Ideas Matter: Providing a big push towards women empowerment

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In 2030, six percent of the world population could still be living in extreme poverty. This would be in spite of all the effort that is being made to achieve the first sustainable development goal of eradication of all forms of poverty. Presently, over 730 million people live in extreme poverty i.e below the international poverty line of $1.9 a day. 

In his book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, perhaps for the first time in economic literature, takes the idea of poverty beyond the economic sense and conceptualises it as a deprivation of one's capabilities to fulfil their potential and lead a full, creative, life of one’s own choosing. In this, one could be held back by their social status, economic background, or as this post will discuss, gender.

Evidence from across the world has made clear the unfortunate trend that parents are less likely to invest in their daughter’s education, health, and well-being, especially when the family’s resources are scarce and limited. More often than not, these daughters continue in this cycle of deprivation and grow up into women with little control over finances and sometimes, sadly, their own individual lives.

While beliefs about enabling and empowering women are changing for the better, they are not changing fast enough. Women aged 25-34 are 25% more likely to be in extreme poverty than men. Women, on average, perform 3 times more unpaid care and domestic work that further threatens their economic security. 32 million girls are still out of school and unemployment rates among women are higher than those of men and total at 5.43%.

It is high time to rethink our poverty policy and perhaps in a way that enables women to be their own agents of change and the IGC’s Little Book of Growth Ideas provides two inspiring ideas.

Providing a ‘big push’

Microfinance had once been hailed as the silver bullet for poverty eradication. However, in retrospect, interventions such as small loans to the poor have only achieved small average effects. IGC researchers find that this could have something to do with the nature of poverty and that instead of small loans, a ‘big push’ through cash transfers accompanied by skill development could be the key to poverty alleviation.

Bandiera et al (2017) target the ‘ultra-poor’, the most vulnerable among the poor that often fall beyond the reach of anti-poverty programmes as they are disconnected from markets and social services. They provide women in Bangladesh with a one-off transfer (big push) in the form of livestock and skill-training to rear that livestock for two years.

The researchers find that the one-off transfer and training enable women to increase their annual earnings by 37%. The ‘ultra-poor’ women were previously working in poorly-paid, irregular jobs such as in the capacity of a househelp or casual agricultural labourer. However, after four years of the intervention, they were able to access more stable and productive work, and increased their number of days worked by 25% and hours devoted to livestock care by 361%.

The ‘big-push’ approach has been adopted in 114 programmes across 45 countries and this particular research has uncovered the presence of poverty traps which furthers the relevance of this approach towards alleviating poverty.

Enhancing soft skills

In 2013, 81% of children were completing primary school education in Zambia. However, at the lower secondary level they fell to  54.8%. Among them, only half of the girls in Zambia were completing lower secondary education. Girls are three times more likely to drop out of school in Zambia and this trend is further exacerbated by the need for fee payments starting in secondary school.

As is well documented, in developing countries, limited resources and patriarchal norms, see parent’s preferring to invest in their sons. In Ashraf et al (2019) IGC researchers address this social problem and roll out a programme that teaches negotiation skills to Zambian girls through a special curriculum designed by top business school professors.

After three years, the study revealed that with the treatment from the intervention, the Zambian girls had become more assertive and cooperative with their parents. Their education outcomes increased and they also began asking their parents for more food. Their relations with their parents also improved and the parents felt that their daughters had become more respectful and willing to contribute to household chores.

The Zambian Ministry of Education then rolled out a life skills curriculum based on the one in this study for girls all over the country. These girls have then reported feeling less hungry and in more control of their futures.


It wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that women hold half of the world’s potential. Empowering and enabling them will not only have immense spillover effects on the larger society but also go a long way in equipping them to build a life of their choice for themselves. The Little Book of Growth Ideas here lists out only two of the many fronts on which policies can be simply and economically devised. However, there is a lot of work to be done - there is a general lack of gender data (such as gender pay gap, women’s unpaid labour, digital inequality, and the digital gender divide) that can be crucial in informing policy decisions. This data would crystalise issues to target interventions which will ultimately pave the way for poverty eradication and gender equality.

This blog is part of the IGC’s Ideas Matter campaign to celebrate the launch of the Little Book of Growth Ideas.