The fact that women constitute two-thirds of the world’s non-literate population has been a cause for concern for several decades now. Despite a number of high-profile literacy interventions specifically targeting women – including UNESCO’s LIFE initiative – the disparity between male and female literacy rates persists in many countries of the world (UIL, 2013). This starting point for thinking about women’s literacy has however often led to a narrow focus on literacy access and outcomes. Whilst educational policy makers and planners have attempted to identify and overcome barriers to women’s participation, researchers have directed their attention to measuring the social and economic benefits of women’s literacy (see Robinson-Pant, 2004). Statistical correlations have been presented as evidence of the impact of women’s literacy: for instance, in Pakistan, women with a high level of literacy earned 95% more than women with no literacy skills yet there was only a 33% differential amongst men (UNESCO 2012: 196). Barriers to participation have been analysed in terms of structural (timing, location, women-only versus mixed gender) and social (marriage, poverty, language hierarchies) factors (see Ballara 1991). Within such analysis however, little attention has been given to the social processes associated with literacy learning and development. By contrast, this paper sets out to take a wider lens on literacy in order to explore not only ‘what works’ in practical terms of encouraging women to participate programmes, but also to look at how and why literacy programmes can contribute to sustainable development and processes of empowerment. Taking this perspective on women’s literacy involves asking alternative questions from the more usual ‘how can we make more women literate?’ Approaching literacy through the lens of sustainable development and women’s empowerment means that we develop a more nuanced understanding of how different kinds of literacy emerge from or support different development approaches and how women engage with such processes of change. How is literacy related to sustainable development programmes? What does empowerment mean to different women in different situations? What kind of research evidence and knowledge are literacy programmes and policy building on? How can adult learning facilitate economic, social and environmental change? These larger questions will guide the conceptual exploration of sustainable development, women’s empowerment and literacy, as well as the review of literacy programmes presented in this paper. The starting assumption is that only by looking in depth at the processes of literacy learning and development practice can we begin to address the challenge of narrowing the gender gap in literacy attainment.