Economic Justice as a Site for Women’s Empowerment

Economic justice is required to level the playing field and facilitate gender equality. This can only be altered through structural interventions that will empower women and a concerted focus on changing their socioeconomic status.

Masego Madzwamuse's picture

Team Leader: Economic and Social Justice Cluster

March 25th, 2015

Notwithstanding the relatively impressive rates of economic growth in Africa over the past ten years or so, poverty and inequality, however measured, has remained stubbornly high. Economic growth is expected to remain positive and robust in most parts of Africa. The African Development Bank (AfDB, 2014a), in the 2014 Africa Economic Outlook Report, cited the 2013 GDP for Sub-Saharan Africa at five percent. The report further projected Africa’s GDP for 2014 at 5.8 percent. In light of this positive economic boom, Muchena (2012: 23) notes that this has translated into a ‘rising middle class, a rapidly urbanising population, strong investments in infrastructure, education, health and a strong penetration of ICTs [information and communication technologies].’ 

Despite the optimism expressed by Muchena (2012), countries experiencing improved and sustained economic growth rates have largely failed to address structural poverty and inequality challenges, allowing the increased wealth to trickle down to the grassroots level. Ravallion (2007) succinctly cautions:

High initial inequality makes poverty less responsive to growth… the higher the initial inequality, the less the poor will share in the gains from growth. Unless there is sufficient change in distribution, people who have larger initial share of the pie will tend to gain a larger share in the pie’s extension. 

These challenges repeat themselves in many parts of the world. Development actors are thus engaged in formulating a transformative agenda for development. As the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MGD) era approaches, there have been collective efforts to take stock of progress made as well outline a new transformative agenda for development. Substantial progress has been made on many of the MDG targets such as universal primary education, poverty (in terms of reducing the number of people living on less than US$1 per day) and decreases in child and infant mortality. 

However, persistent inequalities remain. In particular, gender-based inequality, economic crises and environmental degradation are holding back progress on many development goals. The world faces an enormous task of responding to multiple crises. These include lifting more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, meeting the livelihood needs of the projected 2050 population of nine billion while maintaining environmental sustainability (Kumar, Thakur, van der Heijen & Hazlewood, 2014). 

All this points to the fallibility of currently accepted economic models and political assumptions that have informed development over the years. The existing development agenda has failed to prevent these threats from arising and mitigating them because they have not been transformative in practice. These development models fail to address the structural drivers of poverty and inequality and remain peripheral to government, business, international aid policy and decision-making. Most importantly, global development frameworks and the domestication of these have been unsuccessful in accounting for the differential realities faced by poverty-stricken communities in countries across the globe.

The Other Half Left Behind

Gender inequality is one of the most important structural reasons why Africa has not reached its MDGs on poverty reduction and other development targets. Structural barriers and social norms in such as the patriarchy continue to limit women’s potential to contribute to Africa’s economic growth and sustainable development. Women’s economic and social empowerment should be placed at the centre of strategies for building cohesive and dynamic economies (AfDB, 2014b). An even greater challenge highlighted in this paper is how to address the poverty status of women.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO, 2014), women remain overrepresented among the poor even though they account for more than 80 percent of food producers and 60 percent of labour force participation in Africa. It is estimated that women account for two-thirds of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty (ibid). Across Sub-Saharan Africa, women are more likely to be living in poor households than men. Their poverty status makes them particularly vulnerable to food insecurity (ibid). Women are more at risk of food insecurity than men, particularly in rural areas. Food insecurity among female-headed households is also an emerging challenge (FAO, 2014). 

While most research has focused on the food security challenges of women in rural areas it is also important that we do not lose sight of the plight facing women in urban areas. Recent studies reveal that Southern Africa for instance is urbanising rapidly, and it is expected that more than half of the region’s population will be living in urban areas by 2025 (Africa Food Security Urban Network, 2010). Rapid urbanisation in Southern Africa has led to an increasing migration to cities, as the Africa Food Security Urban Network (ibid) found in the 11 Southern African cities where a survey was conducted, a majority of the households (34 percent) were female-headed households experienced food insecurity compared to only 12 percent of the surveyed households being male-headed. In these contexts, the challenge is access to food rather than availability. This is mainly driven by rapid increase in food prices, lack of purchasing power due to low incomes and limited job opportunities.

Women in Southern Africa and most parts of the continent suffer chronic food insecurity driven by challenges such as limited access to land, markets and access to extension services. In Zimbabwe, it is estimated that female-headed households have five to 30 percent smaller sized landholdings than their male counterparts. They still lack access to quality land, property and inheritance rights while gender-based violence and discrimination persist in many areas which in turn hinders women’s civic and political representation (Cela, Dankelmen & Stern, 2013; GADN, 2013). 

Women dominate vulnerable sectors of the economy as they make up the majority of actors in the informal sector. They are estimated to comprise 60 percent of the 572 million working poor. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is one of the two regions of the world with the highest informal employment, especially among women (Chen, 2008; Heintz & Valodia 2008). To the extent that underemployment in the low-end informal activities is considered to be a much greater problem than unemployment (Heintz & Valodia 2008). Although more acute in the continent, the above trends are not unique to Africa, globally women only take up 40 out of 100 wage earning jobs in non-agricultural sector. In both formal and informal employment the general trend is women earn 30 to 40 percent less than their male counterparts (OECD, 2012). 

Overall women face a combination of different forms of poverty, income poverty, asset poverty, opportunities poverty and access poverty. These multidimensional forms of poverty are more deeply felt by rural women in Sub-Saharan African countries making them literally the poorest of the poor (McFerson, 2010). In Southern Africa, gender inequality is persistent in virtually all spheres of life – from customary practices and labour market discrimination to unequal access to social services and economic resources such as land (Jauch & Muchena, 2011). This is reflected, for example, in the gendered impact of HIV/AIDS, which is still a major scourge in the region. Given the inter-link between poverty, gender and HIV, it is hardly surprising that the impacts of the epidemic have hit women and female small-scale farmers the hardest. 

Economic justice is required to level the playing field and facilitate gender equality. This can only be altered through structural interventions that will empower women and a concerted focus on changing their socioeconomic status.

Framing Economic Justice for Women

Economic social and cultural rights need to be at the centre of women’s empowerment and economic justice central to their struggles for gender equality. The greatest problems facing women are poverty, inequality and unemployment. Furthermore, third generation rights are crucial for women’s economic empowerment. The reason being the majority of rural populations in Africa are directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. As indicated earlier the majority of small scale farmers are women. Women’s rights movements need to shift their focus to economic and social cultural rights and push for basic principles of social justice and public obligation. The status of women can only be enhanced if they progressively realise both their civil and political and their economic and social rights. Such a strategy would highlight areas that are critical for expanding opportunities for women particularly those who are most economically marginalised and vulnerable and support demands for state protection and enabling frameworks. 

Economic justice is defined in many ways. According to the Centre for Social and Economic Justice (n.d.), economic justice is about the individual and the social order and ensuring that institutions are designed to provide fair equal opportunities for persons to earn a living and exchange good and services. All persons must have opportunities for meaningful work and income that provides them with adequate food, shelter and a level of living that contributes to their good health (Lundy & van Wormer, 2007). A critical element is for all people to have equal access to material foundations for active economic sustenance. 

Economic justice is dependent on three essential principles which govern both the social and economic order in a society. These are the principles of participative, social and distributive justice. Distributive justice has been largely defined in the context of the liberal market economy and places emphasis on the distributional features of private property within a free and open marketplace. It is linked to economic rights and to individuals’ input into the economy, either through labour or capital inputs. The principle of distributive justice involves the sanctity of property and contracts. It turns to the free and open marketplace, not government, as the most objective and democratic means for determining the just price, the just wage, and the just profit. Obviously this is not a useful interpretation in the context of women’s economic empowerment in the sense that women are denied access to capital and their labour inputs are not recognised or accounted for. Distributive justice needs to be understood in the context of social justice and as a principle to facilitate redistribution and equity in access to productive resources. Furthermore, the current economic status of women is in itself proof that markets cannot be relied upon to deliver inclusive benefits and government regulation is required as well as economic instruments that facilitate affirmative action for marginalised and excluded groups. 

Participative justice on the other hand has been interpreted as requiring equal opportunity in gaining access to private property in productive assets as well as equality of opportunity to engage in productive work (Centre for Social and Economic Justice, n.d.). In this context, it requires that every person be guaranteed by society’s institutions the equal human right to make a contribution to the economy both through once labour and through productive capital. This principle fundamentally rejects exclusionary social barriers drawing on the principle of social justice which is based on fairness (Centre for Social and Economic Justice, n.d.). The implication is official policies should result in equal allocation of benefits among participants of the economy the assumption is markets can deliver distributive justice. 

The interpretation of economic justice above takes an apolitical perspective which ignores the fact that a social and economic order is driven by powerful actors with interest in the economy. These interests are what drives inequality, has resulted in the economic marginalisation of women and drives poverty and inequality. Agency is required to secure economic justice for women and other marginalised sectors of society. Advocacy becomes a central strategy to confronting discrimination, oppression and institutional inequities (Lundy & van Wormer, 2007). Also noting these limitations, Wilson (1989) came to the conclusion several years ago that economic theory is woefully inadequate in terms of understanding economic justice, particularly in defining the desirable degree of equality in the distribution of wealth and income. Wilson (1989) suggests drawing knowledge from the philosophers and political economists who have dealt with these concepts in depth. 

An important concept that emerges from the body of this work is that of productive justice which relates to the fairness of participation by individuals in the economic system and considering the impact of the methods of production on the fulfilment of basic needs, employment levels, patterns of discrimination and environmental quality and a sense of community. Others include concepts of capabilities and entitlements associated with Amatya Sen’s (2009) work. The expanded interpretation of justice that takes into account capabilities, access to a bundle of entitlements, productive capacities underpinned by social justice is crucial for the economic empowerment of women.

The above therefore goes beyond the mainstream interpretations of distributive and participative justice which is mainly concerned with the nature of individual economic relations and allocating benefits of an economic system according to merit, rank and essential needs. It looks into both the processes within an economic system and its impacts on the society. Emphasis is placed on observations made by Sen (2009) individuals are essentially social beings and socioeconomic integration is a crucial process through which a just economic system can be attained. I consider this interpretation particularly useful for purposes of both understanding the structural drivers of women’s economic marginalisation and drawing recommendations for strategic shifts that are required.  

Structural Roots and Drivers of Women’s Economic Marginalisation

Women’s poverty is in part caused by gender inequality and in particular the unequal distribution of income and control over productive resources (Seguino & Were, 2013; GADN, 2013; UN Women, 2014; McFerson, 2010). Several systemic factors combine to drive women’s poverty and gender inequality including traditional restrictions on women’s property rights, lack of opportunities and social exclusion (see Figure 1). These issues conflate to drive women’s poverty and undermine gender equality. While all these issues are important for unpacking the drivers of gender inequality and slow progress in women’s economic empowerment, I will focus on only three of the problems: unequal distribution and control of resources between men and women, constraints on socioeconomic mobility and lack of decision-making power, particularly in terms of shaping development, and macroeconomic policy frameworks.

Figure 1: Achieving Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Post-2015 (GADN, 2013)

Women are considered to play a pivotal role in the use and management of land (UNECA, 2004). Apart from being managers and producers of food at both household and community level women are also carriers of local knowledge, coping strategies and cultural memory. Despite this, women are subjected to unequal gender distribution and control of productive resources (land, property and financial resources). Customary laws and practices have led to insecurity of tenure as women can often only acquire rights to land through their husbands and male relatives. In cases where the law has been revised to strengthen the land rights of women they still face challenges of access to credit, inputs, technology as well as access to extension services. In many cases women who are involved in farming own smaller plots of land in comparison to their male counterparts. In Zimbabwe for instance female-headed households in rural areas have up to 30 to 50 percent smaller land holdings compared to male-headed households. Recently the continent has seen a wave of large scale land investments which have led to loss of access to land for small-scale farmers. The negative impacts of these land acquisitions often hit women as a result of their pre-existing vulnerabilities driven by economic and social exclusion and power differentials within the communities. 

Agricultural reform policies have yielded limited benefits for women mainly due insecurity of tenure which has resulted in difficulties raising collateral in cases where finance is sought. In cases where women are not property owners satisfying the requirements of banks for collateral have been extremely challenging. The overemphasis on agricultural production for export, overemphasis on cash crops and under-accounting for production of food for community and household consumption has resulted in the exclusion of women, living them trapped in vicious cycle of poverty. Liberalisation of the agricultural sector has also led to commodification of land, water and natural resources. This is especially important for women given that production and reproduction undertakings are driven by activities outside the formal market. The production of food for instance depends on access to land and other resources which are public goods like water. Unfortunately, the formal money market economy has transformed water into a commodity for sale and women are the losers in this process (Mutopo & Chiweshe, 2014). 

Constraints to women’s economic mobility is a result of a number of factors. Some of these include cultural, legal and labour market barriers, unequal distribution of household tasks and integration of the care role into the economy. With regard to labour market barriers, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO, 2012) Global Employment Trends, 50.5 percent of the world’s working women were in vulnerable employment, often unprotected by labour legislation, compared to 48.4 percent for men. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the figures are even more disturbing, nearly 85 percent of women are in vulnerable employment compared to 70 percent of men (ibid). Research evidence points that a majority of women are made vulnerable as they are largely employed in the informal economy. As Blaauw (2011) notes that 72 percent of non-agricultural employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is informal, out of that 84 percent of that is made largely by vulnerable women. 

Even more worrying is that outside of the informal economy, formal economic opportunities for women are limited in a majority of Sub-Saharan African states. According to the World Bank (2013) women are often relegated to low-skilled and low-wage employment, as informal or seasonal workers or as unpaid domestic workers. This is a result of gender gaps that exist in education, literacy and skills, resulting in a higher concentration of women in lower-value segments of the economic value chain. The situation as noted by Coles and Mitchell (2011) is further exacerbated by existing social norms and perceptions influencing the gender- segregation of tasks and the low value attributed to them. Furthermore, Seguino and Were (2013) describe the majority of Sub-Saharan African states as low-income agricultural economies (LIAEs).

In LIAEs men dominate the cash crop and commercial agricultural sectors as well as in mineral extraction (Seguino & Were, 2013). Women on the other hand are concentrated in unpaid subsistence food production for example, producing food crops such as indigenous fruits, vegetables and staple food crops such as maize meal and cassava. However, it is also important to highlight the existing economic and gender discriminatory patterns in Sub-Saharan African countries and to point out progress that has been made in economically empowering women to actively engage in the economic sector thus far. In Southern African countries, such as South Africa, women are increasingly being employed in mining. In other countries within the Southern African region, women are also increasingly taking part in commercial agriculture, as is the case in Zimbabwe where women small-scale farmers are benefiting from commercial tobacco sales from plots they own, as observed in the New York Times (2012).

 Liberalisation and market reform policies across the continent have been detrimental to the economic status of women (SAPRIN, 2002). Agriculture, trade, mining and financial sector reforms and other policy interventions associated with structural adjustment policies have been particularly harmful for women, the poor and those who live in low income generating areas. Economic adjustments associated with these frameworks led to the impoverishment of local populations through the demise in many cases of domestic manufacturing sectors and losses of gainful employment by laid off workers and small scale producers. A drive for privatisation and the introduction of user fees have reduced the role of the state in providing access to affordable services in key sectors such as health, housing and utilities and thereby putting additional pressure on the meagre financial resources than women and female-headed households have access to. Budgets cuts in conjunction with labour market liberalisation resulted in less secure employment, lower wages, fewer benefits for workers and an erosion of workers’ rights and their bargaining power. These developments have impacted women more as they make up the bulk on unskilled labour as well as poorly represented by labour organisations. 

The orientation of macroeconomic policy frameworks has been largely orientated towards facilitating production for export and attracting foreign direct investment at the expense of local economies and local production. Part of the problem lies in the structure of the economy which is characterised by enclavity (Jauch & Muchena, 2011). This enclave economy is typically characterised by a relatively small and well-resourced formal sector that operates in isolation from a large, growing and poverty-stricken informal economy and the communal subsistence economy (ibid). Women dominate the informal economy they are faced with constant harassment from and policies barriers that limit the economic potential of their activities instead of policies that are aimed to support their activities.


Although there has been rapid resource-driven growth, the majority of people in Southern Africa, especially women, remain trapped in poverty and are excluded from meaningful political participation and deprived of basic services and rights that every modern state should provide. The challenges to obtaining women’s economic and social rights continue to be multifaceted and largely interconnected. Transformative changes are required that push an agenda of expanding freedoms and sustainable development, rather than merely economic growth and consumption. There are differentiated impacts of economic and development policies for diverse segments of the population. 

In addition, gender inequalities impact on policy outcomes and prescriptions in different ways. Inequality continues to grow, both between the rich and the poor and between men and women. Women and children face greater vulnerability because they hold less power in most societies in Southern Africa. Women struggle to acquire land, credit, and market access for their produce. There is also inadequate political participation of women and a lack of transparency in decision-making processes, some of which continue to be driven by patriarchal considerations which shut out women from the political processes. Policy approaches that are informed by a women’s rights perspective are critical to achieving inclusive and sustainable development which leads to progressive outcomes.

At the centre of these policy approaches ought to be efforts to strengthen women’s economic autonomy and an investment in their capabilities. This can be achieved by building the capacity of women to generate their own income and control their assets and resources, by placing their rights at the centre of development, protecting the essential rights of women, shifting the macroeconomic architecture and economic systems in favour of women, increasing investment in women’s capital as a key development model, promoting transparency and meaningful engagement of women, creating enabling conditions for women to realise their full potential and emphasising their development outcomes. 

Masego Madzwamuse s programme manager, Economic Justice Programme, OSISA 



AfDB (2014a) Africa Economic Outlook 2014. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

AfDB (2014b) Assessing Progress in Africa Toward the MDGs. Food Security in Africa: Issues, challenges and lessons. From: Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Africa Food Security Urban Network (2010) The State of Urban Food Security in Southern Africa. Idasa Publishing: Cape Town. 

Blaauw D (2011) The informal sector: An African perspective. Presentation prepared for the Department of Trade and Industry, Small Business Summit, 10 to 12 October. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Centre for Social and Economic Justice (n.d.) Defining economic justice. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Cela B, Dankelmen I & Stern J (2013) Powerful Synergies: Gender equality, economic development and environmental sustainability. UNDP.

Coles C & Mitchell J (2011) Gender and Agriculture Value Chains: A review of current knowledge and practice and their policy implications. FAO. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

ILO (2012) Global Employment Trends 2012. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Jauch H & Muchena D (2011) Tearing Us Apart: Inequalities in Southern Africa. OSISA.

Kiptot E & Franzel S (2011) Gender and Agroforestry in Africa: Are women participating? ICRAF Occasional Paper No. 13. World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Kumar G, Thakur M, van der Heijen K & Hazlewood P (2014) A Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda. IRF. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Lundy C & van Wormer K (2007) Social and Economic Justice, Human Rights and Peace. International Social Work, 50(6), 727-739.

McFerson HM (2010) Poverty Among Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: A review of selected issues. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(4), 50-72

Muchena D (2012) Africa is Rising! Rhodes Journalism Review, 32. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Mutopo P & Chiweshe MK (2014) Water Resources and Biofuel Production after the Fast-Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe. African Identities, 1(1), 3-15.

OECD (2012) Closing the Gender Gap: Act now. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Polgreen L (2012) In Zimbabwe, Land Takeover a Golden Lining. New York Times, 20 July. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Ravallion M (2007) Economic growth and poverty reduction: Do poor countries need to worry about inequality? In Micklewright J & Jenkins S (eds) Inequality is Bad for the Poor. Inequality and Poverty Re-Examined. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

SAPRIN (2002) The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis and Poverty: A multi-country participatory assessment of structural adjustment.

Seguino S & Were M (2013) Gender, Development and Economic Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa. Paper Presented at the African Economic Research Consortium, Biennial Research Workshop. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

Sen A (2009) The Idea of Justice. Belknap Press: Harvard University, MA, US.

UNECA (2004) Land Tenure Systems and their Impacts on Food Security and Sustainable Development in Africa. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

UN Women (2013) A Transformative Standalone Goal on Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Women’s Empowerment.

Wilson JO (1989) Socioeconomic Justice. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014.

World Bank, The (2013) Doing Business 2013: Smarter Regulations for Small and Medium-Size Enterprises. From: . Accessed: 3 December 2014..

About the author(s)

Masego is the Team Leader for the Economic and Social Justice Cluster. Prior to joining OSISA she was a freelance consultant working in the area of environment and development. Before then she was a Programme Manager for the UNDP TerrAfrica initiative, which was aimed as mobilizing civil society engagement in processes aimed at up-scaling sustainable land management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before working for UNDP Masego was a Country Programme Coordinator for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Botswana and later Regional Programmes Development Officer for the IUCN Regional Office of Southern Africa in Pretoria. She holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Sciences and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Environmental Science.


  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099