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Economic exclusion one of the biggest barriers to the empowerment of women


Bongi Ndondo is CEO of Hlanganisa Community Fund for Social and Gender Justice. A key component of Hlanganisa’s work is to support the economic empowerment of women as a tool for addressing gender-based violence.

The economic empowerment of women has been shown to have ripple effects on sustainable social development. Among other things, designing better workplaces and facilities for working mothers could make strides towards advancing gender equality in our society.

There are many forms of gender inequality that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, and they all must be eliminated to make true progress. Economic exclusion has by far the greatest impact on other forms of women’s discrimination.

In order to shift this power, women’s economic empowerment and independence need to be recentred in the gender equality discourse.

When women do not have their own assets and resources, they are more likely to be exposed to violence and are more vulnerable because of their dependence on others. When women are exposed to violence, their economic capacity and ability to participate in the labour market, the economy and in any social good work, is diminished.

This calls for practical interventions that recognise and embrace the unique challenges and opportunities that characterise women’s lives.

Women, careers, childcare: Transforming workplaces

South Africa has a young population, with half below the age of 35, and more females than males. While 2021 statistics put these figures at 51.1% female and 48.9% male, this equates to there being 1.6 million more women than men. This in turn translates to a greater number of childbearing women in the labour force.

During their economically productive years, women are juggling careers, childcare responsibilities and the demanding world of work. Any meaningful women empowerment initiatives need to take into account this intersection of roles and offer differentiated support to women in order to advance their economic prospects.

Practical examples could include the provision of daycare centres within our workplaces. Working mothers have many practical challenges that could be remedied by this. Such an approach would entrench women’s careers while also supporting families.

Every aspect of skills development, every aspect of the labour market and the labour force, needs to be more accommodating and recognise that working women have special needs during this time. Designing better workplaces and facilities for working mothers could make strides towards advancing gender equality in our society.

Access to land

Land is the most important physical asset in agrarian societies and rural women rely on land as their major source of livelihood. It is the basis of their food security and, as such, a key determinant of economic empowerment, with profound implications for women’s ability to enjoy civil and political rights as well as social and economic rights, and to escape poverty.

In spite of this, women have limited access to land and are less likely to own or operate land; they are less likely to have access to rented land, and the land they do have access to is often of poorer quality and in smaller plots, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

As a consequence, women are disadvantaged as they are usually excluded from agricultural support programmes, financial credit and loans, which are necessary for sustainable exploitation of the land. In contrast, when women do have secure rights to land, myriad benefits tend to follow.

Stronger women’s rights to land and productive assets are linked to enhanced status, improved living conditions, better nutrition and food sovereignty, improved health and education outcomes, higher earning and individual savings, as well as better protection from gender violence.

Access to credit

Globally, women’s access to finance is disproportionately low, and yet research shows that women are better creditors than men. Access to credit and finance can open up economic opportunities for women, with bank accounts being a gateway to the use of additional financial services.

Although there are more women than men banked in South Africa, women entrepreneurs and employers face significantly greater challenges than men in gaining access to financial services. Financial inclusion is a crucial step to empowering women – some of the barriers include lack of collateral, lower education levels and business development skills.

This persistent gender gap in access to finance can be closed through practical ways of moving from collateral-based lending, adopting simple and streamlined application procedures and offering business support skills development.

Knock-on effects on sustainable social development

The economic empowerment of women has been shown to have ripple effects on sustainable social development. When women are financially independent, their children are more likely to attend school and have better education outcomes. Their families have also been shown to have better nutrition and health outcomes. 

There is no disputing the link between gender-based violence (GBV) and economic vulnerability. According to a Lancet Psychiatry report published in 2022, at least 27% of women and girls aged 15 and older globally have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence. With South Africa having one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, this figure could be as high as 50%.

Economic empowerment has also been associated with increased agency and participation of women in decision-making structures.

Women’s diversity

Economic empowerment of women must take into account that women are not a homogenous group. Women with disabilities and gender non-conforming women face greater marginalisation and are less able to establish their social and economic potential within society.

Black women from rural areas also face a disproportionate number of barriers to economic inclusion.

According to the United Nations,Africa will not realise its potential if women and girls living in rural Africa continue to face structural barriers to the full enjoyment of their human rights, which are often inadequately or insufficiently addressed in laws, policies, budgets, investments and interventions at all levels across the continent”. DM


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