Motorways to Nowhere?

Jenny_Edwards200Jenny Edwards

International development agencies have been pouring money into one-size fits all interventions for women and girls’ empowerment. Increasingly the business case ‘Invest in a girl and the world benefits’ is becoming popular among donors, NGOs and private sector supporters. But quick-fix solutions are rarely either the answer or sufficient to deal with what are essentially complex and intertwined problems. The analogy we use within the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme is that agencies are building ‘motorways to nowhere’. In focusing on the destination down a zooming highway rather than journeys along more meandering pathways, development agencies may be missing the fact that women’s experiences of empowerment are not straight or straightforward: there are obstacles, they do not travel alone, routes are circuitous and there may be many stops along the way. Donors need to look beyond targets, destinations and tick boxes and explore the complexity of women’s lives and relationships. Feminisms, Empowerment and Development, one of a series of new books from Pathways published by Zed, debates some of these complexities and highlights lessons learned about how women experience change that were uncovered by our research.

What is empowering to one woman may not be equally so for others

One of the important findings from a survey of three generations of women in Ghana which researcher Akosua Darkwah talks about in the book, is this: education for the older generation guaranteed a pathway to valuable formal sector jobs, but this is no longer the sure-fire route to secure, decent work for a younger generation faced with a more unpredictable labour market. In Brazil, Terezinha Gonçalves’ research found that when middle class women employ a domestic worker, it frees them from their chores to pursue empowering professional careers. However, as these women often do not value domestic work as a profession they fail to provide decent pay and conditions to their predominantly, black female staff. These examples highlight the importance of context: geographical, historical, class, race etc. For interventions to be successful they need to be fully appreciative of women’s lived experiences and not see ‘poor women’ as one homogenous group. This need to pay attention to context is demonstrated in Pathways’ survey on work, where for women in Bangladesh and Egypt work outside the home was seen as empowering but not so for women in Ghana where this was something they had always experienced.

Hidden Pathways

The differing experiences of women and girls can be clearly seen in what Pathways’ researchers refer to as ‘hidden pathways’. Focusing only on economic, political and legal routes of empowerment through interventions such as micro-credit, quotas and law reform risks missing some of the less obvious but still important aspects of women’s lives. For instance, although representations of women on television and the media have sometimes proved problematic and disempowering, Aanmona Priyadarshini’s and Samia Rahim’s study in Bangladesh shows how television has captured imagination across classes. Women experience pleasure and hope for their own lives from shared viewing, but also choose, judge or disregard narratives depending on how they connect with them. In Pakistan, a participant in Neelam Hussain’s research explained how watching a woman in a job interview on television helped her to know how to behave in a situation she had yet to experience.

Horizons of Possibility

Expanding the horizons of possibility is one of the key messages of the book. Although economic, legal and political interventions are important they are not enough on their own. The process of empowerment requires ‘creating consciousness’ or helping women to see themselves as equal citizens entitled to rights. Hania Sholkamy says that one of the key elements of a feminist social programme is to support women in recognising their citizenship rights. This importance is clearly demonstrated by Saptagram, a social mobilisation organisation in Bangladesh, the subject of Naila Kabeer’s and Lopita Huq’s chapter. A key element of Saptagram’s strategy was transforming women’s consciousness. As one of its members said ‘I have learnt about our rights. Now I understand I have the same rights as my husband… Whether I get my rights or not, I can still demand them’.

Pathways of Change

So is there an answer, or a solution? Many of Pathways’ messages are not new or earth-shattering but they bear repeating in an age of what Lisa VeneKlasen from Just Associates at a recent Pathways conference referred to as ‘clickivism’: the idea that just pressing one button will lift a woman from poverty. We need to listen to women’s experiences, learn from their lived realities on what works and what doesn’t. We need to support them in realising their rights and give support to women’s organisations to demand these rights. We need to tackle the issues of power that sustain women’s inequality; the deeper issues behind what hinders women’s unequal representation in parliaments and in the board rooms. We need to do more than just give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world. As Hania Sholkamy notes: ‘Alleviating poverty and enabling women to make some income can better lives, but the enabling environment that confirms the right to work, to property, to safety, to voice, to sexuality and to freedom is not created by sewing machines or micro-credit alone’.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

Read other posts from Jenny Edwards:

A version of this blog was first published on The Guardian on 23rd July 2014 under the title “We cannot give a woman a cow and expect her to change the world”. 

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