08 March 2011

Women's Empowerment: A journey not a destination

One of the first phrases I heard at IDS when I joined back in 2004 was "women's emment". What is "women's emment"? I naively asked. The answer was: women's empowerment without the power.

The argument was that many governments, donor agencies and researchers had simplistic views of how power works. The view that power could be enhanced or bestowed simply through policy engineering was a way of side-stepping complicated reality and messy politics. The policy levers tended to focus on women as "two-dimensional economic agents", when in reality the success of policy levers was contingent on a whole host of contextual factors, factors often not seen, precisely because of the exclusive focus on the policy levers.

The above quotes are from a new forthcoming publication "Empowerment: A journey, not a destination from the Pathways of Women's Empowerment research and communications programme, of which IDS is a partner. The draft report is still being discussed with partners and it won't be released until later this year but it has already begun to inform thinking at IDS around our work on gender.

The Pathways research programme has been going for nearly 5 years and has been supported by DFID, the Norwegian and Swedish Ministries for foreign affairs and UNIFEM (a precursor to UN Women).

The Pathways report makes 12 key points:

1. Direct interventions for women's empowerment such as quotas and legal reforms are needed, but in themselves are not enough. Here the issue is with the lazy view that these kinds of reforms are sufficient to bring about change. The Pathways team would, I think, argue that they are a necessary but insufficient step on journeys of empowerment.

2. Women's organising is vital for sustainable change. (As we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya, by combining efforts individuals can bring about change.)

3. Recognising and supporting those within the state responsible for implementing women's empowerment interventions is crucial. Formulating and launching policies is one thing, but those implementing them need support if they are to enable rather than block the goals of the policy. "Lady health workers" in Pakistan, for example, are vital to deliver quality health services, but are also sources of inspiration for other women and their daughters.

4. We need to address multiple structural constraints to women's empowerment. Here the emphasis is to "revalue longer slower processes thorough which women gain a sense of their self-worth".

5. What's empowering to one woman is not necessarily empowering to another. For example, the rise in religious observance in Bangladesh--the conventional view of secular society is that this is necessarily problematic, but there are examples in the programme of how engagement with religion though a better understanding of Islam can help women challenge unequal gender relations

6. Popular culture can be hugely influential in challenging stereotypes and in redefining what is normal or acceptable. Television and video in particular have a powerful role in challenging the existing representation of women and men

7. Using participatory methods research on empowerment can be empowering. Through activities like first person narratives using video, a critical consciousness of one's own ideas, values and actions is another key step on the path to empowerment

8. Women's empowerment is mediated through relationships. Constituencies of allies, whether in landless women's organisations or within development finance institutions are vital for change to occur

9. Global institutions should support existing local institutions and resist going in with pre-existing agenda. When there is time, one can have the best of both--in Egypt conditional cash transfers were successfully adapted from the Latin American model

10. Making policies work means supporting existing spaces and creating new fora for public engagement and debate. Policies do not become real for people until they are talked about

11. Move beyond seeing women as victims and heroines and seeing them as real people. The first view leaves women with little sense of their own power, and the second places unfair burdens on them. It is the third one that will help external support find ways of helping women negotiate the tough empowerment process

12. Empowerment is difficult to quantify. Focusing on a predictable set of outcomes can be unhelpful. Here the argument is that empowerment has many dimensions, and focusing on one (say women's income, because it is more measurable) may omit other dimensions (such as violence from their intimate partners) that are moving in the opposite direction.

My reactions:

1. This is an impressive piece of work. Yes, I am biased because IDS is involved, but as someone who spent a lot of time in the 1990s doing the kinds of policy research that this report questions, I find it nevertheless to be fair and insightful

2. But I do think it overstates the "two dimensionality of women" argument. The focus on women's income was always a proxy for women's control and for women's freedoms. The economic bargaining models used also explicitly modelled negotiating power and a woman's external options, reflecting structural inequalities, such as freedom of movement, employment rights and voting rights. Inevitably many researchers and policymakers ignored these nuances and focused on "women's income" as the sole story

3. I really liked the emphasis on popular culture as a shaper of development and change processes, and this shaping ability is only going to get stronger in the "twitterati" culture. This will also stimulate the public debate this gives everyday shape to rather abstract policies

4. If I were working for a financing development agency (global or otherwise), the implications for me would be to:

  • recognise that the impacts of legal reforms, quotas, conditional cash transfers to women, girls education initiatives will be greatly enhanced if (a) they are home grown or home adapted and if (b) support is given to those charged with implementing them--both at the public policy level and at the grass roots
  • support women's organisations and other less formal collectives as a source of innovation in the everyday context (taking empowerment where and when one finds the opportunity
  • work with the media and entertainment communities, not as passive conveyors of messages, but as development actors who have a responsibility to shape and stimulate public debate
  • demand creative approaches when quantifying empowerment. Don't be daunted by it, but don't be seduced by easy answers. It is multidimensional, but so too is well-being and we have indicators for that
  • recalibrate expectations about how long empowerment takes and adjust your programmes accordingly
  • think about my own empowerment journey and all the contingencies along the way, think about the multiple pathways that lay ahead of me and the everyday decisions that led me in one direction rather than another and try to transfer that thinking to my professional work.

6 comments:

bruco1 said...

Good stuff. It might seem the strangest of comments, particularly today, but boys and men are important in this too, and without diminishing any of the vital things described here, or the need to focus strongly on real empowerment of girls and women, for which there are many mountaons yet to cliimb, the role of men in this process, and their own empowerment as caring and responsible people also needs to be better understood and accounted for. I am of cours merely a man, or possibly on a good day a human being, but we still have both halves of the sky!

Lawrence Haddad said...

Yes, and to be fair to the Pathways team, their document is called "Empowerment: A journey not a destination", so they acknowledge it is about men's empowerment too and also that have key roles to play in empowering women and themselves...

S. Balachandra Iyer said...

From an 'outsider's'(at least as far as development/empowerment jargon is concerned) perspective,and as a civil servant in a developing country, I would submit that recommendations of such long-term research need to be worded simply but not simplistically. After all, they are supposed to guide policy-makers.
My view is that the recommendations, though well-intentioned, are either too simplistic (e.g.recommendation-11 that says women should be treated as 'real people'& not as heroines or victims, is neither original nor profound and is well-known in several contexts. In fact, an analogous plea exists by Campbell & others for treating Africans too as 'real people'and not as parodies of 'noble savages');or are too general/abstruse to be of much practical use. (e.g. recommendation-4, on addressing 'multiple structural constraints to women's empowerment' is the sort of policy presription that brings a glazed look to a non-academician's eye!).

Lawrence Haddad said...

Dear S. Balachandra Iyer, this is really useful feedback, thank you. Its hard to get the balance right between general statements that might have resonance outside the specific context and specific tangible examples. The report is still a draft so there is time to make these points more clearly. Best, Lawrence

Kent Glenzer said...

Tough to comment, as we're getting Lawrence's take on a draft report. I guess, however, that it feels like much of what you're pointing out as particularly important seems oddly familiar. Rephrasings of things that (I think) we've known for at least a decade, and some of my colleagues I'm sure would say are at least 30 years old. So...to be constructive here: I do think it's extraordinarly important that the final report really be transparent about what is a) new and b) reinforcing of previous work. I think it even more important because I have been following this work for five years, was (very modestly involved) in its early stages, and am quite sure there is much that is new, actionable, and able to be translated for people who wish to act differently. Like Mr. Iyer.

Lawrence Haddad said...

Yes, sorry Kent...I thought the report was going to be released on March 12. Apparently it got held up over some last minute text negotiation...so you are right, its a bit unfair the way it has turned out...