Over the last 200 years, economic progress has helped to bring about both dramatically better standards of living and the extension of individual dignity to women in the developed world. Today the same story of market-driven empowerment is repeating itself in developing countries.
Competitive markets empower women in at least two interrelated ways. First, market-driven technological and scientific innovations disproportionately benefit women. Timesaving household devices, for example, help women in particular because they typically perform the majority of housework. Healthcare advances reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, allowing for smaller family sizes and expansion of women’s life options. Second, labor market participation offers women economic independence and increased bargaining power in society. Factory work, despite its poor reputation, has proven particularly important in that regard.
In these ways, markets heighten women’s material standard of living and foster cultural change. Markets promote individual empowerment, reducing sexism and other forms of collective prejudice.
Women’s empowerment in many developing countries is in its early phases, but the right policies can set women everywhere on a path toward the same prosperity and freedom enjoyed by women in today’s advanced countries.
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Chelsea Follett is a research associate at the Cato Institute and managing editor of HumanProgress.org.
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