What Else is Needed to Promote Economic Empowerment? Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be willing to bet money that Trump administration officials have used the words “women’s economic empowerment” more times than officials in any previous US administration—maybe even than in any other government worldwide. With the launch of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), OPIC’s 2X Women’s Initiative and the subsequent G7-wide 2X Challenge, and the inter-agency Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), the current administration has, time and again, placed a symbolic emphasis on prioritizing women as economic agents, including by supporting their access to finance, markets, skills training, and technology.

But the administration’s commendable efforts to increase women’s economic opportunities have repeatedly failed to recognize a critical—and fundamental—component of women’s economic empowerment. Women cannot start or grow businesses or rise through the ranks of the workforce if they lack quality healthcare and autonomy over their life trajectories. A woman who lacks control over how many children she has and when she has them lacks the ability to compete on an even economic playing field.

In a recent op-ed, Kathryn Kaufman, the Managing Director for Global Women’s Issues at OPIC, wrote:

Full sexual and reproductive health rights are a key factor in achieving women’s empowerment. We know that when women can choose whether to have children and how many children to have, their lives are improved. They are more likely to participate in the labor force and more likely to stay in school longer. They increase their earning potential.…My own experiences and the overwhelming research data on the topic have convinced me that women must have full sexual and reproductive health rights to have full control over their lives.

Some of the overwhelming research Kaufman refers to—linking sexual and reproductive health rights to women’s economic empowerment and broader autonomy—was produced by my CGD colleagues.

CGD researchers put forward the first causal evidence focused on developing country contexts that explored linkages between access to contraception and broader empowerment. Work by Nancy Birdsall, Grant Miller, Rachel Silverman and others link women and girls’ knowledge of and access to demand-driven family planning methods to improvements in their educational attainment, occupational choice, and wages. As Nancy Birdsall put it: “Modern contraception may be the single most important technology for development—it liberates women to think ahead, as men have always been able to do.” For more details on CGD research findings on the topic, check out this summary fact sheet, as well as working papers here and here.

These linkages may seem intuitive, but for a long time our intuition lacked the rigorous data to substantiate it. Unfortunately, this increasingly robust body of research has not always translated to evidence-based policymaking. And, in fact, as my colleagues have pointed out, the current administration has undermined its stated objectives to support women by reducing funding for family planning programs and initiatives—as well as through an unprecedented expansion of related restrictions, barring contributions to UNFPA, and reported efforts to remove language in G7 communiques and other official declarations that supports comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Sexual and reproductive health services and rights are essential to ensuring women are economically empowered and able to contribute fully and productively to the global economy. The efforts of We-Fi, 2X, and W-GDP will only go so far if not complemented by ensuring women and girls’ access to demand-driven contraception, the knowledge that comprehensive sexuality education provides, and the bargaining power within their relationships to control their fertility decisions.


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.

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