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December 23, 2019

What works for women’s work in low- and middle-income countries?

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For women everywhere, holding a decently paid job is the most direct way to achieve empowerment. In low- and middle-income countries, however, many women work unpaid in family farms or businesses, in their own low-profit businesses, or in firms for very low wages. 

In these countries, women’s employment and earnings are heavily constrained by women’s low levels of education. In some cases, formal education does not provide the skills that firms are seeking. In other cases, the education system has begun to invest in programs that meet labor market skill requirements, but women who have already completed formal education are left behind. A lack of skills is one of the main obstacles to women’s greater participation in the labor market.

Training programs offer the opportunity to develop the job skills required by employers or needed to run their own business. Training programs for wage employment combine attendance on courses with on-the-job training. Programs offering business training for self-employment provide vocational training and, sometimes, cash grants for starting a business. While most programs are not gender-specific, women tend to participate and benefit more. For example, in Colombia, in a training program that included classroom instruction and business internships the probability of paid employment rose nearly seven percentage points, and wages rose close to 20%. In rural Uganda, a program solicited applications for cash grants to start a skilled business, such as carpentry or tailoring. The program contributed to easing the transition from agricultural employment to artisanal activities and increased the incomes of participating women by 73%. In rural India, self-help groups ran workshops on farming techniques intended for female farmers and also offered craft workshops. The estimated impact was an increase of 14 percentage points in the probability of non-farm employment among workshop participants.

Although training programs are effective in easing access to paid employment among women without children, the employment effects of training women with children is weaker because of the conflict between women’s work and childcare. Moreover, when mothers work, children—especially daughters—take on more domestic chores, such as looking after younger siblings. For women with children, therefore, government programs that invest in training may need to bear the additional cost of ensuring good quality childcare and preventing child labor. Some training programs have partially addressed this problem by easing access to childcare services or by providing childcare subsidies to mothers. An example of programs for improving childcare service is community daycare implemented in Latin America, where a “community mother” paid by the program would cook and take care of up to 15 children aged 0–6 in her house. This program significantly improved children’s health, but the effects on women’s employment are not clear. 

Despite some limitations, training programs and cash grants for starting a business have been shown to be viable tools for promoting women’s paid employment. Job and business training policies alone, however, are not enough. The demand for childcare services is growing rapidly, and governments are taking important steps to provide publicly funded childcare. International and national institutions, instead of having separate programs for women’s employment and child well-being, should focus on integrating them.

© Gianna Claudia Giannelli

Read Gianna Claudia Giannelli's IZA World of Labor article “Policies to support women’s paid work.

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.