Ensuring women’s economic capabilities: investigating the social, financial, and legal constraints to women’s economic empowerment

Langworthy, Melissa Elizabeth (2019). 'Ensuring women’s economic capabilities: investigating the social, financial, and legal constraints to women’s economic empowerment' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


This panel seeks to contribute to two of the core themes of this conference, specifically the policy analysis, evaluation and economics related to capabilities theme and agency and the creating social and economic impact in development and public policy using the capability approach theme. The three papers in this panel offer a diverse and global overview of the contexts within which women seek enhanced economic capabilities and the policies and practices that impact their success. These themes directly address the underexplored relationship between the capabilities approach and institutional analysis (Robeyns 2005).

What unites these three papers is their investigation of the ways in which women’s economic capabilities are impacted by the larger political, economic, and social systems they inhabit. These institutions, along with the social norms and ethical principles they embrace, define the capability sets and functioning available to women.

Rana Gautam investigates the impact of financial crises on the economic rights of women in low-income and least-developed countries during times of financial and economic crisis. In infiltrating the discourse on financial crises with the language of human rights and women’s capabilities, this work further establishes the relationship between individual wellbeing, public policy, and social arrangements on human dignity and freedom. Hhe finds that financial crises have a statistically significant negative impact on government’s respect for the economic rights of women, buttressing previous claims that financial crises have gendered impacts.

Kate Bahn, Melissa Mahoney, and Annie McGrew document how policies that impact women’s access to reproductive healthcare foster women’s economic engagement and opportunity in the United States. Drawing from Amartya Sen’s capabilities framework, the authors link the policies that define women’s bodily autonomy and ability to raise their families with women’s economic opportunities. The authors employ an empirical analysis to explore how women interact with reproductive healthcare access to cultivate economic capabilities that are meaningful to them across categories of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

Melissa Langworthy investigates the social and economic implications of the growing emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship as a tool for development and public policy. She suggests that women’s entrepreneurship is a form of discipline that is entirely conducive to good governance insofar as it isolates and individualizes social problems away from solutions that are collective and political. The capabilities approach is used to create a framework that equally emphasizes economic and social empowerment outcomes and investigates the non-economic barriers to female enterprise performance. The empirical analysis suggests that female entrepreneurship needs to be embedded within the household to fully understand the institutional contexts that impact enterprise performance.

Taken together these three contributions emphasize the role of the capabilities approach in connecting the individual identity, economic opportunities, and institutional structures that frame women’s economic capabilities. From the macro level, government and institutional structures and the policies they create are evaluated with respect to their impact on expanding women’s rights and economic capabilities. At the micro level, entrepreneurship, itself subject to government and institutional structures, is analyzed for its ability to deliver changes in women’s economic empowerment through the lens of capabilities.

Within the theme of connecting capabilities, this panel shows that women’s economic and political capabilities are often placed in conflicting positions by the institutional power structures. This contribution indicates that by integrating capabilities into the concepts of rights and empowerment, development practitioners, policy analysis, and researchers can amplify their economic and social impacts.

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