Women’s Economic Empowerment Means Access to Family Planning Too

The development community was abuzz with a co-authored column in the Financial Times this week; Ivanka Trump and Jim Yong Kim teamed up to make the case for more aid in support of greater women’s economic participation and earnings. The two write that “we know what works”, and CGD’s Mayra Buvinic and Megan O’Donnell have indeed parsed the evidence here

But there is one intervention omitted from Ivanka and Jim’s must-do list: access to family planning as a pre-requisite and enabler of women’s economic empowerment.[1]

In the US, we already know access to contraception was crucial for women’s economic empowerment. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many young women first gained legal and socially acceptable access to the ‘pill’. Suddenly, they saw a freer, less constrained future—one where they could prevent pregnancy, invest in their educations, find the right partner, build a career, and, perhaps most importantly, plan for the lives they wanted. Since it now made sense for smart, motivated young women to invest in a career path, their enrollment in law and medical school skyrocketed.[2] More women entered the labor force[3]—and once they did, the pill helped them stay in their jobs for long and predictable enough intervals to climb the career ladder. As women invested more in their education, chose higher-yielding career paths, and leaned in to the labor force, the wage gap between men and women narrowed substantially.[4]

For women like ourselves who have benefited from access to contraception, the impact is intuitive and obvious. And across the world, research[5] shows that contraception can help women take control of their life trajectories. In Colombia, for example, the introduction of family planning programs in the late 1960s led adolescent girls to anticipate a career outside the home and invest in their futures. As a result, they stayed in school longer and, years later, took more jobs within the formal labor market.[6] Likewise, increased access to family planning gave Indonesian women the chance to complete extra schooling, postpone marriage, and ultimately build smaller families with better educated husbands.[7] The impact can even spill over across generations. In Bangladesh, for example, access to family planning enabled women to extend their children’s education by 12–15 percent.[8]

Why does this matter? Because—as Ivanka and Jim point out—women in many low- and middle-income countries remain deeply disadvantaged in their access to labor markets, education, land and other kinds of capital. Worldwide, women are a third less likely than men to participate in the labor force—and even when they do, they earn 20–80 percent less than equally qualified men.[9] These inequalities constrain women’s economic contribution to the global economy and to their own families.[10]

Axios reported that Ivanka Trump has “begun building a massive fund that will benefit female entrepreneurs around the globe” with “both countries and companies” contributing to create a pool of capital to economically empower women at the World Bank: “Canadians, Germans and a few Middle Eastern countries have already made quiet commitments, as have several corporations, a source said.”

But here we must contrast the commitment and passion for women’s economic empowerment with the magnitude of proposed cuts to USAID’s work on family planning; a 36 percent cut is set out in the draft FY18 budget request for USAID. As Rachel has pointed out here, the US provides about 50 percent of all global assistance to family planning, and 36 percent of all family planning commodities purchased using public or donor monies in low-income countries. Having some or all disappear has very concrete implications for prospects of women’s economic empowerment.

If genuinely committed to promoting women’s economic empowerment, we hope the Administration reconsiders cuts to the US voluntary family planning program at USAID. If cuts proceed, we hope rumored donors Germany and Canada rethink their investments in a new women’s economic empowerment fund if it means sacrificing family planning along the way.



[1] The following two paragraphs draw from a note by Rachel, Nancy Birdsall and Amanda from 2016: /publication/can-access-contraception-deliver-women%E2%80%99s-economic-empowerment-what-we-know

[2] Goldin C, Katz LF (2002). The power of the pill: oral contraceptives and women’s career and marriage decisions. Journal of Political Economy 110(4): 730-770.

[3] Bailey MJ (2006). More power to the pill: The impact of contraceptive freedom on women’s life cycle labor supply. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 121(1): 289-320.

[4] Bailey MJ, Hershbein B, Miller RM (2012). The opt-in revolution? Contraception and the gender gap in wages.

[5] See recent review of the evidence from Miller G, Babiarz KS (2014). Family planning: program effects. Working Paper 20586. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series.

[6] Miller G (2005). Contraception as development? New evidence from family planning in Colombia. Working Paper 11704. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series.

[7] Angeles G, Guilkey DK, Mroz TA (2005). The effects of education and family planning programs on fertility in Indonesia. Economic Development and Cultural Change 54: 165-201.

[8] Foster AD, Roy N (1997). The dynamics of education and fertility: evidence from a family planning experiment.

[9] The World Bank (2012). World development report 2012: gender equality and development.

[10] The World Bank (2012). World development report 2012: gender equality and development. 



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.