Written by Thomas Kagwa
It is well established that a wide range of legal impediments in countries’ domestic laws has prevented minority groups such as widows from achieving full economic empowerment, which in turn has negative macroeconomic implications.
In many countries, laws often reflect and perpetuate mismatched social norms that limit widows’ economic participation, and removal of these impediments through legal reform has been shown to be an effective method to catalyze greater participation of women in the economy—along with the related macroeconomic benefits.
Once legal barriers are removed and provisions for more equal treatment under the law are embedded, the law can also be employed as a powerful tool to incentivize widows to pursue equal opportunities, change mindsets regarding the role of widows, and hold institutions and individuals accountable for achieving results.
Accordingly, it is imperative for countries to focus on eliminating existing legal impediments and designing appropriate incentives to increase widows’ participation in the economy.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is concerned about widows’ economic empowerment
because of its relevance to macroeconomic and financial stability and helping member countries
to achieve inclusive and more sustainable economic growth.
Empowering widows to reach their full economic potential, not only tangibly supports the key goal of reducing social inequality, but also, has tremendous significance on the advancement, competitiveness, and future readiness of economies worldwide.
In this regard, empirical evidence shows that widows’ economic empowerment and the closing of gender gaps in key areas are associated with positive macroeconomic outcomes, including higher economic growth, lower inequality, increased productivity, better financial sector outcomes, and greater financial stability.
Conversely, the economic disempowerment of widows, gaps in access to education, health, and financial services, and legal barriers to widows’ economic participation can all negatively impact macroeconomic and financial stability and countries’ ability to achieve strong and sustainable economic growth.
For example, it is estimated that global GDP could increase by US$12 trillion by 2025 through
reducing social discrimination based on perceptual biases and promoting minorities’ rights such as widows’ economic empowerment, equitable participation in the workforce, or presence in leadership positions.
Similarly, implementing policy reforms to increase inclusivity, hence equity in the labour force would increase growth in the US by 5%, in Japan by 9%, in the UAE by 12%, and in Egypt by 34%.
Other macroeconomic impacts of greater widows’ economic empowerment have also been identified. However, despite momentous strides toward improved educational and employment opportunities for widows, social gaps persist, and legal barriers remain.
Furthermore, the recent impact of COVID-19 threatens to widen the economic gap throughout the world, as widows are disproportionately affected by the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.
Widows are more heavily impacted by the pandemic for a number of reasons:
(i) they are more likely to work in social sectors that require face-to-face interactions with people who still have biases based on erroneous stereotypes;
(ii) they are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, which is not covered under most labour laws;
(iii) widows do more unpaid household work than their married counterparts and as a result, bear the brunt of the impact of the shutdown on families; and
(iv) widows’ children are more likely to drop out of school to help supplement household income lost due to COVID-19.
In addition, there are concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the inclusivity reforms, including in relation to repealing gender discriminatory laws and the enactment of new laws necessary for social equality reform.
It is widely accepted that widows have no inherent limitations to assuming the same roles as other men and women. However, history, dominant belief systems, and cultural norms have often subjected widows to normal and informal constraints that have become enshrined in countries’ legal frameworks to varying degrees.
Since laws can incentivize changes in behaviour, legal reforms supportive of social equity can help change cultural biases against widows and promote equality.
Eliminating bias against widows and discrimination in the law is only the first step, but this alone is not enough. In addition, legal reform should also incentivize widows to participate in the economy and encourage employers to hire widows in competitive roles.
This includes implementing laws that protect widows from discrimination in the workplace due to stigma and cultural beliefs, and which promote a higher presence of widows in leadership roles. In addition, resources should be allocated via policy reforms that make it easier for widows to enter and stay in the workforce, such as counselling services, social-support infrastructure, etc.
Ultimately, social inclusivity and equity-driven policies on all levels would transform social relations and reform existing structures that cause discrimination.