Access to Contraception: A Key Ingredient in Women’s Economic Empowerment

December 04, 2017

This Thursday December 7, CGD will host a group of economists and policymakers to discuss global evidence on the causal relationship between access to contraception and women’s economic empowerment (RSVP here).

Many will ask, “What’s new here? Wasn’t it already obvious that the ability to plan births was an essential part of expanding women’s life choices?” Intuitively, of course. But the empirical evidence was mostly circumstantial—correlation and not causation. And based on those correlations, some experts even argued that “development is the best contraception,” implying that contraceptive availability was not itself a key intervention to drive changes in fertility and economic outcomes.

The relative weakness of the evidence of family planning as a driver of women’s economic outcomes also played out in the more specialized field of women’s economic empowerment. Our own Roadmap for Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment with Data2X examined 136 empirical evaluations of different interventions’ effectiveness vis-à-vis these outcomes, but did not include family planning as a driver of change. And the recent Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative set up at the World Bank (with major support from the US and other governments) makes no mention of access to family planning as a barrier to the increased access of women to finance, markets, and networks that are its stated goals. Indeed, even as that fund was launching, the US administration submitted a FY2018 budget to Congress that proposed the elimination of family planning funding.

Yet we now have a body of work from a range of countries that can trace a direct line between access to family planning and women’s increased schooling, labor force participation, occupational choice, and wages, using the most rigorous economic methods to isolate the effect of the availability of contraception from other trends. And that body of work is now global. I’m excited to be part of this conference that puts together many of the experts and the rigorous evidence available. I’m also excited that we will release a new paper by CGD nonresident fellow Grant Miller and coauthors, as well as a wrap-up brief by Rachel Silverman to build the field further (watch this space). We’ll be joined by key policymakers—one of the co-creators of Canada’s new feminist development policy, Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, as well as former Malawian president Dr. Joyce Banda. And we’ll discuss the “so what” too—what does the evidence mean for policies and programs at home and abroad?

This conference is named for Nancy Birdsall, CGD’s founding president. In 1987, Nancy wrote about posited causal connections between access to contraception and women’s outcomes here. It took until today to have a body of work to discuss. 

There is still much to do. Can women’s economic empowerment in low- and middle-income countries lead to the same kinds of macroeconomic impact as we see in the US? (Did you know that better occupational choices for women explain about a fifth of US economic growth since 1960? I didn’t before this conference. Here’s the link.) To know, we’ll need to invest more and learn more while doing.

Sign up for the conference here.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social media image by Pippa Ranger/UK Department for International Development