Why we can’t talk about one without the other: Sexual and reproductive rights and women’s economic empowerment

Preethi Sundaram Gender, Her Series, Violence Against Women and Girls, Women's Economic Empowerment

So far in our Her Series we’ve touched on various issues from the effects of unpaid care to gender equality and global institutions. Now, Preethi Sundaram from International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), shares with us her thoughts on the links between sexual and reproductive rights and women’s economic empowerment.

The sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls are too often not considered central to women’s economic empowerment (WEE). However, the fulfilment of these rights- the freedom to decide if and when we marry and have children, to live free from violence, to make decisions regarding our bodies- are key to empowering women economically.

Recent studies point to the positive influence of lower fertility in women’s economic participation; globally, female labour force participation decreases with each additional child by about 10% to 15% points among women aged 25 to 39. [1] Despite this trend, the extent to which women’s work is empowering depends on the context and conditions of women’s work, both of which are related to women’s sexual and reproductive lives.

Why ‘caring’ about SRHR matters

The care economy, which includes paid and unpaid care work, is primarily undertaken by women and girls, and has an impact on their opportunities outside of the home. Care work describes the unpaid reproductive labour that is disproportionately undertaken by women and which includes, but is not limited to, child care, elder care, taking care of ill family members, cooking and cleaning.

The level of care work affects women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services; women and girls who are shouldering the lion’s share of care work in the home may not have the time or the resources to go to a clinic, to access contraceptives or to receive critical ante and post-natal services.

Without access to essential services such as family planning, women cannot choose if and when and how many children to have. This can increase their care burden and exacerbate already existing inequalities in women’s share of care-giving, as well as the health and economic consequences that result from unplanned and/or frequent pregnancies, such as unsafe abortions.

Women’s care burdens affect their ability to find and stay in work. For example, a woman may be unable to commit to a formal job at regular times every day because she is required to be at home to look after others and perform household tasks. This may lead her to take up work in the informal sector which offers more flexibility (for example, in working hours, location and so on), but more insecure and precarious working conditions. Work in the informal economy tends to offers fewer benefits than work in the formal wage economy, with specific effects on sexual and reproductive health and rights.  For example, domestic workers and sex workers are often particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and other forms of abuse, as well as greater exposure to HIV.

Without access to essential services such as family planning, women cannot choose if and when and how many children to have

Supporting women in work

Given the role of care work in women’s lives, it is unsurprising that studies find that women’s empowerment in formal wage employment is tied to the presence (or lack) of regulatory frameworks that support women’s sexual and reproductive rights and caring responsibilities. The most frequently cited policies are parental leave, child care and access to contraceptives, as they ease the care burden that many women face. Lack of these policies, together with a lack of policies which seek to distribute care work evenly (both between women and men and between the state and private households) are cited as reasons that women in many regions remain in the informal or agricultural sectors, and are therefore more vulnerable to poverty, ill health and precariousness.

In addition to targeted child care and maternity leave programmes, on-site health programmes can also support women in work.

For example, in Cambodia, thousands of young women from rural areas move to cities to work in factories. These women often do not know where to go for sexual and reproductive health services and, for many, the services remain inaccessible due to cost or limited opening hours. IPPF’s Member Association, the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), is responding to this unmet need by providing information and free services to women working in factories. RHAC has established formal partnerships with 30 factories in three major urban areas of Cambodia. The factory workers are given vouchers for a range of free sexual and reproductive health services including contraception, post-abortion care, cervical cancer screening and treatment, HIV counselling and testing, referrals for antiretroviral treatment, and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Similarly, in Nepal, a series of youth-led classes on sexual and reproductive health and rights for female factory workers, which included information on safe abortion, was not only successful in itself, but the young women who were trained as peer educators also gained additional organizational and mentoring skills. [2]

Opening up opportunities

The High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment presents a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on the central role that SRHR plays in empowering women economically. What is required to change the reality of women’s lives on the ground, is increased political prioritization and investment in SRHR, an area of that is too often considered politically toxic or irrelevant. Ultimately, investing in women’s SRHR pays off by opening up opportunities for us to make informed choices about our bodies, our families and our livelihoods.

[1] Grepin KA and Klugman J (2013) Investing in Women’s Reproductive Health: Closing the Deadly Gap Between What we Know and What we Do. Washington: World Bank. Available at Accessed 14 January 2015.

[2] Ipas (2013) Empowering Women Workers through Youth-led Education on Reproductive Health and Safe Abortion in Nepal. Available at Accessed 16 December 2014

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