11 April 2015

Measuring Women's Empowerment: Is it worth it? Yes.

There are two things about empowerment.  First it is a process: a process of increasing power.  Second it is about "power".   As a process it is perhaps not that easy to quantify.  As for "power", well, the ways in which that is exercised are highly context specific and difficult to recognise.  Trying to quantify women's empowerment in a cross-region context is a task for brave souls.  

And yet this is exactly what my IFPRI colleagues Hazel Malapit and Agnes Quisumbing have attempted to do with the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), working with colleagues from OPHI and USAID's Feed the Future. Malapit and Quisumbing's latest paper --on Ghana--has just come out in the journal Food Policy.  

Why is it even worth attempting to measure women's empowerment?  Well we know that various measures of women's power to control resources, their own bodies and their own mobility are associated with a range of food security and nutrition status outcomes and we know that women are routinely denied access to the same kinds of agricultural inputs that men take for granted.  So if we can identify domains or geographical areas where their power relative to men is low, then we can better try to take the power imbalance into account --and even contribute to eifforts to change it--thereby improving a range of food security and nutrition status outcomes (as well as a range of other outcomes and of course women's status to control decisions is a vitally important outcome in and of itself). 

As the authors note, the WEAI is a survey based index that “directly assesses women’s empowerment across five domains in agriculture, namely, agricultural production, access to and control over productive resources, control over the use of income, leadership in the community, and time allocation. The women’s empowerment score reflects the extent to which women are empowered in these domains. Comparing women’s and men’s empowerment scores enables us to assess the inequality between the achievements of women relative to the men in their households.”  

There are 10 indicators across the 5 domains (see picture at top of post).  One domain has one indicator (e.g. sole or joint control over income and expenditures) and it is weighted as 1/5 of the index.  One domain (resources) has 3 indicators and each of them are weighted as 1/15 of the index.  The overall index is useful as a headline, but the real value is that the WEAI can be broken down into the 5 domains of empowerment: production resources, income, leadership and time.

This paper asks: in Northern Ghana, which domains of empowerment are associated with (a) infant and young child feeding practices AND (b) child and women nutrition status.  Ordinary least squares are used to assess associations between various domains of WEAI and these nutrition related outcomes, controlling for a wide range of individual and household characteristics.  The authors also test whether the associations between WEAI components and child nutrition status differ for boys and girls.  The IYCF outcomes are exclusive breastfeeding up until 6 months of age, minimum diet diversity and minimum adequate diet scores for children 6-24 months of age, stunting wasting and underweight and for women the indicators relate to diet diversity, underweight and BMI.

For the sample of women in northern Ghana all 10 indicators have significant deficits in terms of women’s empowerment, with access to and control over assets, credit and income being the most important.

The results show:

* On IYCF practices, WEAI index and component domain scores show a few statistically significant associations (p less than 0.05) but they are mixed (some positively associated with practices, some negatively)

* No significant associations (p less than 0.05) between WEAI or components and child nutrition status measures

* No significant associations (p less than 0.05) between WEAI or components and women’s BMI, but positive and significant association between women’s control of credit decisions and women’s diet diversity

These results are interesting, but raise more questions than they answer.  The authors are not surprised by the complexity of the findings and acknowledge that context is everything; that not all domains of empowerment will be associated with all manner of nutrition practices and outcomes;  and when they are associated, the direction of association may be counter intuitive. 

The WEAI is available for 18 countries.  It should be used by policymakers who care about nutrition—to identify bottlenecks to improved nutrition practices and outcomes (such as access to and control over credit decisions and the strong positive associations with women’s diet diversity in northern Ghana)—but also because gender parity is a right and women’s empowerment has many benefits to women, families and society that just cannot be measured in a quantitative way.

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