Skip to main content

Women’s economic empowerment in East Africa

January 28, 2021

East Africa has been the continent’s fastest growing region, with its national economies expanding between 6–10% annually. Yet even with this impressive growth, the region faces high rates of poverty that are deepened by underlying gender inequalities. COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges. As the region responds to the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, strengthening women’s economic empowerment is more important than ever.

The Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa program aims to spur this transformative change to advance gender equality in the world of work. The program has published a series of policy mapping papers to better understand the landscape for women’s economic empowerment in the region and its countries of focus: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. The regional overview explores existing literature and data on the causes and impacts of employment segregation and the impact of unpaid care work on women’s economic empowerment across East Africa and the potential for collectives to expand women’s opportunities.

Women’s economic status in East Africa

Although women participate actively in labour markets across East Africa, they trail men in all countries except Rwanda, with their participation rates ranging from a low of 67% in Uganda to a high of 84% in Rwanda, according to International Labour Organization estimates.

Bar chart: East Africa 2019 Labour Force Participation Rates by Sex

Labour market segregation by gender is deeply entrenched across the region. Women are overrepresented in the informal economy, often pursuing opportunities in agriculture or trade out of financial distress or the need for flexibility to juggle family demands. Likewise, they dominate among the formal jobs in these same sectors and in the hospitality industry. Formally employed women are more likely to be in clerical support, service, and sales roles rather than  high-paying occupations.

In each country, there are unique industries that employ more women than men, such as textiles in Ethiopia or road construction in Rwanda. However, even within these industries, women are more likely to have lower-paying jobs and they are only half as likely to hold managerial, professional, or technical occupations. The relegation of women to informal work and the lower rungs of select formal industries limits their pay potential, income stability, and opportunity to improve their welfare. It can also discourage women’s labour market participation and limit their potential along with economic growth.

How to counter employment segregation

Gender-based employment segregation is rooted in social norms and deepened by discrimination and educational segregation. It is also heavily influenced by unpaid care work as women are often limited to economic activities that allow them to earn income while meeting their families’ care needs. Women in East Africa spend two to five times as many hours caring for children, the elderly, and the sick and on other unpaid work as men.

This labour segregation has seen women’s economic opportunities disproportionately curtailed by COVID-19. The global crisis has disrupted markets, interrupted supply chains, and forced millions of businesses in East Africa to close or scale back. The industries most affected by these closures are those with higher rates of female employment, including tourism, food service, and accommodation.

Solutions to gender-based employment segregation in the formal sector can come through skills building and efforts to reduce segregation in education. Segregation can be countered through quotas for women in management and senior leadership. Policies that support working mothers, such as paid family leave and flexible hours, allow more women to enter the formal workforce. To create new opportunities for those who remain in informal employment however, it will be necessary to shift social norms and end discrimination.

Reducing women’s burden of unpaid care work

It is possible to tackle the inequitable burden of unpaid care work by reducing or redistributing it. Training initiatives that empower women in household bargaining or encourage men to recognize women’s paid or unpaid work have proven effective in redistributing uneven workloads in the few settings where they have been studied. More evidence is needed on effective implementation and the impact of such efforts.

Infrastructure improvements and subsidized care can also reduce women’s unpaid care work at the household level. Evidence on these solutions is limited however, as they have only been tested in a few locations. Moreover, a lack of high quality, sex-disaggregated time-use data in most East African countries prevents researchers from assessing the true extent of women’s unpaid care work and how it varies between urban and rural settings or between economies.

The power of women’s collectives

In both formal and informal sectors, collective organizations serving women are leading to improvements in economic opportunities and earnings in East Africa. While they range in function and form — from agricultural cooperatives to professional leadership organizations — women’s collectives allow participants to pool their voices and resources to advocate for increased opportunities. They often combine training, access to resources, or networking with self-empowering economic actions like saving or marketing.

Women’s collectives have shown themselves to be effective at improving incomes, while also empowering members through self-actualization. Several impact evaluations have tested the effectiveness of women’s collectives in specific settings, but there is a need for strategic evaluations to test which types of organizations could have the greatest impact in each location.

Research and policy implications

Analysis shows a wide range of existing policies and programs to strengthen women’s economic empowerment across East Africa. While some have proven effective in certain settings and may be ready to be tailored to other local contexts, others require more research. Research and policy priorities to advance women’s economic empowerment in the region include:

Legal reforms to empower women

Ongoing efforts to improve women’s standing, inheritance rights, and pensions are key steps that remain  to institutionalize women’s rights in East Africa.

Integrated solutions to desegregate education, address unpaid care, and reduce discrimination

Diversifying women’s economic opportunities also requires policies and programs to desegregate education and reduce employment discrimination. Integrated solutions to address unpaid care work and employment segregation are also needed. In the informal sectors, changing social norms can achieve the greatest impact.

Tapping the success of women’s collectives

Policymakers and program implementers should note the effectiveness of women’s collectives at increasing women’s economic outcomes and building agency. For example, agricultural cooperatives that improve access to inputs and markets have been shown to lift women out of poverty in Uganda, where higher-efficiency farming is a key part of the national development plan.

Research to fill key data gaps

Additional research is needed to understand success factors and track progress on women’s economic empowerment. Key data gaps include women’s employment by occupation and economic activity, which are outdated for Ethiopia and Tanzania. These statistics will help researchers and implementers track progress and understand the full extent and nature of women’s economic opportunities.

National and local evidence on what works

The evidence confirms that adapting research and policymaking to national and local realities is key for effectiveness, with some programs working in one context but not in others. To help implementers maximize the drivers of women’s economic empowerment and minimize barriers in each context, smaller studies such as impact evaluations, process evaluations, or qualitative reviews can provide valuable evidence on what works.

This regional overview was commissioned by GrOW – East Africa. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and IDRC, this program builds on the legacy of the successful multi-funder GrOW program

GrOW – East Africa also commissioned scoping papers for each of its countries of focus. The papers represent a baseline that will allow the program to monitor its implementation progress.

Read the full regional brief

Read the country brief for:  


Research highlights

Priorities to advance women’s economic empowerment in East Africa include:

  • Legal reforms to empower women
  • Integrated solutions to desegregate education, address unpaid care, and reduce discrimination
  • Tapping the success of women’s collectives
  • Research to fill key data gaps
  • National and local evidence on policies and programs that work