Too Serious & Costly to Ignore: Shining the Spotlight on Gender-Based “Economic Violence”

FROM: Samar Jubran , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 11. November 2019

Have you read the recent Apple’s credit card story? Apple is being investigated by financial regulators after customers complained that the card’s lending algorithms discriminated against women.

At any rate, what has happened in Apple isn’t a surprise to many of us. Such practices are just tip of the iceberg. Exclusion of women from economic participation and benefits isn’t new.

We characterize such practices as a form of gender-based economic violence. If you’ve never heard of economic violence, then this’s the blog you should read until the end. While there’re clearly an endless drove of horrible cases of gender-based violence, not much has been discussed and done about gender-based economic violence.

In basic terms, our concern is that gender-based economic violence hasn’t been sufficiently understood and addressed. It’s a long-term challenge because of the risk of being normalized and reproduced through social norms, attitudes and stereotypes.

What’s gender-based economic violence anyway?

Gender-based violence is a global problem. It affects 1 in 3 women or girls in their lifetime. Every time we hear about horrific stories which are the result of decades of systematic exclusion of women.

In 2018, more than 600 gender advocates across 50 countries ranked gender-based violence as one of the most notable human rights violations and pressing policy issues. Men are also the victims; however, disproportionately it’s women and girls who face violence because of their sex or gender identity.

Economic violence is by itself a form of gender-based violence and not a by-product of other forms of violence. Simply, it’s a gendered act, practice, norm, policy or behavior of denying or restricting economic participation and benefits of women.

But how does it happen? We’ve identified four broad ways:

  • Barriers for economic advancement for better income and return on labor due to underpaid work or unequal wages
  • Limited access to opportunities and life chances, including skills development or job openings
  • Restricted access to assets (e.g. unequal inheritance or property rights), services and needed supports to advance economically
  • No or limited decision-making authority in different spheres including household finances

Going deeper: some realities    

It doesn’t need much analysis to recognize how women have substantially been contributing as caretakers, educators and workers. Increasing evidence shows that women have been at the forefront of the progress and long-term development of nations.

Let’s just pick up one figure: it’s estimated that two-thirds of the work around the world are carried out by women. You’ll be surprised to know that women only own 10% of the income and 1% of the assets in the world. This shows that women’s role has not only been undervalued and exploited, but also underutilized.

Even if women are able to escape physical violence, economic violence fundamentally denies them autonomy and life choices. Supporting it, on the other hand, gives women more control over their own lives and contribute to the welfare of their families through better capacity to generate income and personal financial resources.

“I left a rural village in norther Ethiopia because I didn’t want my parents to force me into marriage. I stayed with relatives in the city and was able to join a garment skills training program. I wanted to use my skills by starting my own small business which wasn’t possible because of lack of access to finance. I now sell coffee on a small shed by the street to support myself and two of my sisters. I’m constantly harassed every day by strong and politically connected people who wanted to get the place for their business.” – Hagere, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Access to finance, like Hagere in the above example, is one of the major barriers facing women entrepreneurs. Despite their resilience, this makes them vulnerable to loss and exploitation, and sustains the cycle of poverty.

If we look at the agricultural sector, where many women in developing countries are engaged in, it’s clear that the sector has serious problems of access to financial resources as well as exploitation of women’s labour. Here’s an example from Jordan Valley that shows how women labourers are exploited by farm owners and their families. 

 “I took a loan to start my business. I used to sell clothes to pay for the loan. My brother took my earnings and got married. Now I work on a farm. I earn less than the minimum wage. The work is hard under a scorching sun. In case we get injured or fall sick, we don’t have medical insurance. We’re also physically harassed.”

The gender gaps in global figures for total earnings are also disturbing. If we look at the figures for the past 15 years, women workers’ earnings were 49% less than men’s earnings. As we write this blog, teachers in Jordan are organizing themselves to protest against earning less than the minimum wage, not being able to receive their salaries through bank transfers, and not having annual or sick leave days. Hiba Abo-Ghneem, a teacher at a private school in Jordan, tells her story:

“The Head of the School told me without hesitation: ‘if you cost my school 13,000 dollars, I don’t want to see you in this school. Just take your things and leave my school’. Such actions deny the huge wage differences between women and men. When I challenged the Head of the School, he started banging on the table and shouted at me: ‘if you don’t like the salary, just leave!’ I couldn’t hide my surprise by his actions because I’m a qualified teacher who deserves to be paid a decent salary.”     

Another form of gender-based economic violence is the limited mobility of women, for example, outside the home. Strong cultural restrictions in some regions like South Asia or Middle East and North Africa constrain women’s ability to engage in employment or set up businesses.

In Bangladesh, for example, husbands or fathers generally dictate how much a woman can move about, although mothers-in-law can also be highly influential, especially regarding recently married daughters-in-law.

In the Middle East also women work for family-owned businesses, but they lack control over their resources – either selling products or using their earnings. This’s a good example of economic participation but one that lacks economic justice for using or enjoying actual economic benefits.

From economic violence to economic justice

The problem of gender-based economic violence needs to be treated with increasing urgency and commitment. The starting point for this is to carefully understand and consistently challenge the dynamics of power at different levels. Put simply, we need to take a systems approach to overturn the barriers to realizing women’s economic justice sustainably and at scale.

Here’re three fundamental ways of how to significantly address gender-based economic violence and fulfil the bold global promises for gender economic justice.

Policy and legal instruments need to improve or change

In practice, this means thinking and working politically. Rwanda has been a shining example: women make up 61% of seats in parliament (the highest in the world) and 50% of the cabinet and half of the supreme court judges. What has this brought about? It’s contributed to more and more laws promoting women’s rights. In addition, the promotion of gender equality has had positive impacts on the business sector.

Another example is from Bangladesh where elected women are having an impact: more women are now increasingly well-informed; they are also politically savvy.

Collective action matters

This calls for focused and persistent initiatives to change norms, apply laws and challenge institutional practices. Men need to be also engaged. A good example is from Jordan on labor law and child care.

The Sadaqa initiative worked collectively to establish the “Article 72 Coalition” . It engaged the Stand-up with Teachers Campaign, the National Committee for Pay Equity, the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), Women Union, Arab Women Organization and Jordan Labor Watch.

The result was impressive: it led to the enforcement of Article 72 and the recognition of childcare as a public good and as a right. Previously, the law required employers to provide child care facilities when there were 20 or more female employees in the workplace. The amended law removes this condition and required an employer to offer child care facilities where, among the female employees in a company, there are 15 or more children under five years of age.

Taking personal responsibility

Nothing works unless women as individuals are capable of and motivated to understanding their right and claiming for it. Every woman needs to have the awareness, autonomy and self-belief to manage risks and to make changes in her own life.

Despite the challenges at the societal and household levels, we shouldn’t underestimate the resilience, resourcefulness and insight of women to contribute towards economic justice as witnessed below by the example of Nurun Nahar Begum from Bangladesh.

 “I’m in my 30s. I dropped out of school when I got married at the age of 13. I gave birth to my first child at 14. My husband and I were landless when we got married; we had no home of our own and had to move from place to place. However, I was determined to improve our life. I started with a small loan. I began with tailoring, buying a sewing machine on credit. I then got involved in collecting medicinal herbs. This enabled me to install a hand pump for drinking water and buy some livestock. We have improved our economic situation. This was possible because first I am a good thinker; I can see opportunities and make plans about how to realize them. Indeed, my husband has been very supportive, and we always discuss things together.”       

Additional sources


Cover picture: Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

Samar Jubran is Women Empowered for Leadership (WE4L) Country Program Coordinator for Jordan, where she leads its implementation. She has over 10 years of experience in international development, especially in program management related to Gender Equality and Women Empowerment, as well as Youth and Public Administration. Furthermore, Samar has extensive experience in the Middle East – Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. She holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Development Studies.
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies