Empowering Women with Economic Independence

Time and time again, we see that women are exploited on a massive scale with no regard for their health consequences. The American tobacco industry serves as a fitting example. Advertising specifically towards women because they were an untapped market at the time, the rates of female smokers began to rise and CEOs of the immoral corporations yielded all of the financial benefit. Women, of course, were left with crippling lung cancer some thirty years later. We also see exploitation when women are viewed misused as sexual objects, often resulting in the spread of life-threatening diseases and unplanned pregnancies.

In the overwhelming majority of societies, we see a recurring gender dynamic: Men are the presumed breadwinners while women are the second priority—expected to be docile and submissive. It is then no surprise that gender inequality is only exacerbated in developing countries. And when women are reliant on men to keep them afloat, there lies always the possibility of forfeiting their sexual and reproductive freedom. Societal norms of the “dominant male” pressure women out of asking to use condoms, and as a result many are left with no other option than to cope with venereal diseases and to give birth to children they didn’t anticipate. The best way to grant women ownership of their own bodies is through freeing them from financial dependence on a man. When a woman can financially support herself, she will not have to stay with a man who compromises her sexual and reproductive freedoms.

In Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues, Paul Farmer tells the tragic story of Guylène, a Haitian woman who is continually left alone to care for her children after men consistently leave her after one or two years. Notably, at a later point in her life, Guylène conceives another child while fully cognizant that it is strongly against doctors’ recommendations. In such a situation, one is inclined to wonder: Was the birth of this child really on Guylène’s own accord or was it her partner’s rash decision to have unprotected sex and leave her to face the consequences? She spends her life trying to find economic support from men who only give her life-altering disease and children she can’t properly raise. Lack of financial freedom keeps her in search of a male supporter, and social norms allow him to dominate/pressure her sexually. If Guylène had the means to be financially independent, she would have been able to live without a man, but instead, she has no choice.

A study mentioned in Infections and Inequalities showed that women’s dependency on men for rent greatly decreased the likeliness of condom use because she lacks the authority to demand it. The most constructive method to combat this injustice is through providing women the means to become financially independent.

A strong determinant of a woman’s capability to support herself is the amount of education she has received. Education can more easily lead to a career, giving a woman more opportunity to leave a man if she is in an oppressive relationship. In Zambia, many girls would stop going to school once they got their period because the school lacked private bathrooms. As a result, they would resort to using a bush, which is demoralizing and emotionally scarring—especially for these young women. Amazingly, girls’ attendance shot back up after the school installed a toilet. All factors considered, something as little as providing a bathroom can inadvertently save a woman from early motherhood and/or deadly infectious disease!

Another approach is through teaching women about financial independence through hosting workshops and training. The co-founder of a financial services firm called Life & Money wrote an article on his workshops he gives to women in India, and has reported that he sees a lot of potential in the women who show up. A similar economic empowerment program was established in Guatemala, though the founders warned that programs like these can anger husbands to the point that they become even more abusive towards their wives than they were in the first place. With these concerns in mind, we must still push on in attempt to give all women the chance to be financially independent.

Whether it’s vocational or professional skills, all women in developing countries deserve an education in some sort of field that has the potential to lead her to a career. It is one of the only ways we can hope for a future in which women are not subject to the unpredictable and uncontrollable desires of a male partner and do not fall victim to venereal diseases and unplanned pregnancy.



Discussion Questions:

  1. To what extent does financial freedom really ameliorate the health status of women in developing countries? Are there other factors that stand in the way of a woman’s reproductive health more than financial dependency?
  2. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness public health projects such as the toilet installation at the school in Zambia? Will increased attendance in school protect women from relying on men in the future?
  3. Do the benefits of an economic empowerment workshop outweigh the risk of more intense abuse from a spouse? If not, how can we improve and/or alter the methods used to empower women to become self-dependent?



Brandt, Allen. 2007. The Cigarette Century. New York: Basic Books (p. 448-492)

Bolis, Mara. 2015, September 11. “First, do no harm” in supporting women’s economic empowerment. http://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/2015/09/first-do-no-harm-in-supporting-womens-economic-empowerment/

Iyengar, Partha. 2015, September 22. Women Empowerment and Financial Freedom. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/partha-iyengar/women-empowerment-and-fin_b_8162316.html

P. Farmer. 1999. Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mis, Magdalena. 2015, September 8. Zambia: How to Keep a Girl From Missing School, Marrying? Give Her a Toilet. http://allafrica.com/stories/201509081580.html


16 thoughts on “Empowering Women with Economic Independence”

  1. Sarah,

    Great post! The issue of women’s subordination in sexual relationships leading to women’s lack of control over their own bodies is upsetting. In response, Farmer raises the importance of developing “women-centered” birth control so that women are able to negotiate safe sex even without a partner’s willingness. “Women-centered” birth control, though, seems like a very superficial solution, and I appreciate that you raised the bigger issue of women’s financial dependence on men, which strips women of agency in many aspects of their lives and relationships.

    The study you mentioned about women’s dependence on men for rent decreasing the likelihood of condom use is compelling, but I think that in many societies women having the ability to earn their own money would not necessarily remedy the issue of women’s dependence on men, because of systematic societal oppression of women. For example, Monique has a very demanding job and earns a respectable salary; however, because of the patriarchal nature of her community and the social structures that devalue women, she is not even allowed to pick up her own earnings.

    On the other hand, even if financial independence will not fully eliminate a woman’s reliance on her husband in communities such as Monique’s, I think it is possible that this small empowerment of individual women may have profound implications in the future by beginning to change social norms. Children who grow up knowing that their mother earns money as well as their father will have a transformed understanding of the role of gender in daily life.

    Thanks again for the post,

  2. Sarah, great post! I like the points you bring up about women being dependent on their male counterpart, leading to many problems such as violence, unwanted children, venereal diseases, etc. I agree with your comment that if women could financially support themselves, they would not have to stay with a man that compromises her freedom in any way. However, the problem goes much deeper than just financial dependence.

    Because the dominance of men over women has such a deep-rooted history in many cultures, this transcends the financial dominance. Women have always been told they need to find a man to marry so they can depend on him, not just for financial reasons, but so they can be happy, start a family, be a mother, etc.

    Women have for a long time been expected to play a certain role in society, of being the wife who, although she may work, is still expected to do household chores, etc. For this reason, many women today, although they might have an education and be financially dependent, are still emotionally dependent on men because it has been drilled into society for so long. Women no longer need to think this way because many have the needs to be completely independent, but I believe it will take much more time for women to become self-dependent despite financial independence.

    1. Mira and Kelly,

      Thanks for your responses, guys!
      Mira, I agree that women centered birth control would be a good temporary solution, but there still lies the problem of lack of agency by women. Acquiring birth control requires money for the medication as well as time and resources for a doctor’s appointment. Often times all of this has to be done very discretely because, like in Monique’s village in Mali, birth control is seen as used exclusively by prostitutes. Economic independence would really come in handy here, even though the lack thereof is the reason we bring up this option in the first place! Unfortunately, it seems like there is a cycle of inability for women to attain reproductive control due to these overlapping barriers. At the very least, we can be thankful that Monique somehow found a way to get her hands on birth control, and like you said, her career in midwifery will have an impact on how her children see gender roles in their family. Perhaps economic independence is more readily attainable for societies like those we read about in Haiti and Peru, where it is marginally more common to see single women.

      Kelly, you and Mira insightfully brought up the point that economic independence is unlikely to be the full answer to women’s equal access to medical attention and reproductive freedom. I love that you acknowledged the societal dependence on men that is pushed upon women since childhood. It is very true that even in the United States, women are expected to marry and bear children, both pushing them towards marriage and away from a career since it is often too demanding to work outside the home while also responsible for childrearing and housekeeping. I wonder if we can fix this problem by campaigning against these traditional expectations in order to begin to liberate these women? (Of course, here we meet the issue of preserving culture vs. advocating for equality).

      Thanks again for your insight on this matter!

  3. Sarah,

    I very much enjoyed your blog post and thought you brought a lot of insight into the issue of global gender inequality. I’d like to respond/focus my comment on your third discussion question (Do the benefits of an economic empowerment workshop outweigh the risk of more intense abuse from a spouse? If not, how can we improve and/or alter the methods used to empower women to become self-dependent?). For me, I think you would really have to discuss this issue with the women that this program is affecting. I do not believe that it is for a third party to decide whether or not a woman should sacrifice her safety to advance a larger cause, but rather that it should be an individual’s choice to decide whether or not the benefit of participating in such a program would outweigh the risks. With that in mind, I’d also like to bring up the point our section discussed today on the meaning and subjectivity of empowerment. Who defines women’s empowerment, and how might this affect the types of programs organizations attempt to implement in a community? I think it may be human nature to generalize issues in an attempt to find a solution that applies globally; nonetheless, we must learn to tailor solutions to work within a specific sociocultural context if we truly wish to effect change.

  4. Hi Sarah,
    I really enjoyed your post, and would agree that economic dependence on men is the one of the most important factors leading to women’s subjugation and amelioration of her individual rights and freedoms, which leads to poor health.

    On campus, I’m part of a global health group called Globemed. We’re partnered with an organization in Nairobi, Kenya called the Kuza projects that works to empower young girls to become more independent and healthy. Among other things, the organization teaches the girls about sexual health AND financial literacy. When I first heard this, I remember thinking that the financial literacy training seemed a little out of place, but after learning so much about how many women are economically dependent on men, it seems that it only makes sense to include lessons on finance in the curriculum.

    Although I would agree that economic dependence is a major factor obstructing women’s rights and freedoms to make her own decisions, I would hesitate to say that it is the only factor. I would also question whether a society’s culture comes into play when subjugating women. Even if a female has enough income to be independent from men, will she be looked down upon for not having a husband and family? Even in the United States, until only recently, it was slightly looked down upon when women chose to live their lives without a partner, or to focus on their careers instead of choosing to marry or have kids.

  5. Sarah,
    I really enjoyed your blog post and felt it was very insightful. I would like to focus on your first discussion question. Although I agree that economic empowerment and financial independence is essential for reducing the spread of infectious disease and for minimizing gender inequalities in developing countries, it is not the sole factor. Even women who do acquire the means to support themselves financially are still pushed into a continuous, crushing cycle of gender inequality. Farmer discusses how female prostitution plays an essential role in the spread of disease among poor women who are often forced into the trade by a dire need for money; this need may be exacerbated by a lack of dependence on a spouse or other male authority figure with greater access to financial resources. Many of these women regard prostitution as the only way to acquire their own source of income in a society that bars them from the majority of jobs available.
    By becoming prostitutes, these women do, in a sense, achieve some sort of financial independence, as they are in control of the means in which they attain their income and may turn away clients if necessary. However, they are still almost wholly subject to the will of men; many of these women receive male clients that refuse to pay if a condom is used, and a desperate need for money may push these women to agree to such demands, even with proper education regarding sexually transmitted infectious diseases such as HIV.
    I therefore believe that financial responsibility will not be entirely effective without a challenge to the underlying social structures of poverty and gender inequality. Women in developing countries must be granted rights equal to those of men in order to truly achieve some sort of control over their lives. They must be allowed to work jobs in respectable fields within the public sphere that do not expose them to sexually transmitted diseases.

  6. Great post! I also agree that women’s financial independence is a very important and effective way to promote health and autonomy. I’d also add that women’s education is probably equally important, even if it’s not education as we always think of it (literacy, numeracy, etc.) but even just education about health and reproduction, etc.

    But this also got me thinking, given some of the backlash by men in the communities where these financial independence programs are implemented, why are “women’s empowerment” programs only focused on women? Obviously men are involved in the persistent oppression of women around the world (whether intentionally or not), so it would make sense to me that programs to empower women also involve reaching out to and educating men on the benefits to their communities of promoting women’s health, education, and financial independence. Does this happen? Is it effective? Genuinely curious.

  7. Sarah, I really appreciated your blog post and how you explored the multifaceted ways in which we can facilitate gains in women’s economic, educational, social and political agency abroad. I was particularly drawn to the case study on how installing toilets enabled young girls to return to school. Most discussions on the built environment at Brown focus on ableism, how architecture/landscape is designed and built on the assumption that everyone can equally access it, rather than how the built environment reifies gender inequality as in Zambia. Thank you for deepening my perspective on this issue!

    While I do believe that it is essential to combat “injustice…through providing women the means to become financially independent”, we must also consider what it means to be “empowered” in the context of each society. Money, of course, greatly improves a woman’s stability. It ensures that a person has a shelter, food, more devices that improve reproductive health, and is correlated with improved health status. However, many village societies place less value on money and more value on communal wealth, familial ties, and exchanges as exemplified in Monique and the Mango Rains. When capitalism is introduced to traditionally communal groups, social stratification increases as does inequality. Additionally, community values are undermined in lieu of personal pursuits.

    With that being said, I believe that patriarchal ideologies pose more of an obstacle to women achieving reproductive justice and health, because it is the root from which women’s financial dependency stems. Ideas of a false dichotomy between men and women as superior and inferior, respectively, need to be dismantled, as economic and reproductive policies arise from these prejudices. Since this is a lofty goal that is years in the making, I generally believe that the financial independence (through capitalism) of which you speak is an effective solution to reproductive justice and empowerment as long as long as it is married with and not in opposition to community values.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, everyone! I see a common theme in a lot of the feedback that financial freedom must also include a change in the cultural dynamics within a community. If not, no actual improvement would be made.

      In reaction, I’d like to draw attention to the point that Elena brought to light–we never seem to hear about campaigns that teach men about “women’s health, education, and financial independence.” I tried to do some research on the matter and came up with very little information. This leads me to believe that any sort of global health program advocating for women’s rights has only focused on women, which is only half the answer. If men start to realize that women’s rights and women’s health share a direct relationship, maybe we will see a decrease in women who contract HIV and other venereal diseases and an increase in women who are in control of their own reproduction.

      Furthermore, I am very excited to hear about Globemed’s approach that Sierra mentioned, in which they teach women in Nairobi about sexual health *and* financial literacy, which also sounds like an awesome solution. It seems like the root problem of women’s health inequalities in developing countries lies in the cultures themselves, and the only solution is to drastically change the status quo.

  8. Hey guys, I’d like to add a bit more after reflecting on the additional readings from this semester.

    In Adia Benton’s HIV Exceptionalism, she shows that in an advocacy event, women are encouraged to become economically independent while simultaneously raising their own self-esteem. In theory, these two factors would build on each other so that women would be in positions in which they could more easily bargain with their sex partners for condom use. I find that the aspect of self-esteem is very interesting and in fact hopeful. We’ve discussed how the more difficult part in women’s independence is often the cultural pressure they face to stand by a man, but with campaigns encouraging women to ultimately stand strong front of their sex partners, perhaps this pressure would be lifted, even if just a little bit. Adding the concept of self-esteem to promoting women’s economic independence is a step in the right direction.

  9. Hey Sarah,
    This was an awesome post and thanks for the update!

    I definitely had not linked the importance of financial independence to health, but your argument is really clear and it connected some dots that I hadn’t! Your post also made me think of BRAC, which was shown in the Rx for Survival video. The video didn’t show many of the potential consequences; it seemed like an extremely positive way to empower women while improving the health of communities…

    I really like the point you made about asking for condoms vs. dependency on rent. And I think the issue of economic dependence vs. personal power is just as much of a problem domestically as it is globally when it comes to condom use, etc. Which really illuminates the importance of financial freedom for women everywhere, period. (*cough* why we need feminism *cough*).

    I think it’s also important to think about empowerment and self esteem and financial freedom for girls, not just women.

    School is definitely a place of empowerment and (health) education and literacy for girls–from what I’ve heard from friends who have worked in schools abroad, it’s not so much that the girls rely on men, but that they feel obligated to them and to their families. School is a place for girls to feel independent and to have something of their own, doing something for themselves–that’s pretty empowering. It can protect them from an abusive situation at home by giving them somewhere to go. School can also provide women with opportunities and perspective outside the life that they know (that is very dependent on men)–such as economic empowerment. Empowering women and girls by showing that what they have to offer is valuable is a place to start.

    1. Sylvie,

      I agree that valuing girls’ education is one of the best things we can do to empower females, and that starting young is the best plan of action. You bring up a great point–self-esteem is a great way to empower women, and economic independence is not the only way to reach that goal. Keeping girls in school not only increases a girl’s confidence in her own capabilities, but it can actually decrease her likeliness of child marriage and ultimately keep her safer from STDs such as HIV than a girl who is not enrolled/drops out of school. This is a common reason for campaigns to keep girls in school in some regions of the Middle East.

      It will be a long road to gender equality, especially in developing countries. But with your idea on lifting women’s confidence with academics, I agree that we can come one step further to leveling the playing field!

  10. Hey Sarah!

    I appreciate all the solutions you’ve proposed in your blog post. The one thing that strikes me about this is that gender equality is so deeply ingrained into societies and cultures that so many aspects have to be improved upon for change to occur. I completely agree that financial independence is a key factor in women’s empowerment, but in a society like Mali or India it might not mean much that a woman has her own source of income. If the man still holds some kind of symbolic power over her (that he draws from societal norms), he can just take that money away from her and spend it on himself. This is one of the problems with women’s empowerment through micro-finance that I’ve observed in India. I guess that’s the nature of structural violence – no single thing will fix it because the entire societal structure is build on it.

    To answer your second discussion question, I think the installation of toilets in schools is a wonderful idea. I don’t really believe in magic bullets, and I don’t think this serves as a magic bullet to gender inequality overall, but I think bathrooms come close to being a magic bullet when it comes to gender inequality in education. And that can go a long way in a generation or two.

    1. Hey Ria,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I like what you said about toilets being magic bullets. In class, we’ve discussed magic bullets in the context of direct disease-ridding agents such as vaccines. These can be harmful because they pull people away from considering the social determinants of disease, and encourage a thought process that attributes the root of all disparity to disease itself. But perhaps we can expand the definition of a magic bullet to include an action that attacks a social determinant! Seems like a hopeful direction in which to push.

  11. Hi Sarah,

    Your blog post is very eye-opening and interesting! Gender inequality, especially in developing countries, proves to cause severe socioeconomic issues for women. The personal narratives you recounted in your post truly highlight the severity of this situation. To answer your first question, I think public health projects, such as the one you mentioned in Zambia, can help alleviate the severity of gender inequalities. As you mentioned, increased attendance in school will protect women from relying on men, which will decrease gender inequality worldwide. While I believe that financial freedom from men can empower women and help decrease this inequality, I still don’t think it is enough for women in developing countries. For example, men may still have a patriarchal mindset over women, and could rape and sexually abuse them. Therefore, I think it is important for laws and surveillance to be passed in such countries that will help decrease these forms of abuse.

    1. Julianne,

      You’re definitely right–laws and surveillance are ultimately imperative if we are going to move towards true gender equality. Unfortunately, it seems that political enforcement will be implemented quite far in the future. Furthermore, in a place where sexual assault and rape are crimes punishable by imprisonment, such as the US, equality still runs rampant (though arguably not to the same degree as, let’s say, Zambia). And so we face the question–what does it take for a population to *internalize* equality in the way that we truly need? Perhaps it’s a process that takes more time than we can imagine. I’d say that both economic independence and surveillance laws over assault are great places to start.

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