Women’s economic agency for empowerment

Correspondence between Daniel Alejandro Bonilla Gutiérrez (Applied Economics, Universidad Centroamericana – Managua) and Yousra Kaddouri (Sociology, University of Antwerp)

Dear Yousra

It’s Daniel, your Global Pen Friend from Universidad Centroamericana in Nicaragua. First of all, I’d like to tell you that I’m very pleased to have matched with you and to have the opportunity to share my point of view about promoting women’s economic agency for empowerment in underdeveloped economies. I consider this to be a highly relevant topic because women account for more than half of the world’s population, yet they continue to face significant barriers in achieving economic empowerment. Especially in underdeveloped economies, women are often at a disadvantage when it comes to economic opportunities.

Talking about my region’s specific context, Central America is home to some of the most extreme levels of gender inequality in the world. According to the UN, women in Central America face a higher risk of violence, poverty, and exclusion from key decisions made in their households and communities. In addition, Central American women often have limited access to education and economic opportunities. They’re often paid less than men for the same work, and they’re less likely to own or control businesses. These disparities are a result of a number of factors, including traditional gender roles, barriers to education and training, and lack of access to capital. Until these underlying issues are addressed, it’ll be difficult to achieve true gender equality in Central America.

In order to help empower women in these economies, it’s important to promote their economic agency. This means giving them the tools and resources they need to be able to participate in the workforce on an equal footing with men. In this letter, I’ll also discuss ways to promote women’s economic agency and empower them to achieve greater economic success. One way to promote women’s economic agency is through education and training. As I mentioned before, women in underdeveloped economies often lack the same level of education and training as their male counterparts due to the existing barriers. By giving women the access to educational opportunities, they can begin to aim for greater job positions and close the gap that exists between genders.

Vocational training can help women learn the specific skills they need to be successful in their chosen field. This type of training can provide women with the confidence some of them need to enter into the workforce. Another way to promote women’s economic agency is by supporting businesses owned and operated by women. These businesses often face greater challenges than those owned by men, due in part to the lack of access to capital and resources. By supporting women-owned businesses, we can help to provide more opportunities for women to succeed economically.

Additionally, entrepreneurship can help women build their own personal wealth. When women have their own source of income, they’re less likely to be dependent on others for financial support. This can give them a greater sense of independence and control over their lives. Entrepreneurship can also help to increase women’s participation in the workforce. When women are able to start their own businesses, they’re more likely to create jobs for other women, reducing the gender gap in the workforce and providing more opportunities for women to advance their careers.

These are just a few ideas for promoting women’s economic agency. It’s important to raise awareness about women’s economic empowerment. Too often, this issue isn’t given the attention it deserves. By raising awareness, we can begin to change the conversation and create a more inclusive economy that values the contributions of all people. Gender equality is a basic human right, so everyone regardless of their gender deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

Aside from gender inequality being a form of discrimination, this problematic is also important for economic reasons. When women are empowered economically, they’re able to contribute more fully to their families and communities. This, in turn, can lead to a more prosperous and equitable society. For all of these reasons, it’s important that we continue to promote women’s economic agency for empowerment in underdeveloped economies. We must work towards gender equality in order to create a better world for all people. 

I hope you enjoyed my letter, and thank you very much for taking the time to read it. I’d like to conclude by posing 3 questions for you:

  1. What’s the state of gender inequality in your country?
  2. What else could we do to empower women?
  3. What’s your personal take on the importance of gender equality? 

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best regards,

Daniel Bonilla Gutiérrez
Managua, April 18, 2022

Dear Daniel 

I’m Yousra, your Global pen friend from the university of Antwerp in Belgium. I’d like to start this letter by saying I’m pleased to be writing this letter to you and to be discussing gender equality. I absolutely agree with you; gender inequality is a topic that should be highly discussed, for both ethnic and economic reasons. Gender inequality is very much a thing, which is something I’m confronted with on a daily base. However, being born in Belgium (with Moroccan roots) made things a lot much easier. 

On average, Belgium scores well, when it comes down to gender equality. Belgium scores 72.7/100 for the Gender Equality Index, an indicator that measures gender equality. Other than that, there are a lot of laws in Belgium that protect women against gender equality. When it comes down to my own experience, education has never been an issue specifically for women. For over a century, all children from age 6-18 are obligated to go to school. Other than that; Belgium has been home for the first transwoman minister in Europe: Petra De Sutter. Although a big milestone for women in general, this has been so normalized that no one even made a big deal out of this. 

Like I wrote earlier, being born in Belgium made things very easy for me. I’m still very much connected with my roots, and I wouldn’t be writing this letter if my grandparents didn’t migrate to Belgium in the sixties. Therefore, a lot of aspects from your letter are things I recognize from back in Morocco, and made me realize once again how privileged I am. Yet I still chose to write about gender inequality. Even in a western European country like Belgium, gender inequality is still a real mechanism.  

There’s still a gender wage gap in Belgium, which amounts to 5.3 %. Women still get paid less than men for the same job, which is embarrassing at this point. A country that continuously tries to promote gender equality, still has a gender wage gap that can’t even be explained half the time. Other than that, 9/10 CEOs in Belgium is a man. I obviously don’t have to explain why this is very problematic.  

Women leadership is something that isn’t promoted like it should be. In my opinion, this should be something that should start on a very young age. Teachers, parents, and other adults should work hard on trying to handle stereotypes (e.g., girls get pushed more in underpaid sectors like healthcare, education). Women should learn from a young age that being an entrepreneur isn’t something only for men, and that they should settle for the minimum (which is often something we hear). I fully agree with you that entrepreneurship can help women in creating their own stability, careers and opportunities. It’s something a lot of people slowly start to realize in Belgium. However, change is slowly happening, while it should be prioritized. 

Another topic I’d like to discuss in this letter is the headscarf, which is always a debate in Belgium. Often Jewish and Muslim women cover their hair, which is allowed by law. Something that isn’t always allowed is working with a headscarf on. In a lot (if not all) of public places (hospitals, schools, stores, the army, etc.) you’re not allowed to work, if you wear a headscarf. The reasoning behind it is that someone working for the government should always be neutral. 

The reason I’d like to debate the issue around the headscarf, is that I’d love to hear your opinion about this. Although Belgian policymaker love to preach about equality, inclusivity etc. this law prohibits women with a headscarf of having a job in a lot of organisations. You can discuss whether this is ethically right to do, because this puts a lot of women in stress. A lot of girls make career choices based on if they can wear a part of their identity, which shouldn’t be that way. But economically, this also brings a lot of disadvantages along. There’s a huge teacher shortage in Belgium, and the recent crisis didn’t make this easier. On the other side, there are a lot of potential graduated teachers that are ready to work. The only thing stopping them is taking their headscarf off. Discussing this issue with non-Belgians is something I find interesting, because they wouldn’t except this from a country like Belgium. 

I hope you liked reading this letter, and I look forward to reading your response! 

Kind regards 

Yousra Kaddouri 

Antwerp, May 19th, 2022

Dear Yousra

First of all, I’d like to apologize for my very late response, I’ve also been very busy with my finals and work. Secondly, I’d like to wholeheartedly thank you for your letter. It has helped me to be more aware of the state of gender inequality in Belgium. Everything you mention in your letter demonstrates that numbers don’t show the whole story when it comes to gender inequality. Many people, including myself, see Belgium’s score in global indicators like the Gender Inequality Index and assume that gender inequality isn’t a problem there. However, now I realize that this score doesn’t reflect some serious issues like the headscarf ban, which I find to be an unfair restriction on women’s religious freedom.

I believe that ethically, women should be allowed to wear headscarves while working. This is a personal choice, and no one else should have the right to tell a woman what she can or can’t wear. If a woman chooses to wear a headscarf for religious reasons, she shouldn’t be discriminated against in the workplace. To ban headscarves in the workplace is to say that these women’s religious beliefs aren’t valid and that they must give up an important part of their identity in order to work. This is unfair and unjust, and it doesn’t make sense that a country that prides itself on religious freedom would have such a discriminatory policy.

As an economics student, I think there are also practical reasons why lifting the headscarf ban would be beneficial. Forcing Muslim women to choose between their religion and their career is likely to result in fewer Muslim women entering the workforce. This means that there will be fewer role models for young Muslim girls, and that gender inequality will continue to be perpetuated. And obviously, the ban is likely to result in discrimination against Muslim women in the workplace. If employers know that a woman is Muslim, they may be less likely to hire her out of fear of her violating the law.

I don’t know much about what women in other parts of the world are dealing with when it comes to gender inequality, but I’m pretty sure that Belgium is just one in many countries where they’re forced to choose between their religion and their job. This is an impossible choice, and no woman should have to make it. Lifting this ridiculous ban would send a strong message that Belgium values religious freedom and is truly committed to gender equality. That way, maybe other countries would follow suit and start to change their own discriminatory policies. It’d also be a huge step toward creating a more inclusive society. I hope that someday soon, all countries will recognize the importance of religious freedom and how it must go hand to hand with gender equality.

On another note, I’d like to tell you a little bit about another form of gender inequality that’s very common in Nicaragua not in the workplace, but in public spaces like streets or parks. I’m talking about the verbal harassment that Nicaraguan women suffer every day. It’s something women here are really scared of because it’s so common and there’s really no way to defend yourself from it. The best you can do is keep your head down and try to ignore it, but even that doesn’t always work. The harassment is almost always sexual in nature and, obviously, it comes from men most of the time. I wanted to ask you if this also happens in Belgium, and what do you think could be done to stop it?

Thank you, once again, for your letter, and for bringing this issue to my attention. It’s been a pleasure reading you and I hope to know from you very soon.

Kind regards,

Daniel