norms

Oftentimes, societal and cultural expectations are just as instrumental to women’s economic empowerment as the actual legal framework of the state. In fragile states, discriminatory social norms limit the number of employment options available to women, while simultaneously reinforcing patriarchal standards, which can inflame the rates of violence against women. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is an infringement of basic human rights that can limit women’s access to economic opportunities, especially when associated with controlling behaviors by the partner. Women living in fragile states are 35% more likely to experience IPV than women in other developing nations. This reduces women’s productivity at work as well as limits control over their income and earnings. Studies in 10 different fragile states have documented the connection between increased rates of IPV and women’s lack of decision-making, employment opportunities, and overall autonomy.

Relatedly, adverse social norms and cultural practices drive early marriage. In fragile states, almost 40% of girls are married before the age of 18. This rate dramatically increases in South Sudan, where UNICEF estimates that 52% of girls are married while still being children, some as young as 9 years old. Marrying young significantly limits women’s economic prospects and job opportunities by curtailing their education and increasing their chance of having more children. South Sudan’s Minister of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare states the cultural devaluation of women and girls is one of the key contributing obstacles to the country’s stability and forward development.

Restrictive and Discriminatory Policies

Women face various forms of discrimination and violence in the workplace, ranging from laws barring them from employment opportunities to verbal abuse, stalking, and assault instances. Discriminatory laws are associated with reduced employment opportunities for women. The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) index, which collects data on different countries’ laws and regulations that constrain women’s economic opportunities, found that most fragile states have an average of 32 discriminatory laws in place. These laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to have formal employment, open bank accounts, work in the same jobs as men, or own property. Two-thirds of fragile states impose formal legal restrictions on women’s work, while seven countries stipulate that a married woman cannot get a job without her husband’s permission.

These discriminatory policies serve as push factors, encouraging women’s engagement in the informal employment sector, such as agriculture and labor-intensive manufacturing industries. However, the informal employment sector is unregulated, leaving women vulnerable to wage discrimination, violence, and harassment. Currently, no international legal policy addresses and prevents discrimination and violence against women in the workplace. In Sub-Saharan Africa, home to the most significant number of fragile states, 70% of informal cross-border traders are women. While fragile states depend on informal cross-border trade to provide vulnerable populations with access to goods and services restricted through the formal economy, women traders suffer from increased rates of gender-based violence and harassment. This issue is evident at the Rwanda and DRC border, where informal female traders report instances of assault and attempted rape by the police.

Adverse social norms and restrictive national frameworks intersect when determining control over property or land rights in fragile states. Land rights represent a crucial building block of security that people need to invest in their economic opportunities. However, women are largely excluded from this process, with over 50% of women globally unable to assert equal land and property rights. This rate is even lower in fragile states, ranging from a meager 3% of women landowners in Mali to 33% in Comoros. Of the 36 fragile states surveyed by WPS, six had statutory policies preventing married women from having equal property ownership rights to their spouses. Almost all states had discriminatory social norms, preventing women from inheriting land. This unequal access to land lowers female labor productivity, further driving income disparities between women and men. These disparities in asset control can result in increased household poverty and economic inefficiency, further disadvantaging women.

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Overcoming a Lack of Policy to Spur Progress

All signatories of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledged to prioritize aid and assistance to the countries lagging the furthest behind, including fragile states. Job creation is a frequent goal of development interventions in fragile states, but stated objectives often fail to consider and address constraints barring women from obtaining employment. A 2017 OECD study, “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Fragile and Conflict Affected Situations: A Review of Donor Support,” underscores this point. It highlights that while donors recognize the impacts of conflict and violence on women, the relationship between fragility, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment is often neglected. This stems from the fact that data collection on women’s employment, incomes, and overall well-being in fragile states is largely non-existent. Further analysis is needed to better understand how fragility affects different groups of women in different contexts.

Policy frameworks on the intersection of gender equality and fragility are minimal. Traditionally, men are the primary beneficiaries in post-conflict employment initiatives, further denying women access and control over resources. Effective action requires appropriate attention to this topic. This includes an intensive analysis of the adverse social norms and discriminatory policies currently restricting women’s employment opportunities. Understanding and investing in women’s economic empowerment must be at the forefront of the global agenda. This will ensure that governments meet the needs of the groups most at risk of being left behind, while also spurring global economic and social growth.

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Supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment in Fragile States. (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from