Women’s Empowerment in the Real World: Some Answers, but Many New Questions Too. Blog Written By: Matthew Pritchard, Team Leader, CLP.
I recently posted to LinkedIn some links on research into women’s empowerment carried out by the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP). It provoked some fascinating comments and insights from around the world which really got me thinking about CLP’s approach and results.
For some background, CLP is a UKaid- and Australian Aid funded programme that works in the riverine islands of north-west Bangladesh, aiming to help the poorest of the poor escape from extreme poverty. It’s sponsored by the Government of Bangladesh and implemented by Maxwell Stamp PLC. Have a look at our website here: www.clp-bangladesh.org
The report looked at the link between having an independent income and women’s empowerment. It found that having an independent income was very important to women – 96% of our respondents confirmed this. There were also strong correlations seen between having an independent income and six other empowerment indicators from CLP’s Women’s Empowerment Scorecard. (Links to this research and other information are provided at the end of this piece.)
Many of the comments on this report, however, pointed out different experiences, and highlighted many other different facets of empowerment for women.
For example, one person commented that they found it difficult to implement gender-focused activities because of the cultural differences between Bangladesh and western gender theory. This particularly revolved around the desire for women to be seen as functioning within the family as a unit. A focus on them as individuals, rather than on the family as a unit, was seen as ‘divisive’.
This really made me stop and think. I’ve certainly seen other research which argued that the standard western focus on individuals wasn’t always appropriate in all cultural circumstances. Was CLP missing something? Should our focus be reviewed? Would we be more successful if we did not necessarily focus our assistance on the adult female of the household?
However, the chars are quite a distinctive environment. Our participant group are also distinctive, particularly when they start with the CLP.
Many of the women we work with are, in effect, single-parent families for large portions of the year because the man migrates to find work. The family is therefore often separated and the woman has to fend for herself. This undoubtedly makes it easier to take a more individual and less ‘family-unit-based’ approach than may be needed elsewhere.
From a practical perspective, assistance therefore goes to the woman because the man often isn’t there to look after the asset or participate in training. And of course, we want to empower women and so use the transfer of the valuable asset to her as a way of starting that process.
However, I have begun to notice that, as CLP’s assistance continues, many more husbands travel or migrate for work less. This feeds into another set of comments that came out of my postings.
Many commenters pointed out that, in other countries, the increasing success of women eventually caused ‘male capture’, where the male head of the household takes control of the income source or activity, effectively relegating the female once again to a mainly house-and-family-oriented role.
Does that happen on CLP, I wondered? The simple answer is that we don’t know for sure; we haven’t carried out any direct research on this issue – yet. There are indications both ways.
In my own travels on the chars, I have noted one fairly common pathway out of poverty: households use profits from their asset (which is usually cattle) to invest in land leases. The husband then often takes on the job of cultivating this land, usually with rice and other cash crops. In some families, the woman carries on growing crops such as chillies, and will often continue with the homestead gardening that CLP promotes. Many families continue to keep livestock, which the woman will usually continue to manage.
However, there are examples where different choices are made. The CLP’s Deputy Team Leader was out in the field during October 2014, and needed to organise some transport. A horse and cart was duly hired, and the cart owner revealed that his family had taken part in CLP. The profits they’d made from selling their cow had been used to purchase the horse and cart, which he then ran to make an income.
This raised many questions for me: to what extent was his wife involved in this decision? Did she agree with it? Was she still earning an independent income? If so, what was she doing? If not, how did she feel about it? Bluntly – was this an example of ‘male capture’ or not? The answer is “we don’t know”; we don’t have any data at the moment. More research needed!
It also made me aware that, with complex issues such as empowerment, decision-making and relative influence in a family unit, the definitions are vital. What would separate a ‘bad’ example of male capture from a ‘good’ example of joint decision-making, even if the decision appeared to give the primary income-earning role (and asset) to the male?
It is also important WHO answers such questions.
CLP has an example to illustrate. When we first started looking into women’s empowerment, gender and social development experts compiled a comprehensive report. The 46 indicators they identified were organised into 18 themes. This was great; it gave us very rich data.
The problem was, however, that it was too detailed. We still couldn’t come up with a satisfactory way of defining whether a woman was ‘empowered’ or ‘not empowered’ as a result of CLP’s assistance. So we went into the chars and conducted participatory sessions. Our participants identified the 10 major indicators that they themselves use to judge their empowerment.
This gives us the confidence that, when we talk about women’s empowerment on the chars, we are talking the same language as our participants – these indicators are important to them, not just to us as outsiders.
Wrapping this up, our research makes it fairly clear that CLP’s programme of assistance rapidly leads to large increases in the way women feel and report about their empowerment. This also seems to sustain.
However, as always, we haven’t answered every question. There’s still some fascinating insights out there, waiting for us to get a research team together and collect the data!
If you want to learn more about the CLP’s work and our impact on women’s empowerment, please click on the various links below.
http://bit.ly/Income-WomEmp; the report on the link between income and women’s empowerment.
http://bit.ly/MsrWomEmp; how we measure women’s empowerment.
http://bit.ly/WmEmpGlossy; our ‘glossy’ on women’s empowerment; a summary of our impact on empowering women.
http://bit.ly/News-DowryVAW; research into CLP’s impact on dowry-giving and gender-based violence.
http://bit.ly/Shazia-WmEmpwr; a story about Shazia Begum’s journey from extreme poverty to being a successful, empowered, chars-based businesswoman.
http://bit.ly/2012SocDevRev; a detailed review of our overall social development initiatives.
http://bit.ly/BriefInfluenceAtt; a brief 4-p
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