Much more than raising incomes: 5 lessons from Pact’s women’s economic empowerment work

February 22, 2024
Tanzania WORTH group
Members of a Pact-supported WORTH group in Tanzania hold a banking meeting. Credit: Michael Goima/Pact

Women make up half of the world’s population, but in countless ways do not enjoy the same rights and social benefits that men do. Along with many others in the global development community, Pact has long recognized that a key to unlocking greater gender equality is women’s economic empowerment, or WEE.

WEE refers to strategic efforts to improve women's access to economic resources, opportunities and decision-making power. It involves contributing to the overall socio-economic progress not just of individual women but of societies. We have seen time and again that when women do better, so do entire communities. 

WEE has been a foundation and driving success factor in many of Pact’s programs. This has included efforts in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America to improve women’s labor rights, employment, income generation, finances and more. We’ve identified some key lessons through our programming, which we share in the spirit of collaboration with stakeholders around the world working toward gender equality.  

#1 For sustainable impact, we must strengthen systems and build enabling environments.
Our work in several countries has shown us just how important a holistic approach is. In Cambodia, our recently completed WE Act program, funded by USAID, supported women entrepreneurs as they made marked progress in the face of significant challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic and closing civic space. WE Act strengthened networks and access to markets and finance for women entrepreneurs, while working on a wider scale to develop an encouraging policy environment that helped women overcome structural barriers to entrepreneurship, and promoted a gender-neutral entrepreneurship culture. This ensured that women themselves were not just being empowered, but that the actors around them – communities, local governments, organizations – were also supporting their empowerment. 

In Colombia, the U.S. Department of Labor-funded Vamos Tejiendo project has also depended heavily on building a strong ecosystem around WEE. The project empowers women and youth in the cut flower and panela sectors, with a focus on labor rights. Vamos Tejiendo engages stakeholders such as communities, local governments, the private sector and civil society organizations to improve labor practices, and ensures that women and girls have an understanding of their rights, access to protection, influence over policy and strong economic opportunities.

#2 We can’t forget about men.
Men can be barriers to or partners in women’s economic empowerment, and WEE programming must include them. Efforts to involve men in discussions about gender-based violence, gender norms and more helps men to understand the important roles that women play and how to support them.

Under Vamos Tejiendo, stakeholders established a certification for a men’s group on co-responsible and non-violent masculinities, for example. The project also supported workshops on gender-based violence in schools and businesses, has encouraged changing perceptions about gender stereotypes, and has allowed for reflection on the relationships men and women hold in their communities. And in Ukraine, our WINGS program, funded by Global Affairs Canada, understands that in order to ensure that women are equal participants – economically and socially – in their communities, men must be engaged around the social and cultural norms that undermine women. WINGS supports women to become successful entrepreneurs and employees with in-depth training and mentorship. We are using information campaigns and community building activities to allow men and women to work together to adjust their perceptions of gender roles. This kind of understanding among men and women is crucial to WEE.

Women's economic empowerment has been a foundation and driving success factor in many of Pact’s programs.

#3 Human-centered design is a powerful tool to truly engage women.
For development to be truly sustainable, communities must be at the helm, leading and owning their own development. This is the core of Pact’s engaged communities approach, and we of course incorporate this into our WEE work. 

Pact has long implemented human-centered design, or HCD, a methodology that places the user at the heart of the design process. Starting in 2017, our staff and local partners in Myanmar used HCD to dig into the needs of local women in savings and loans groups. We then targeted needs that women and communities had directly identified. HCD combines Pact’s technical knowledge with communities’ understanding of their own needs, allowing women to empower themselves by contributing their voices to program design. WINGS has also used HCD to create tailored programming for women joining the workforce and starting businesses, and we have adjusted based on feedback from participants to ensure that our offerings remain as relevant as possible.

#4 We should lean on traditional programming while innovating.
Pact’s village savings and loan program, WORTH, has been running for over 25 years. We have reached more than 1 million women in 16 countries. Today, WORTH remains a vital backbone in many of our programs. We combine village banking with entrepreneurship and skills training as well as literacy and numeracy education and networking. WORTH is tried and true, along with other financial inclusion work we have undertaken, such as Village Development Funds in Myanmar and cash transfer programming in Tanzania. 

At the same time, we must innovate. Under WE Act, Pact launched an experimental initiative in which we served as a loan intermediary between banks and women who needed credit to support their businesses. This filled a key gap and proved more successful than anticipated, with the vast majority of women (95%) paying back their loans on time. 

#5 We must standardize an approach to measuring women’s economic empowerment.
Across global development, effectively measuring our impact is a cornerstone of success. Pact is following the joint effort by FinEquity, the Center for Global Development and Data2X to develop a standard approach to measure WEE within financial inclusion programs and initiatives. We are keen to implement a core set of indicators in our own programming to contribute data to this process.