Making women out to be the saviours – a hard look at women’s empowerment initiatives

I just came across this paper by my Masters degree convener Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas that I think has profound insights for the way women’s empowerment initiatives are being deployed to fix the deeply rooted, context specific and complex gender inequalities that exist. In my line of work, women’s empowerment in agriculture strategies commonly entails ‘closing the gap’ in improving access to agriculture inputs, extension, finance and investing in labor-saving, female-friendly technologies to progress women’s efficiency in food production. Mainstream policy and planning tend to frame women as in a vulnerable position, undervalued, constrained and left out by a range of institutions related to food production and who are also disproportionately responsible for the provision of food at the household level. Renewed calls to place women centrally within development policy and planning (even for their empowerment) I think have been woefully inadequate.

These initiatives often look like encouraging women to produce female oriented food crops in gardens or care for small ruminants close to home by providing them with the tools and skills needed, even for free. This is to encourage her to be more productive so she can make more money and have more authority over her own life. It often looks like providing ‘new’ technology, like the old story of cheaper, energy efficient cook stoves, that are supposed to reduce her burden of work by making it easier on her. The women’s empowerment initiatives stipulated in policy and planning problematically tackles issues of power imbalance through an instrumentalist rationale. This “making women work for development, rather than making development work for their equality and empowerment” (p. 398).

Bad theory sucks

The problem with these initiatives is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the individual woman to solve the problems facing her family, like that of hunger. It actually places the solution and change on individuals, often in a way that reinforces traditional gender norms, further women’s work burdens and limits adaptive capacity, by providing those things that are female friendly. The danger is that this focus in policy may not reflect the lived realities of people’s experience, while possibly reinforcing the gendered status quo. Ultimately, the present empowering women strategies do not address the socio-economic inequalities that have led to her marginalization, such as the political economic dynamics and cultural geography. It also does not acknowledge the positions of power and agency she also has, afforded by privilege.

While there is recognition in policy and planning of the important contributions men and boys make and a detailing of human rights based approaches, women’s empowerment initiatives are pursued without deconstructing the underlying, unfounded assumptions about women and men. The narrative about women’s empowerment in development planning includes a number of myths, portraying women as hardworking, more caring and responsible than men and a better investment.

Kids get it

Although improving women’s opportunities is important, whether this will lead to transforming the unequal rules that are engendered is unclear.
– Even a small plot of land can reduce the risk of poverty, by acting as a bargaining point for attracting further resources from the State and from within the household, yet this link is by no means clear.
Technology to relieve domestic duties like cook stoves do not shift work loads, i.e. women still need to cook on top of the other income generating activities that you have given her, like that goat.
– New technology can also end up being labor-displacing. It could encourage women to take up work in collecting water or processing grain for wealthier farmers in return for wages reinforcing inequitable class dynamics.
Microcredit offered to poor women are typically under conditions that few affluent individuals would find acceptable and which few developed countries would allow. Moreover they remain small, recent evidence pointing to these loans as not having much of the intended transformational effects.
Training some women is also likely to have limited impact as having to attend training courses may benefit only those better off and who can sacrifice the time to attend the training
– Focusing on women can reinforce the gendered status quo and result in alienating men from contributing anything to the household.
– Targeting women also often include backlash from men, who feel left out from interventions, widening inequalities in different ways.

Moreover, the problems with targeting women who are labeled as victims of discrimination are that it may alter incentives and encourage them to adapt to this label so they receive development assistance. According to Ann Whitehead this framing of women without agency largely explains why the market-based strategies of the last 15 years in SSA (1987-2002) have not resulted in significant improvements for food security or agricultural development.

What can be done that is transformational?
Mainstream gender policy and planning maintains a post-feminist logic of empowering women through improving their productive capacity. The implications for this post-feminist logic that focuses on the individual woman are that it can reinforce traditional gender norms, increase work burdens, further intra-household conflict and, limit people and community’s adaptive capacity. In the least, policy needs to take a longer view and offer a broader range of opportunities people can choose to opt in or out of. Most of all, feminists should reclaim policy and planning spaces to politicize addressing the gender bias across various institutions for improving well being.

Why arent there more women?

Other more specific actions include,

1. Be informed by broader sets of interconnected inequalities, which involves a range of actors and activities embedded across various institutions. This includes recognition of discrimination of other oppression and differences, such as ethnicity and age, and other experiences of stigma and violence.

2. Intangible resources need to be considered, which are beyond asset provision, money and commodities include informal networks and associations-collective consciousness and building group solidarity. Moreover, human assets that focus broadly on the labor power, health and skills of individuals are critical.

3. Gender mainstreaming in reforms requires gender consciousness that goes beyond the staff of the programs to also include traditional authorities, men, and women to redress social inequality. This is not just about simply involving or engaging men, but also about holding them accountable to address any inequitable privileged positions of power.

4. Create conditions where people are not only able to express concerns, but also ensure they are listened to for increasing participation in decision making.

5. Most of all we need to examine the extent to which we harbor assumptions, myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs that prevent us from treating everyone with dignity and respect.

feminist

The slant of women’s empowerment initiatives in current policy discourse logic restricts women and men’s ability to contribute to their own development in multiple ways and ignores the need to transform institutional arrangements that control access, which is what actual empowerment looks like. Providing a group of woman with micro-loans for their shea butter production for example does not address the underlying socio-economic inequalities they face as peasant farmers engaging in a political economy that is actually shutting them out. This can be done by at least having a longer term perspective with the hope of providing a greater range of opportunities for people to decide what is best for themselves and their communities to adapt to changing circumstances.
im the boss

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