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Most livelihood and ‘economic empowerment’ initiatives in the global South currently focus on women, and with good reason. At the global level, achieving income parity or women is one of the urgent, unachieved goals of gender equality. The recent World Development Report affirmed that women now represent 40 per cent of the world’s paid workforce, and 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force (World Bank 2012, 3). While there have been significant gains in women’s employment and earnings in the past 20 years, women’s income continues to lag behind those of men everywhere in the world, even when women perform the same tasks or functions.

Numerous studies have shown that increased female control over income and spending decisions in the household translates into better outcomes for children and households (Bruce et al. 1995). Increased control over material resources can lead on to women having an enhanced ability to act and choose (Kabeer 2009). The idea is that greater female contribution to household income can result in women having stronger bargaining power within marital relationships and the family. In this way, ‘economic empowerment’ has been linked to women having a stronger voice in negotiating sexual relations and hence reducing their risk of HIV infection ; to reductions in violence from male partners ; and to increased social status and mobility outside the home. Awareness of these links has led development policymakers and practitioners to target women widely as beneficiaries of interventions including microfinance initiatives.

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