Recently the ‘demographic dividend’ has attracted attention from policymakers because of the promise it delivers for development. But it has attracted criticism for taking an instrumental approach to young people rather than focusing on equality and rights. A similar critique has come from feminists evaluating livelihoods programming focusing on women’s ‘economic empowerment’. In this article, we draw on evidence from the Empower Youth for Work (EYW) project in Bangladesh to show why youth employment programmes need to challenge complex gender- and age-related barriers to young women’s full participation. Research findings confirm young women’s sizeable contribution to the economy through unpaid care work and informal employment. They also highlight the powerful role of gendered social norms that prevent young women from taking full advantage of training and income-generating opportunities. Youth employment programming needs to move beyond a narrow focus on ‘economic empowerment’ and instrumentalist approaches to ensure the current focus on youth is as empowering as it can be to young women.
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