For decades, the United Nations and hundreds of national NGOs have promoted various policies to address issues that disproportionately affect women. One globally agreed upon solution to tackling matters like food insecurity, maternal mortality, poverty and even HIV, has been to improve the educational prospects of women and girls. It is now almost a foregone conclusion that educating a woman = empowering a woman—whatever that means. What follows is the assumption that empowering a woman also serves to solve a whole host of other problems. I think this is a myth.

As a beneficiary of great investments in my own schooling, I do not dispute education’s right to play a central role in development policies—especially if these policies are designed to better the lives of women. In fact I have seen education change the lives of too many women to deny its importance. I think of my aunt who later in life obtained a PhD and earned enough money to build her own home. I also think of a woman who for years sold fish to our family and changed her daughter’s future by saving up enough money to send her to school.

Despite these stories of inspiration, what I find problematic about how we often speak of education is the way in which it is hailed as a panacea to women’s issues. This disturbs me because women’s education simply cannot address all the obstacles that women face. If this were so then educated women would be completely immune from gender-based discrimination. What is more important for a woman to aspire to is achieving and maintaining her economic independence. It is important to make this distinction because, depending on the context, a woman’s economic independence may not be a prize that exists only on the other side of a formal education. There are many women who despite lacking a formal education possess a business acumen that has secured their economic independence.

Different women. Different contexts. Different problems. Different solutions. This reality is what informs my belief that when it comes to education and empowerment, the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Much of formal education is designed to prepare women to develop careers and gain sustenance from a formal workforce. However, through her lifetime a woman’s obligations or other societal barriers may limit her abilities in this area. There are many well-educated women who by choice or circumstance lose their economic advantage or become economically dependent on others. In “The Price of Motherhood“ Ann Crittenden describes this as an earnings loss of more than $1 million dollars for the average US college-educated woman who leaves the workforce for an extended period of time to care for children. In Saudi Arabia, educated women must contend with reluctant employers who interrupt their automatic “education is empowerment” cycle. According to a November 2012 Washington Post article “[o]f Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees.” While women in both of these contexts are educated, they face obstacles that lead them to the same place—economic dependence and insecurity.

Regardless of their educational level, women must be encouraged to seek and maintain their economic independence. If we tell women and girls that gaining an education automatically means they are empowered then we are only telling one side of the story. By delinking the two concepts we give women permission to become empowered through the varied paths to economic independence that exist. This may be through a formal education and career, it may be through a small business or it may be through an informal trade. It’s not so important how they get there, just that they get there.

When judging how successful our society has been in “empowering” women we should move on from simply asking how many women and girls we have educated. Instead what we should ask is how many women and girls we have shifted from a state of economic dependence into one of economic independence. We should no longer be satisfied with a definition of women’s empowerment that does not demand as evidence of this achievement a woman’s corresponding economic independence.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Topic Education

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Op-Eds.

Comment on this Post


That was the exact word of Fr. Moses Coady more than 50 years ago. Thanks for reiterating it.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale Founder/Project Coordinator Star of Hope Transformation Centre 512 Road F Close Festac Town Lagos-Nigeria https:

We work on mentorship for girls and educating women as regards rights and entrepreneurship.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale Founder/Project Coordinator Star of Hope Transformation Centre 512 Road F Close Festac Town Lagos-Nigeria https:

Absolutely true and compelling story and proposed solution. Now to prepare a path to obtaining this economic equality.

I don't know who Fr. Moses Cody is, but religions' continued insistence on women producing children and submitting to men as their greatest virtues is a major factor in the problem facing women, our children, and our societies.

In many states in my country, there are community property laws which state that all property accumulated (other than inheritance) is owned equally by the two marriage partners. Perhaps working toward more acceptance of this policy and gifts of land given to the wife with marriage and the births of children would bring about economic equality. Planned parenting and universal access to conception control to make this possible are also necessary components to female empowerment.

Blessings on your efforts, Joy. Yvette


Thank you for your comment Yvette. I feel more passionate about this issue as I am getting older and realize that I had always thought that simply pursuing more and more education would automatically translate in to more money. This is not automatically the case and there are other factors at play. In fact there are other things I should have considered and kept in the forefront of my mind. If my primary goal had always been economic independence as opposed to obtaining and education that would lead to that, I would have made very different choices.

The community property laws sound great in your country. It's good that it's owned equally by the marriage partners.

Sadly, Joy, the community property laws change from state to state. My daughter lives in a state that is not governed by community property laws. I would worry more about this, but she is always welcome in my home if she chooses it. My husband (not the father of my children) has been very generous with me in this marriage.


Yvette thanks for the update. It's interesting that it varies by state and I hope that changes will bring the same benefits you have to your daughter. I think it is so important for women to get a fair shake at so many things that men take foregranted as part of being adults and full participants in society. Women are adults too and should be able to direct their financial lives and secure their financial futures directly. I'm hopeful about the future.

I, too, am hopeful while watching how many of you young women seem to be led by your brains instead of the animal instincts of your bodies and those of others.


This is to true. In one project I questioned why evn educated women are not empowered. Education is important but not the whole solution to the problems facing women. Many of them are social and cause all the other problems. In Zimbabwe even economically independent women are victims of domestic violence and remain in unions that are detrimental to them. how do we address these inequalities when even education and economic empowerment is not making women truly and really independent. Whats your take on this?

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest. regards pela

Boy you stir up controversy! But you are right, education is not everything. But in my opinion, it is not because of education itself, but because of the use and expectations we had over education.

To me, there is no doubt about the importance of getting an education, as higher as it can get. I would not even begin to doubt it, because education fills every person´s brains with enough CHOICES and new thinking to make better life choices... And as you said in your article before this one, it is really all about choices.

For me, what is on the spot really is not education, but our expectations on education. Fifty years ago, our parents lived a very different life, where jobs got better if you had an education and paid more and more accordingly, making you economically independent.

But now that there is an almost equal number of men and women competing for always diminishing job openings, that is not true anymore.

We, as women, must find ways to make ourselves valuable to the job market, and make our job markets valuable for all, because men have failed, sadly, to offer us that value, hehe.

Yes. I think men had the opportunity to develop inclusive economies, but never did that. Or else, we as women did not realize we needed to construct local, national, and a global economies based more in family needs than in ... the needs of the big companies.

Things can always be changed. Now is the time. And it is your time. You and your generation have to benefit from our hard job of opening the paths, and from our mistakes too!

Good job. Great op ed.



Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva Tarija - Bolivia South America

Thanks Jackie! I wanted to keep reading because your comment was its own op-ed in and of itself. I definitely think that our expectations around education do not match the reality of the world we now live in--as you said. But despite all this uncertainty and change I'm quite excited about the future. I used to want a very clear path laid out for me but now I'm getting comfortable with all the joy and mystery not knowing brings.

Thanks for your great support and edits on this one! You really helped me to tidy up my thinking and get things back on track.



Is Education all? Yes and No. And you put this brilliantly in your article. Why is it that so many educated, so called 'empowered' women become hapless victims to societal and economical abuse? Education, by itself does not solve the problems which we, as a society have created for us.

In a predominantly patriarchal society like India, no matter what the education of a woman is, she does, at some point or the other, become a 'victim' to the cultural norms provided and dictated by men, so as to fit in. And the ones who defy, are the ones subjected to extreme subjugation and victimization by the same society and men.

Of course education is important. There are no two ways about it. But is it the end all of everything that a woman requires to feel fully empowered? Your piece raises important questions.

Brilliant and thought provoking. Well done !


Mukut Ray

I am blown away by your BOLD analysis! Taking the discussion deeper and demanding that the reader take a look at what empowerment is - I loved this piece!!!

"When judging how successful our society has been in “empowering” women we should move on from simply asking how many women and girls we have educated. Instead what we should ask is how many women and girls we have shifted from a state of economic dependence into one of economic independence. We should no longer be satisfied with a definition of women’s empowerment that does not demand as evidence of this achievement a woman’s corresponding economic independence."

So true joy! We need to bring all aspects that are preventing our independence to the forefront - problems do not exist in a vacuum. Educating a woman alone will not change society but changing the structure as a whole.

BRAVO on your piece!

Zoe Piliafas

Voices of Our Future Community Manager World Pulse

Dear Joy, It has been too long since we've heard your strong voice in your World Pulse journal. I hope all is well with you and your efforts toward empowering women.

Thank you for being a blessing upon our shared earth. Yvette