How Economic Empowerment Matters To Girls

17 September 2019

Currently the world has the largest young population ever and estimates show that 90 percent of them will live in the Global South by 2020. Being young is and will not be easy as young people are three times more likely to be unemployed and prone to economic exclusion. For girls and young women, the situation is even worse. Only 48.5% of women worldwide participate in the labour market, which represents a huge loss in terms of individual potential and for the economy of the countries in which they live[1]. Negative gender norms in combination with a lack of education, confidence or skills sets young women out to be among the most economically excluded of all.

Generally, the number of unemployed young women is higher than unemployed young men with two out of three unemployed young people being female. In the Global South unemployment affects young women even more[2]. Clearly something is disadvantaging girls and young women and I can tell you gender norms and inequalities have something to do with it. Research shows girls as of the age of six start to perceive themselves as less intelligent than boys[3]. As soon as those young women start becoming mothers, many of them face a loss of their earnings in comparison to their male counterparts and continue to have difficulties catching up when returning to the labour market[4].

Knowing this, it is no wonder that even in 2019, women earn 79 cents (0.71 €) for every dollar (0.90 €) earned by men[5]. Such differences in equal pay do not appear out of nowhere, but take off from the moment girls are born. Besides missing out on equal remuneration, girls are oftentimes raised to grow into gender specific roles, where they are the ones taking care of the household while boys are supposed to be responsible to generate the household’s main income. It goes without saying that this affects the way both girls and boys find their ways in life. Girls are stimulated to pursue jobs that are considered “female” with a lower pay slip while the typical “male” positions are higher up the pay scale.


Both the gender pay gap and the fact that girls are being pushed to pursue certain career paths, doesn’t make girls’ road to economic empowerment any easier. This has implications both at the individual level – in terms of their future labour force participation and lifetime earnings – and at societal level – by hindering their productive and developmental potential. It’s due to those implications that we, as Plan International, work to support and call for a lifecycle and gender transformative approach towards economic empowerment and education. For girls in particular, education and training contribute not only to their confidence, but is essential to increase their opportunities in life.

Furthermore, Plan International invests, all over the world, in support for girls and young women from parents, primary caregivers, male family members and other people in their environment by improving their understanding of gender equality and the value of young women’s economic advancement and participation.


As we all know, the labour market has changed drastically in the past few decades. In order for young women to become economically independent they need a skills-set adjusted to the 21st century’s World of Work. Only through better matching of their skills set can they take advantage of the current available opportunities on the labour market. This is precisely what we are aiming to do though our Wired4Work programme in Indonesia and the Philippines. In collaboration with Accenture, we provide life and vocational skill trainings for girls based on the needs of the local labour market using digital technology. Since 2011, Plan International and Accenture have provided over 17.000 youth in Asia and Latin-America with appropriate and relevant trainings, including good employment practices, conflict management and even education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, which is paramount for girls and young women’s economic empowerment. In addition, more than 13.000 youth involved in the programme (with 8.000 women) got a job or have started their own business.

We believe that promoting these non-traditional female careers is key to effectively change negative attitudes towards gender equality and enhance girls and young women’s economic empowerment. 

In addition, hard skills are becoming increasingly relevant to succeed on the labour market. Skills such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are in high demand, however, the assumption is that these are for boys and men, for no valid reason at all. Therefore, in order for girls to find their way to jobs that require these types of skills, we try to reach girls and young women through our projects and trigger their interest in traditionally male-dominated sectors and new technological developments. For example, in China we are currently implementing two projects, with support of ASML and AkzoNobel, to bring STEM closer to children from 10 to 14 years old, 60% of which are girls, and to build their growth mindset. This way girls and boys are being introduced to technology while being made aware on the perks of gender equality and how to advance it within their own communities. We believe that promoting these non-traditional female careers is key to effectively change negative attitudes towards gender equality and enhance girls and young women’s economic empowerment.

Girls in STEM class.
Funded by ASML Foundation, Plan International has been implementing a three-year Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education project for 1200 children (including 800 girls) at 20 primary and junior middle schools in rural communities in Shaanxi Province.



In the end it is very simple, youth economic empowerment can only be achieved for all if we break that vicious circle where gender norms inhibit girls and young women from achieving their potential. But to achieve this, the problem has to be acknowledged to its full extent first.

The EU needs to adopt a comprehensive approach to youth economic empowerment that builds up and equips young people with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to succeed in the labour market of today and the future. 

The European Union has a big role to play in this issue and because of its commitment to the Agenda 2030, also a big responsibility. The EU needs to adopt a comprehensive approach to youth economic empowerment that builds up and equips young people with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to succeed in the labour market of today and the future. More efforts are needed to address the economic divide that young women and girls face, including bolstering their access to training and decent work opportunities, increasing their agency and representation in decision-making processes and the labour market, and tackling gender-based violence in the workplace and other forms of discrimination associated with being young and female. This needs to start from an early age with girls and boys, all the way up to entering the World of Work, covering education opportunities in all forms and shapes from Early Childhood Development (ECD) to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). But to truly be effective for young women’s economic inclusion, a gender transformative vision must be included that tackles gender norms and stereotypes and opens up perspectives for girls and young women to pursue the career and life they want.

[1] World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for Women 2018 – Global snapshot International Labour Office – Geneva: ILO, 2018:—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_619577.pdf

[2] See Map:

[3] As retrieved on:

[4] ILO, Women at Work trends 2016. As retrieved on:—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_457317.pdf

[5] As retrieved on:

  • Female, Person, Human
    Monique Van 't Hek

    Director Plan International The Netherlands & Chair Of Plan International Europe Board

Education, Girls Get Equal, Skills and work, Youth empowerment, girls’ leadership, Youth economic empowerment in emergencies