A holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment

What does economic empowerment look like and how can it be achieved? Vincent Trousseau looks at examples from Oxfam’s programmes in Zambia and Morocco and introduces our new conceptual framework.

What is women’s economic empowerment?

Oxfam believes that effective economic empowerment for women (WEE) occurs when women enjoy their rights to control and benefit from resources, assets, income and their own time, and when they have the ability to manage risk and improve their economic status and wellbeing. However, for WEE to translate into meaningful empowerment, women must also have the autonomy and self-belief to make changes in their own lives, including having the agency and power to organize and influence decision making, while enjoying equal rights to men and freedom from violence.


Women’s full and equal participation in the market rests upon a broad and complex set of factors. It’s not an easy task to attempt to address all these many factors at once, but if we are to have any sustained impact on women’s lives, it is crucial that we base our planning with as holistic an understanding as possible of the social, political and economic systems which women are immersed in. This is why we recently published a Conceptual Framework on Women’s Economic Empowerment to assist the development of more consistent, effective and integrated programming on WEE.

Working at multiple levels with women dairy farmers in Zambia

In Zambia’s Copperbelt province women’s economic participation is hindered by a number of interrelated factors: poor access to agricultural markets for inputs, services and outputs, meaning that women in particular have difficulty negotiating fair terms of trade with market actors; heavy unpaid care responsibilities exacerbated by the prevalence of HIV, child malnutrition, and lack of basic social service provision; and limited leadership skills and collective capacity to lobby for change.

In light of this complex set of barriers, Oxfam’s programmatic approach supports change at an individual and systemic level, both within informal and formal spaces to achieve WEE in the economic, social/cultural and political spheres:

  • Economic: Multi-stakeholder platforms facilitate dialogue between private sector companies and producer groups;
  • Social/cultural: The project supports attitude change among men to be more supportive to women and promotes the use of labour saving technologies that reduce hours of care work;
  • Political: Support to women’s collective action and capacity building in leadership, assertiveness and lobbying enables women to access new roles within the value chain and get better access to extension services.

Influencing to improve working conditions for women in Morocco

In Morocco Oxfam identified flaws in the berry sector in 2009: poor working conditions for women; non-respect of women worker’s rights; absence of contracts; low rates of registration for social security; child labour; verbal violence and harassment.

As a result, Oxfam’s programme has focused on strengthening women workers’ collective action at a local level to address cases of rights violations and provide referrals to women working in factories and farms, increasing workers’ access to information on labour rights and establishing a watch dog on working conditions in the berry sector. In parallel, Oxfam facilitated platforms on good social practices in the sector, gathering Moroccan producers and international importers, and organised meetings bringing together public institutions, the private sector, women workers and other stakeholders.

After eight years of implementation, more than 2,000 women had received their National ID Cards. The berry sector went from 5% workers’ registration to the National Social Security Fund to around 65%. This has enabled women to claim benefits, such as the family allowance and medical insurance, that can substantially improve their living conditions.

In addition, women have become more aware of their rights and now have increased confidence to refuse jobs that do not comply with the regulations. As a result, most processing units now comply with minimum wage regulations.

These examples provide a glimpse into Oxfam’s programmatic approach to women’s economic empowerment. From developing inclusive market systems through to enabling sustainable access to appropriate financial products, from influencing governments to provide infrastructures and services that reduce women’s care work through to supporting the private sector in improving women’s roles within value chains, the breadth of Oxfam’s interventions is a testimony of our commitment to putting women’s rights at the heart of our work.

This holistic approach is something that has originated from the ‘bottom up’. Our partners have played a central role in shaping these approaches as has monitoring, evaluation and learning processes designed to help us become more effective and achieve change at scale.

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Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

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