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Improving young women’s economic empowerment in fragile contexts

A fragile state or context is defined as a low-income country characterised by weak state capacity and legitimacy such as civil unrest and epidemics leaving citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks.

The negative impact of conflict and fragility on girls and young women has been well documented. Girls and young women living in conflict and post-conflict settings are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, to lack access to education and resources, and to be forced into exploitative relationships such as child marriage. In addition, they are more likely to experience disruption to livelihoods and public services, and face additional workloads within the home and outside.

In research due to be published later this year, we examine how economic insecurity was experienced by young women – particularly in fragile settings – and how it has an impact on the economic empowerment of young women.

Ahead of the launch, we are discussing the early findings in New York tomorrow at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women. We’ve organised the Young Women’s Economic Empowerment in Fragile Context session that will highlight how economic security should be seen as one aspect of a complex fragile environment where both short-term shocks and sustained levels of insecurity and poverty contributed to long-term consequences.

Violence against women after the Ebola crisis

Sonnah, 16, fell pregnant at 14 after a boy from her school forced her to have sex. She joined a Plan International run Youth Savings and Loan Association group to help her save money so she can go back to school.
Sonnah, 16, fell pregnant at 14 after a boy from her school forced her to have sex. She joined a Plan International run Youth Savings and Loan Association group to help her save money so she can go back to school.

In Sierra Leone, the 2014 Ebola crisis had a devastating effect on an already weak economy and reversed important development gains made after the end of the civil war. This has increased young women’s vulnerability to multiple forms of violence against women and girls such as transactional sex, and severely hampering their efforts to achieve equality with their male peers. For many uneducated young women in rural areas, the options were stark as economic insecurity became more prevalent with child marriage and sex work becoming increasingly common. 

Economic insecurity in Nigeria after civil unrest

“I can sew blouses, skirts and stylish dresses, and I am very happy with this work." Aisha, 15, fled the conflict in Nigeria, but with the support of Plan International Aisha received vocational training so she can be financially independent.
“I can sew blouses, skirts and stylish dresses, and I am very happy with this work." Aisha, 15, fled the conflict in Nigeria, but with the support of Plan International Aisha received vocational training so she can be financially independent.

In Nigeria, interreligious tensions and violence has created restrictions around inter-regional trade, mobility and social networks - impacting young women trying to make a living. Many young people in Nigeria also experienced ongoing unfair distribution of resources as a result of reduced livelihood opportunities.

Ethnic violence destroying livelihoods in Myanmar

We've taught over 200 girls in 7 villages in the Rakhine State how to sew so they can earn an income. The majority of girls who received the training work as farmers or day labourers - work that is poorly paid and labour intensive.
We've taught over 200 girls in 7 villages in the Rakhine State how to sew so they can earn an income. The majority of girls who received the training work as farmers or day labourers - work that is poorly paid and labour intensive.

In Myanmar’s Kachin State, the conflict has had a damaging effect on both physical and economic security with discriminatory checkpoints, arbitrary attacks, displacement and the fear of conscription into the ethnic army deeply restricting travel and trade. For many young people this meant the disruption of education, and the loss of livelihoods and family assets to help them progress.

Furthermore, in many fragile contexts, young women face multiple social, regulatory and financial barriers to starting and maintaining their own businesses. The pressures and expectations of performing often unpaid domestic and caring duties and restrictive cultural norms around women owning or operating businesses all play a role in economic insecurity.

Responding to economic insecurity of young women in fragile settings

Despite their dangerous living and livelihood conditions, our research has shown that young women are responding to economic insecurity in innovative and surprising ways. Whether entering new business arenas or entering public life more broadly, they are linking their economic empowerment to their broader sense of agency and power - based on their ability to negotiate their role in both household and wider society and challenging gender norms. Many young women that we spoke to found a sense of agency and security through community work and development - forms of empowerment that gave added meaning and purpose to their economic struggles.

Ensuring that girls and young women are able to transition from a quality education into the world of work requires a holistic approach, with a focus on tackling the specific barriers faced by young women in fragile contexts. Rather than assuming economic growth will promote economic empowerment, gender biases and patriarchal systems need to be directly addressed with gender-responsive measures that involve all social and political actors, especially young men. 

Approaches to young women’s economic empowerment need to be linked to strengthening notions of rights, equality and participation that build their capacities to negotiate their social and family roles from a position of knowledge and control. This includes:

  • Empowering young women through programmes that support them to advocate for their right to economic security. 
  • Developing coherent education and training frameworks that align with labour market demands and meet the specific needs of marginalised groups.
  • Delivering foundational skill training provided in all types of formal and informal education and training schemes including second-chance education, technical and vocational training, apprenticeship frameworks and enterprise development training. 

For adolescent girls (aged 10- 19) and young women, a quality education should be augmented with technical, vocational and life skills training, delivered in secured, collaborative and learning exchange spaces (life skill clubs, savings groups). This can build their confidence, advocacy and leadership skills. Experience shows that by filling in the learning and competency gaps through gender-sensitive entrepreneurship trainings and providing the right combination of cash and in-kind support, especially with regards to business development services, it is possible to turn youth’s subsistence livelihoods into viable income-generating activities
 

Helping young women become economically empowered

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