Chris Koney’s column: Why empowering women is key to development (and what it means to be empowered)


While searching for newest international development stories about women empowerment, I came across Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift.

Many of us have already read or heard stories about the status of women, about women being undermined, assaulted or bothered for being who they are and assuming what being a woman means: from having your period to supporting everyday assumptions and looks telling you that you are less than a man.

Yet, these stories do not always help us understand why it is so essential for progress and development that women should be empowered and especially so in regions with the highest rates of poverty.

Melinda Gates’ book reflects on this question, sharing her personal experience as a foundation leader and how she became a ‘philanthropist’. More importantly, her book is based on stories about the many inspiring women she met during her field trips and how they changed her perspective on what women from around the world actually need to be and feel truly empowered.

One important example, which then became the focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation, is Family Planning.

But first, let us talk a bit more about empowerment. About what it means in its everyday meaning and why it is such an essential concept from a global development perspective. Here is one of the definitions you can find in the dictionary: Empowerment is “the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you”

In what we call richer countries, most people, including women, have this freedom and power to do what they want to do. Obviously, we should not forget that there are still (too) many exceptions and that the past few years have also been marked by a decline of women rights in some of the richest countries, such as new restrictive abortion laws in the US. Yet, this process of gaining freedom and power continues and women rights’ advocates will keep fighting.

Empowerment is the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you.

In lower-income countries, women voices are still not heard as much, making the empowerment process much slower. Here, the idea of empowerment is much more deeply related to that of development. Various studies have shown that there is a positive relation between gender equality, women empowerment and a country’s social and economic growth. (Third Billion Index, Booz & company). These studies make the case that empowering women contributes (and is even key) to improving a country’s prosperity on many levels.

Empowerment & Development

Until the years 2000s, many development projects only focused on increasing average income and improving economic welfare in the poorest countries.

Today, fortunately, this perspective has changed. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, has played a major role in this shift. His definition of Development is summarized as follows: “development must be judged by its impact on people, not only by changes in their income but more generally in terms of their choices, capabilities and freedoms; and we should be concerned about the distribution of these improvements, not just the simple average for a society.”

The freedom to choose, to choose your own life and how you want to live it, is also a key part of Sen’s definition. It seems therefore obvious that women should also be at the center of this new development approach. The UN took this into account by making Sustainable Development Goal number 5 solely dedicated to Gender Equality.

It is based on these concepts that Family Planning and access to birth control have become the focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

No country in the last fifty years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives

To make these concepts more concrete, the book discusses one of the longest-running public health studies launched in the 1970s in Bangladesh – a striking example. After giving half of a village’s families contraceptives and no contraceptives to the other half, 20 years later, this study shows that women who took contraceptives were healthier, their families wealthier and their children received more schooling.

Why? As Melinda Gates puts it: “When the women were able to time and space their pregnancies, they were more likely to advance their education, earn an income, raise healthy children, and have the time and money to give each child the food, care, and education needed to thrive. When children reach their potential, they don’t end up poor. This is how families and countries get out of poverty. In fact, no country in the last fifty years has emerged from poverty without expanding access to contraceptives”.

So how does this translate into action?

In 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed to investing more than US$1 billion to help provide 120 million women with contraceptives as well as information, and services related to family planning, by 2020.

Governments obviously have a major role in increasing access and distribution of contraceptives where they are still lacking. Until they take on more responsibility in this matter, non-profits and foundations – The Gates Foundation, Population Services International and many others – are trying to bridge the gaps.

Naturally, there are many more challenges with respect to women empowerment. Reducing menstruation taboos and easing women and girls’ access to sanitary products is one of them. When women and girls cannot « control » their period, this leads to them not being able to go to school or to work, having to hide, once again making it harder for women to do what they want to do. But this topic deserves its own story...

You can also take a look at The Pad Project and watch their amazing documentary, Period. End of Sentence, which received an Oscar for best documentary short this year. It will only take you 20 minutes.

Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.



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