Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Of Market Queens and Women’s Empowerment

by Ayesha Mysorewala

Street market in Accra, Ghana
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

I recently visited Ghana for the Agriculture, Nutrition and Health conference 2018 (ANH 2018) to present the findings of our LANSA research paper on the potential of agricultural asset transfers to improve nutrition in Pakistan.

What really struck me about Ghana was the overwhelming presence of women on the streets. In Makola, the largest open-air market in Accra, women and ‘market queens’ dominated the selling space – loudly marketing everything from clothes and jewellery to freshly obtained snails and vegetables.

As a Pakistani who craves to see that kind of public presence of women in my own country, the visceral reaction to the sight of women negotiating and asserting their dominance in the market space was to marvel about how empowered women are in West Africa.

However, as someone who has been studying gendered pathways between agriculture and nutrition, and the role of women along agriculture value chains as part of LANSA, I had to check my bias and rethink what empowerment really means.

The main takeaway from the panel on ‘Gender Pathways in Agriculture to Nutrition’ at ANH 2018 was that context matters greatly and we need to be careful in designing agricultural interventions for nutrition. In their research in Asia and Africa, Dr. Agnes Quisumbing and her team used the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) to find that associations between dimensions of empowerment, food security and nutrition outcomes were not consistent across the six countries they studied. In our own work in Pakistan, we find that agricultural interventions that aim to empower women may be in danger of increasing women’s work burdens. This in turn is detrimental to nutritional outcomes, especially during pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of their children’s lives.[1]

This does not mean that we ought to abandon the objective of women’s empowerment in development programmes entirely. After all, one consensus that emerged from the gender panel was that agricultural programmes that aim to empower women have greater potential for impacts on nutritional outcomes than those that do not.

Much depends on how empowerment is interpreted. Many development programmes treat empowerment as an ‘outcome’ that can be achieved by tick-boxing various steps of a programme such as providing women with loans, training and enlisting them in small business activities. This has led to feminists coining the term “empowerment-lite” – the instrumentalizing of women and girls in the service of neoliberalism and the holy generalized grail of poverty reduction.

As Naila Kabeer has argued, empowerment is less a destination and more a “journey without maps”. We need to bring focus back to power, politics and improved gender relations in various contexts and be wary of generalized pathways and recipes for poverty reduction via empowerment. This can only be achieved by a strong will and dedication to understand and address the structured inequalities that sparked feminists into action in the first place.

[1] Rebecca Pradeilles, Elizabeth Allen, Haris Gazdar, Ayesha Mysorewala, Sidra Mazhar, Alan Dangour, Elaine Ferguson (forthcoming). “The relationship between crop-related agricultural workload and maternal and infant nutritional status in rural Pakistan”. LANSA.