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A Firm Foundation: Contraception, Agency, and Women’s Economic Empowerment (New Security Beat)

July 10, 2018

By Kathleen Mogelgaard 

You are 20 years old. You live in a place where women get married young—when they are still girls, really—so you are already married. You gave birth to a happy baby girl about a year ago, and you have two older children, who are two and four.

You wake up early to nurse the baby, and soon the bigger kids want breakfast, too. Your mother-in-law is there to help prepare food, but your supply of wood is low so the fire doesn’t last long. You strap the baby to your back and head out to the forest to gather wood. An hour later you return with a hefty load, and you’re happy that you didn’t have to go very far today.

The older kids’ clothes are in desperate need of washing, so you’ll need to leave soon to refill the jerry can from the standpipe, which is about a mile away. But your baby is fussing—it’s time to nurse again—and you wonder if you can nurse her while you walk. Or maybe you can take just a few minutes to rest. You’ve been so tired lately, and you suspect that baby number four is on the way. As you sit down, your two-year-old starts wailing, and your four-year-old tugs your arm, “Mama, I’m still hungry”…

If this were you, you might feel bewildered if I asked whether you were “economically empowered.” This woman’s days are strongly dictated by the needs of her family. She may not feel that she has the power to make her own choices about money or livelihoods—or about much of anything. But what if she did have that power? What would that change—for her, and for the world? 


Women’s agency is woven throughout these findings. Nancy Birdsall at the Center for Global Development describes a “reproductive ecosystem”—that is, a combination of social norms, economic realities, laws and customs, and access to contraception—that affects girls’ and women’s agency. We need to study this ecosystem further and quantify its contributions to women’s economic empowerment. 

Read the full article here.

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Photo of Nancy Birdsall
Senior Fellow, President Emeritus