Three things the crisis (should have) taught us about women’s empowerment

Naomi Hossain

Reviewing the proofs for a new book called Living with Crisis (published by the World Bank in April – an e-book which means its free!) and a World Bank Policy Research working paper synthesising the same have meant reflecting on what the last three years taught us about women’s empowerment. The three things we (should have) learned are:

1.     Paid work women’s empowerment

Earning money for working is all very well and yes, very very important for women’s agency and the balance of power at home. But anyone who seriously thought that getting a job as an export factory worker or access to microfinance was the same as women gaining real power over their lives no longer has such good reasons for thinking so: the gains are too fragile and too easily swept away. Our synthesis of qualitative research across 17 countries on the impacts of living with the food, fuel and financial crises  found that:

  • The supposedly privileged industrial elite of export sector workers was highly exposed and easily abandoned when orders were down. This was clear in South East- and South Asia. As women were the most ‘flexible’ workers they were typically first to go or find their pay and conditions got worse. When orders returned, women were often in more demand, but only the youngest, most flexible (and most docile?). Women reported the jobs they got back in the recovery were worse – poorer conditions, more uncertain and far harder pressure for productivity, all in an era of rising living costs.
  • When the growth machine stopped or slowed, the problem of indebtedness rose to the surface. It turns out juggling debt had become a serious problem for people living in poverty in a lot of places – Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh among others – sub-prime was not only a problem for low income Americans or Greeks. Certainly it looks like time to revisit the link between credit and women’s empowerment.
  • Women were particularly likely to diversify into the informal sector to cope – setting up as street vendors, mobile hairdressers, laundry service providers, sex workers, and so on. Our synthesis work supported what WIEGO  (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) found – dramatically increased competition in the informal sector, meaning many more women working far harder and competing with each other ever more fiercely for an ever smaller share of the pie. If this is empowerment, I am Rick Santorum.

2.     It’s the care economy, stupid!

The aid industry’s fixation on getting women to earn money (on why this has happened see the paper by Rosalind Eyben and Marzia Fontana for the Bellagio Initiative) meant it neglected the fact that most women in the developing world work long hard invisible hours in the care economy and that that is what makes human development happen. What the crisis did was show us what happens when the unmeasured everyday work of getting families fed, clothed, healed, reared and fit for work suddenly gets much harder and less rewarding – for example, because the cost of living spikes in 2008 and 2011. What happens, as we saw in our research, was that women’s power over their work and wellbeing was suddenly and dramatically reduced. From across the world came evidence of how tough this was – more time spent shopping around for cheaper, nutritious, edible meals; the strain of getting hungry kids off to school or of keeping husbands around and happy; gathering food and fuel (I will never forget the image of a Dhaka woman in her fifties hacking a log with an axe I could barely lift – she saved a few measly takas, but thought nothing of the effort involved); self-medicating; helping and getting help from neighbours; begging, borrowing and stealing; humbling themselves to apply for official or charitable assistance; portfolio working in the ever-less profitable informal economy etc. Some women reported their efforts to cope stretched to 18 hour working days; in a Central African Republic village, women remarked wryly ‘it is the sleep that drags her away from her housework’.

A real risk here is that the aid industry not only continues to neglect the all-important work of care, but that – worse – it depends even more on harder care work to supply the resilience needed to get poor people through hard times. The lesson here should be the sound of alarm bells whenever ‘resilience’ is mentioned – a reminder to listen closely for the sound of women’s unpaid care work softly absorbing the pain of economic shocks, without complaining or showing up in the statistics.

3.     Women’s empowerment depends on social protection

The policy ‘takeaway’ from 1 and 2 is clearly 3: women’s empowerment depends on proper social protection. But we have to rethink this. It is not because women are the helpless victims of crisis – the ones who eat last or least when food is scarce because cultural values favour men – but because if their strategic unpaid care roles are protected against big shocks, women have a fighting chance of making use of opportunities that come along. That is the point of social protection.

For all the big talk about social protection in the past decade you could be forgiven for thinking that social protection actually exists in the real world: in fact it remains notional in many places. It doesn’t cover much of the population at the best of times, does not extend to the rest in the worst, and when it does, it often doesn’t make much of a difference – as a system it just doesn’t protect.  What does protect people during shocks is mainly informal – the labours of love of parents or partners, gestures of compassion and solidarity between neighbours or kin, small helping acts, organised charity, even moral support – the stuff the policy-wallahs cannot see because it is neither monetised nor measured. I don’t think people prefer to help themselves – let us not romanticise this as Big Society writ global – but little else was on offer. A decent functioning system of social protection, one that did not work people harder for a measly handout or punish them for being carers, made a lot of difference where it existed. But apart from the former Soviet bloc countries and a few places where lessons of previous crises had been painfully learned (for exampl, Indonesia) few people seemed to be getting anything to help them through the crisis.

There is still the chance that the crisis turns out to be the opportunity it could have been in terms of a seriously ramped up social protection agenda. The global protest movement might yet buy some social protection, just like the Communist threat used to, once upon a time. In these volatile times, the project of women’s empowerment depends on it.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at IDS.

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