Facilitating women's access to an economic empowerment initiative: Evidence from Uganda

In Uganda, couples workshops increased subsequent household participation of these couples in women's empowerment interventions.


Global organizations have increasingly focused on women's empowerment as a key component of equitable economic development. In this context, empowerment can be understood as a process through which women gain a previously denied ability to make strategic life decisions. Development foundations have accordingly provided programs focused on life skills, business and finance, trades and professions, and access to microcredit, larger loans, and grants.

While most of these empowerment interventions interact only with women, it is important to acknowledge that a married woman's empowerment may depend on negotiations with other members of her household — specifically, her husband — and that efforts to increase her empowerment may prove more effective if other household members are supportive. Within the growing body of literature on women's empowerment interventions, several studies have measured programs' ultimate impacts, but less is known about who participates in such programs or how participation can be increased.

In this study, the authors examined participation in a women's economic empowerment initiative for sugarcane farmers in eastern Uganda. First, they used a survey to identify household characteristics associated with decreased levels of participation in the intervention. Second, they randomly assigned couples to a workshop designed to increase communication and gender balance within the household, and measured the workshop's effects on participation in the women's economic empowerment initiative.


The majority of couples offered the empowerment intervention agreed to participate, with couples invited to the pre-intervention workshop being more likely to accept the intervention invitation. The workshop proved most impactful among households that, due to socioeconomic and gender norm characteristics, were more likely to refuse the intervention in the workshop's absence. It also proved most impactful in addressing barriers to participation stemming from gender norms or labor division, rather than those related to a household's economic position.

  • More than 70% of couples offered the intervention (assistance with transferring a sugarcane contract from husband to wife, or registering a sugarcane block in the wife’s name) agreed to participate.
    • The majority of blocks of cane assigned to women through the intervention were new registrations, with fewer resulting from transfers of previously registered blocks.
    • The main reasons couples cited for declining the intervention were that the husband simply did not want to give any cane to the wife (49% of cases) and that there was insufficient cane or land (44%).
    • Socioeconomic and gender norm characteristics associated with lower levels of participation in the intervention included a husband with no education; lower levels of assets and expenditures; fewer blocks of sugar cane; a wife with no prior involvement in sugarcane farming; low weight of the wife's opinion; and a husband preferring to handle the household's money himself.
  • Assignment to the couples' workshop decreased intervention refusal by 6 percentage points.
  • The workshop decreased intervention refusal for households where the husband had no education (10 percentage points), for households with lower assets (8 to 9 percentage points), for households with personal spending below the median (10.6 percentage points), for households where the wife was not involved in cane production (15-19 percentage points and significant at the 10% level), and for households where the husband preferred to manage the money himself (14 percentage points significant at the 10% level).

Ultimately, this study showed that programs targeting households, rather than women alone, can be effective in facilitating participation in women's economic empowerment interventions. It revealed that such programs could mitigate barriers to participation that stemmed from norms or beliefs (i.e., no prior involvement of the wife in marketing/sales of sugar cane and a husband who preferred to handle the household’s money himself), but might be less successful in addressing economic obstacles (represented by low assets, low expenditures, and no education for the husband).


The authors partnered with Kakira Sugar Limited (KSL), a sugar company in Uganda's Jinja region, where the vast majority of cane contract farmers are men and, in households with married couples, the related income is paid directly to the husband. Households were recruited from a list of 4,540 male KSL sugarcane contract farmers to participate in an economic empowerment intervention designed to increase women's access to resources within the household.

Baseline Survey

Between July and September 2016, 2,370 households completed a baseline survey prior to the empowerment intervention. The survey included questions about socioeconomic traits, as well as decision-making exercises measuring household characteristics like efficiency, cooperation, and bargaining power. Half of the baseline survey participants, or 1,187 households, were randomly selected to be invited to the empowerment intervention.

Pre-Intervention Workshop

In November and December 2016, select couples offered the empowerment intervention were randomly assigned to be invited to a three-day workshop facilitating balance and participatory decision-making within the household. The workshop's structure was based on the Gender-Action Learning System (GALS), a community-based program that acknowledges the essential role of men in women's empowerment, and its ultimate aim was to encourage participation in the empowerment intervention.

Empowerment Initiative

From February to May 2017, trained staff made three visits to households that had been offered the intervention to remind male farmers they could transfer a sugarcane contract to their wife or register a sugarcane block in her name, actions that would grant her access to inputs, cash advances, and contract payments. The program facilitated the paperwork necessary for these transfers and registrations; covered the small associated fees; assisted with opening of required bank accounts for participating women; and offered a gift in the form of a solar lamp to households that completed the program.


First, the authors used the baseline survey to identify socioeconomic and household characteristics associated with refusal to participate in the empowerment intervention. Second, they examined whether participation in the workshop reduced refusals of the intervention.

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