Empowering women to improve their livelihoods

Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

Empowering women economically helps women to reach their full potential and advances sustainable development. If women had full and equal economic participation, it is estimated this would add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.1

Businesses can play a vital role in enabling women to participate equally in the global economy and overcome poverty. Oxfam’s work with the private sector seeks to address many barriers to women’s economic empowerment, including low pay, vulnerability to exploitation, insecure jobs, limited access to opportunities, social norms that restrict their activities, and the heavy burden of unpaid care.

We want business to include women in the supply chains and opportunities they create, but our aim goes well beyond ‘inclusion’. We work with business to address gender equality at multiple levels: supporting women farmers in cooperatives to engage with processors and traders, investing in SMEs that empower women, working with industry associations and standard-setting bodies to incorporate gender perspectives, engaging with large companies on decent work for women in their supply chain, and harnessing the marketing power of brands to challenge harmful social norms.

Throughout our work and as part of our commitment to promote gender equality and women’s rights, Oxfam looks to create opportunities to enable women to access better quality work, improved labour conditions and increased wages. We strive to empower women to fully participate in business decisions and benefit from an equal share of resources.

Oxfam’s work in action

Oxfam and Unilever We-Care: giving women power over their hours

In some countries, women spend six to eight hours per day on unpaid care and domestic work such as laundry, cooking, cleaning and collecting water, as well as caring for young, elderly or disabled family members. This work is invaluable but often arduous, undervalued and rarely supported. Addressing the challenges of Unpaid Care is a critical pillar of our work. With the recent Business Briefing on Unpaid Care and Domestic Work, Oxfam and Unilever are urging businesses to empower women by taking action to address heavy and unequal unpaid care, and transforming the way their employees, suppliers and consumers think about the role of women in society.

As part of this collaboration, with the Unilever laundry brand Surf, Oxfam is working to enable 73,000 women and girls in Zimbabwe and the Philippines to reduce the time they spend on unpaid care and influencing public opinion to change social norms so that care is shared. With Surf’s support, we’ve already helped nearly 54,000 women and girls to gain better access to water and new or improved communal and household laundry facilities, creating more time for them to pursue an education, earn an income and pursue other activities.

We’ve also challenged harmful gender stereotypes relating to unpaid care by training nearly 3,600 people to promote change in their communities, and reaching over 34 million people through social media, TV and radio campaigns. Additionally, we’ve pushed for progressive policies, encouraging decision-makers to invest in improved laundry and childcare facilities and connect more communities to clean electricity and safe water. Oxfam’s We-Care team is also active at an international level, influencing debates on women’s empowerment at major global events led by the UN and the World Economic Forum.

GRAISEA: Improving smallholder livelihoods in South East Asia

Despite South East Asia’s rapid economic growth, the region faces serious challenges, including deepening social and gender inequality, and the rising threat of climate change. Oxfam’s Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in South East Asia (GRAISEA) programme, established in 2015, aims to help rice, shrimp and palm oil businesses to develop responsible practices that provide fairer opportunities for small-to-medium sized businesses (SMEs), build climate resilience, and promote women’s economic empowerment.

To date, the programme has supported more than 6,200 women and men small-scale producers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices and gender-sensitive standards. We have seen women rise to leadership positions in our partner producer associations. We have also worked to influence the gender and women’s rights criteria in key industry standards, such as

  • the sustainable rice cultivation standard of the Sustainable Rice Platform,
  • the group certification guidelines produced by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, and;
  • the smallholder policy of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Small Enterprises that work for women

Oxfam’s Enterprise Development Programme (EDP) provides loans and technical support to small enterprises that cannot access finance from traditional banks and help investee businesses to grow and improve their performance.

Women rarely have the same access to resources and training as men. They also face structural and cultural barriers which lower their chances to benefit from income generating opportunities. That is why EDP is committed to create opportunities for women’s economic empowerment through its investments. We consider the extent to which potential investees could create positive impacts for women when selecting enterprises to support and help women participants to overcome some of the obstacles they face by increasing their involvement and expanding their opportunities.

An average of 12% of each EDP investment goes towards women’s economic empowerment (WEE) activities to ensure vulnerable women aren’t left behind as the enterprise grows. This includes gender-awareness training, business training for women, capacity building, literacy training, and in some cases providing tools or devices to help women save time on unpaid care work.

EDP’s portfolio of projects has shown an increased number of women participants, increased share of women in the enterprise leadership, and improved income for women. For example, Shekina enterprise in Rwanda, which produces and sells dried Kasava leaves, now supports 1,661 smallholder farmers, 90% of whom are women. In particular, EDP has helped women to create collection centres near their fields to reduce time to market, which also create additional employment for women. Overall, the proportion of women in leadership positions has increased from 35% to 50%, and there has been a 24% increase in annual income generated through enterprise.

Organic cashew nut company Crepaimasul Cashew in Honduras now supports 296 smallholders, 57% of whom are women (up from 33%). EDP has contributed to the salary of the first woman manager of the enterprise and provided intensive hands-on technical and mentorship support to help her strengthen her managerial capabilities. The proportion of women in leadership positions has increased from 30% to 50%, and the enterprise has achieved a 29% increase in annual income.

SIWEE: Unlocking women's potential in agriculture

Despite women playing a major part in farming - representing 40% of farm workers in developing communities - they own just 12.8% of agricultural land, and lack access to the finance, markets, knowledge, tools and equipment needed to succeed as farmers in their own right.

In Ghana, Oxfam is working through the value chains of companies to tackle barriers that prevent women from improving their livelihoods. Focusing initially on cocoa, sorghum and shea value chains, Oxfam has facilitated ‘social labs’ comprising private companies, civil society and government partners. Participants are contributing their own ideas and perspectives on the barriers to women’s economic empowerment in their supply chains, and making proposals to create pilot projects, with a view to scaling up for impact.

1. The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), 2015
The Role of Women in Agriculture, FAO, 2011

To find out more about our work, contact us here:

Email: privatesector@oxfam.org.uk

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