Friday, 5 May 2017

Does empowerment work really empower?

by Marium Ibrahim

Mural by Chite Yarumo
Translation: We need to recreate a language which shows respect for women .If as men, we walked in the shoes of women we would be outraged.

Donor efforts to empower women often start with the reallocation of economic resources between men and women. Projects provide women with capital through in-kind support, loans or grants, or enhance their capacity to use it through trainings or networking efforts. Greater capital is expected to cause a shift in the power dynamics vis-à-vis men, leading to more empowered women. It is undeniable that such programs have led to economic freedom for women, and to better economies. But does having more economic resources necessarily lead to empowerment of women?

To answer this question, we should start by acknowledging that there is no unanimous agreement on the definition of empowerment. However, most donor projects and development literature see it as a social process that helps people gain more autonomy and control over their lives.

Donor projects often assume that control of resources is the source of power, and that with this economic power, autonomy and some level of influence will follow This view is in line with Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy which posits that basic, lower level (physiological, safety, belongingness) needs must be satisfied before a person can move on to fulfilling their higher level (esteem, self-actualization) needs. This theory, as it is widely viewed, assumes that a person is not motivated to, and therefore cannot reach higher level needs until lower level ones are fulfilled. This means that a lot of work around women sees basic physical needs as more important and other needs as secondary, assuming that they will follow.

And sometimes they do follow. Research on the Benazir Income Support Programme (an unconditional cash transfer programme for women living in extreme poverty in Pakistan) has shown that giving women control over some resources does actually increase their autonomy and status in the household. But these situations are mostly (not always) about small, visible displays of control, or power in the household, such as a woman being allowed to decide what to cook for dinner. Many such interventions seem to see the end goal of this empowerment as increased permissions for women rather than an actual shift in power dynamics.

Often, access to more economic resources does not translate into autonomy and greater status. Social norms about who makes decisions in the household and psychological constraints, such as a woman’s own feelings of self-worth and confidence in her decision-making ability impose serious limitations. 

In our recent fieldwork working with women in rural Sindh for a LANSA study on women’s work and nutrition many people, including both men and women, asked us why we were working with women when “men are capable of understanding so much better”. When women have been systematically denied any power, it is easy for them to internalize messages about their value and purpose and believe them to be true. It will take more than ownership of resources to change how they see themselves.

In our LANSA survey on women’s work and nutrition in rural Sindh, we found a large incidence of depression amongst women. Mental health may not be a great indicator of empowerment, and may or may not be linked to oppression (internalized or not), but this does indicate that there are many underlying issues that can’t just be ignored.

Social power does not come automatically through economic strength. Economic development programmes don’t do much to change the structural processes working underneath the surface to prevent empowerment in the true sense. Efforts to empower women should define the end goal to be an equal playing field for men and women. This goal will require us to reflect on the nature of empowerment, and realize that making a real change will take more than shifting resources. Despite what Maslow-aligned views might purport, you can start with higher-level structural issues instead of starting at the bottom and hoping that it will eventually make some systemic change.