Investing in Women’s Empowerment

Content Manager • 16 September 2017

Investing in women’s empowerment is one of the most effective ways to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some believe it is the single most effective way.

By Radhika Shah and Dr. Sonia Jain 

The SDGs are global goals for collective action. The urgency to eliminate some of the worst conditions of human-kind and yet access and avail of some of the most advanced technology, innovations and global momentum has never been more pressing. How do we ensure the greatest possible impact and most effectively address all SDGs, given the current global context, and wisdom amassed to date?

Women’s health and human rights remains one of the most urgent issues of our time where innovative effective models of change deserve to be supported and expanded to amass enormous collective impact – the need is paramount, and resources and services dangerously scarce. 

Half the world’s population is women, estimated at 3 billion, with over 70% residing in developing countries, living in conditions of utmost destitute, deprivation and disempowerment from pre-birth through life.

At home, schools, work places, and in the community, girls face tremendous discrimination and demeaning norms and acts. Despite the women’s movement over the past 2 centuries, there continues to be staggering statistics and stories about unspeakable violence against women, tortures, rapes that are condoned and sanctioned by some men, their families and society daily. 

Inequitable, unjust and unfair practices, policies, systems and cultural norms dominate governments, communities and institutional practices that unequivocally negatively influence women’s lives around the world.  Yet women are essential to society.

Innovative models that have effectively changed macro-level inequities must be identified and scaled urgently.

Accelerant for other SDGs

SDG 5 is focused on leveling the playing field for half the world's population - striving towards a more just and fair world that ensures safety and dignity, education, and economic opportunities and agency for all girls and women. The Sustainable Development Goals, ratified by all world leaders and the United Nations in September 2015, provide a renewed opportunity to implement cost-effective mass-scale innovative strategies in a unified transformative way. Given enormity of each issue to be addressed by SDGs, we must prioritize our collective efforts.

We strongly believe that empowering girls and women is a key accelerant for several SDGs including SDGs 1-4 , and 8; that is, per compelling research, it would reduce poverty and hunger, improve good health and wellbeing of communities, ensure quality education, economic growth and create institutional and environmental change towards justice and equality. Empowering girls and women creates a public good for all in society - including better health for the whole family (correlation with infant mortality rates, nutrition, education for children), and reducing stressors for men. Numerous studies have shown correlation between girls’ secondary education and age of marriage and women's empowerment. Educational and economic inequities are underlying social determinants of health and the vicious cycle of violence against women.

Economic growth is highly correlated with improvements in human development in the poorest of countries, and thus an appropriate goal. Musimbi Kanyoro of The Global Fund for Women, says that “Investing in Women’s Economic Sustainability is the foundation for securing women and girls’ health and human rights. Economic driver is at the heart of women’s decisions about family health, education or freedom. We must change this. SDG 5 gives us this opportunity.” Economic empowerment of women also creates additional GDP growth for nations and expand fiscal space generating greater revenues for the public sector, “Achieving the single goal of gender equality could contribute up to $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025”.

Collectively Financing Women’s Empowerment and The Role of Philanthropy in India

The economic impact of achieving gender equality in India is estimated to be US$ 7 billion of added GDP by 2025.

Despite upward trend, women’s empowerment and gender inequities continue to be severely underfunded and under resourced. Despite notable efforts by leaders and masses alike, with some progress at national and international level in terms of policies to protect rights of women to vote, work, there continues to be limited enforcement, changes in social norms, economic policy, political voice that would allow women equality in numerous spheres. It is heart-wrenching to see the paradoxical divide between the public and private sectors, developed and developing countries, rich and poor, men and women. Though numerous NGOs have spurred up over the years, they are still largely limited by resources, staffing and size, trying to change systems, policies, and norms that require tremendous human and social capital and capacity.  Also, though the role of philanthropy is evolving, there is an unprecedented urgency to collaborate to effectively scale social innovations that work. As Heather Grady, Vice President of Rockefeller Foundation noted, “Philanthropy has long experience funding gender equality but it’s often not yet been effective at supporting long-term social change.”

SDG Philanthropy Platform was just launched in India, seventh country to leverage collective philanthropy efforts, and the first to focus on women's empowerment as an accelerant to advance multiple SDGs. A high-level roundtable meeting of the SDGPP was organized in collaboration with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA), Foundation CentreStanford Angels and Entrepreneurs (Stanford A&E) and UNDP in January 2017 in Mumbai, India. The group represented the vast range of philanthropists and philanthropic activities in India, from traditional grant-making foundations to social entrepreneurs and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs led by corporations. The participants were enthusiastic about the SDGPP framework and found the multi-goal approach with investing in women and girls as a crucial focus, while incorporating themed work in areas like employment/livelihoods and health, to be persuasive.

Currently, the platform is presently hosting interventions on gender issues and sustainable tribal engagements in Jharkhand and on the localization of SDGs in Assam. We look forward to following India’s progress to increase awareness, collective knowledge and support for SDG5 as an accelerant.

Supporting What Works

Funding scalable evidence-based innovations, policies’ enforcement, collaborative knowledge, and data sharing across diverse systems within countries are essential to achieving women’s rights. Capitalizing on multidisciplinary multi-pronged strategies, social entrepreneurship, is a powerful approach with mounting evidence of effectiveness that deserves greater support. It is a critical time for strategic collective action and investments to support, scale up, and sustain equitable social, economic and institutional change for girls and women. Feminism must be globalized.


Radhika Shah is advisor to the SDG Philanthropy Platform and co-president of Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs.

Dr. Sonia Jain is CEO and founder of DNA Global, LLC, and also a guest lecturer U.C Berkeley.