Women’s Economic Empowerment: A Double-Edged Sword for Gender-Based Violence

Contributions to this blog were made by Amref Health Africa in Canada and the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is one of the most prevalent human rights issues in the world. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. GBV is a multifaceted issue that undermines the health, dignity, security and autonomy of women and has a pervasive effect across political, social and economic sectors. Since 2020, this has only intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, where social and economic repercussions left many isolated in homes with heightened tensions, without income from informal jobs, and lacking the support and protection of schools and community centres that were safe havens from abuse. 

  1. The Interplay Between GBV and Economic Empowerment

Programming on preventing GBV has enhanced the linkages and understanding of the use of violence as a deliberate strategy to exercise and exert power over women and maintain gendered structures, institutions and knowledge systems. As a result, it has become increasingly clear that GBV and women’s economic empowerment (WEE) are interlinked and dependent. Therefore, in order to create an environment where the health, rights and well-being of women can thrive, it is essential to develop policies, programs and resources that address the complexities that exist between economic empowerment and GBV.

GBV creates barriers to women’s economic opportunity, preventing them from realizing their full economic potential, because it limits their access to resources and circumstances that drive their economic growth. For example, when women lack control over crucial economic resources, like equitable land ownership or access to credit, they must depend on male partners or relatives which not only increases their vulnerability to GBV but also diminishes their decision-making capacity and control over their lives. 

Further, WEE can contribute to decreasing GBV. In particular, according to Oxfam America, WEE can end and prevent GBV In the following ways:

  • WEE increases women’s household bargaining power and ability to leave a violent relationship, including the ability to negotiate household power relations; 
  • Household poverty decreases; 
  • At the community level, it contributes to shifts in attitudes, gender relations of power and a reduction of the acceptance or impunity surrounding domestic violence (DV); 
  • It lessens financial dependence on an abusive partner and provides women with the means to rent their own home and set up a new life and; 
  • It creates easier access to lawyers and legal aid. 

WEE also increases women’s financial independence and knowledge about finances including how to manage and budget which makes it less likely for them to end up in economically abusive relationships. 

Conversely, as women become more economically secure, GBV and DV may actually increase, especially when: 

  • Men use violence as a way to control women’s income or resources or to express dissatisfaction about shifting household roles;
  • There is anger or backlash at the community level among men in response to women’s increasing market activity or economic status. 

The answer to reducing GBV does not lie in simply improving conditions for women’s economic empowerment through policy or programming initiatives. The pervasive nature of GBV in homes, workplaces and public spaces, coupled with risks faced by women both in paid work — formal, informal and self-employed — and in their unpaid care roles and care work, requires a comprehensive approach. It is imperative to look beyond direct economic impacts, and address broader structural inequalities, including breaking down harmful gender social norms and power relations. Prioritizing shifting power dynamics will enable women to make direct decisions that advance their well-being and position in society. 

  1. Power and GBV

The interplay between GBV and WEE has shifted from being solely focused on economic concerns — such as income generation, land, labour, product and financial markets — to recognizing the importance of women having power and control over resources necessary to meaningfully participate in decision-making that benefits them, their families and their communities. 

Both formal and informal power relations have pervasive ways of hindering advancements for WEE. From visible, recognizable structures like the laws and rules that govern society to socialized norms (e.g., societal taboos around discussing money and finances), everyday cultural practices help to keep those suffering from economic abuse silent.  

These power dynamics show up in other areas, as well. For example, GBV and unequal power relationships directly hamper women’s ability to enter, advance and remain in the job market and make contributions commensurate with their abilities. The 2021 research study of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) found that 86% of participating survivors from the Greater Ottawa region reported employment sabotage by their abuser. This correlates with a 2022 report by WomanAct that confirms 78% of racialized survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) confirmed their partner tried to sabotage their employment while at work, including interfering with their transportation to work or their sleep (both 37%), used physical or emotional abuse before work (36%) or harassed them with phone calls or text messages (42%). For survivors facing additional intersectional power imbalances in their employment, the workplace impacts of GBV can be even more profound. 

Shifting the power relations that drive inequality and exclusion is a multidimensional process that requires changes at all levels — economic, political and social. Increasing women’s economic empowerment does not have a simple cause-and-effect relationship with GBV, which is why WEE projects need to go beyond providing economic resources and technical skills training and include a broader, intersectional approach that strengthens women’s agency, bargaining power and that addresses power dynamics at the workplace and within household decision making. Dismantling barriers through systems-level change, understanding the root causes of GBV and addressing the imbalances of power is paramount to increase women’s economic (and overall) empowerment. 

For example, In Siaya County in Kenya, Amref collaborated with the County Government to finalize the Community Health Services Bill, which is currently undergoing public participation. Once the bill is fully signed, stipends for Community Health Workers (CHWs) will be covered by law as a sustainability measure. Community Health Workers, who are mostly unpaid volunteers, are the bridge between the community and the health facilities and provide vital health services to the communities they serve. Most CHWs are women and have no formal employment. The County is also finalizing the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) policy, which proposes payment of health insurance to indigents and other vulnerable community members to allow them to access health services free of charge.

  1. Mitigating Risks and Creating Systemic Change 

There are a variety of factors that we can focus on to drive progress for women’s economic empowerment. In particular, there needs to be a concentrated focus on integrated programming that links WEE and GBV and emphasizes building agency, relationships (both community level and structural) and transforming power dynamics. Further, a focus on building relationships and creating transformative change for the following community groups will ensure the sustainability of programmatic efforts and that steps are taken towards long-term behavioural change. It’s particularly important to engage with: 

  • Men: Women’s economic empowerment and effective GBV prevention requires engaging men for support, buy-in and addressing potential resistance or backlash. By engaging with the men directly involved in women’s lives (including intimate partners, co-workers, managers, community members and municipal officials) entrenched gender norms and power imbalances begin to shift as men reflect on how they use their power and develop skills to promote health which play into the overall support for women’s empowerment and participation. 
  • Elders and community leaders: To ensure an enabling environment that promotes gender equality and challenges GBV, it is essential to work with those who have power in the community. Buy-in from these communities are key to transforming and disseminating messages around GBV and empowerment and ensuring that they  trickle down throughout the community. By working together and giving community leaders a deeper understanding of the positive aspects of women’s economic empowerment and how it relates to current socio-political structures, we are building equitable structures and participation from everyone in society.
  • Youth: Youth engagement is necessary to ensure that change is passed on from one generation to the next. When youth are trained and help to bring that change within their communities and at the household level, they can speak up about GBV within their own spaces and peer groups..
  • Development practitioners: Failure to integrate GBV prevention into economic empowerment interventions would increase the social and economic challenges that women already face and jeopardize any intended benefits of WEE. Practitioners engaged in WEE need to be better prepared to assess GBV risks and handle situations of GBV among participants in their programs. For example, in Lebanon, ABAAD provided information on the prevalence and acceptance of GBV, insights on links between WEE processes and GBV, GBV risk mitigation training, and information on local referral systems.
  • Governments: Advocacy efforts are needed to address legislative, policy and regulatory gaps that put women at risk of harm in the workplace, prevent their economic participation, and perpetuate violence against women/GBV. In some contexts, gender-responsive instruments may already exist but are inadequately implemented or enforced, in which case civil society groups play an instrumental role in advocating for accountability mechanisms that will protect women.
  • Services providers: Victim-survivors often face systemic barriers when trying to access services and essential resources that stem from an absence of a coordinated cross-sectoral response and a general lack of services tailored to their needs. As a result, women can feel revictimized and retraumatized and are potentially overwhelmed with navigating the system so they return to abuse. The Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) therefore urges for more survivor-centred, trauma-informed and culturally sensitive services for women fleeing violence to support them to economic empowerment. 

GBV and WEE are complex, interconnected issues. Neglecting a holistic approach risks disempowering women and increasing vulnerability to GBV and discrimination. Conversely, a comprehensive approach promoting alternative norms, including women’s freedom of mobility and shared decision-making, creates an environment for women to thrive. 


January 8, 2024