Empowerment, Citizenship and Redemption? Economic programmes and policies for female sex workers

28/10/2014

Cheryl Overs

All sides in the complex and frequently fiery debates about female adult sex work acknowledge links between sex work and economic disadvantage, injustice and inequality. My recent work has explored economic programming and policies that affect female adult sex workers in Ethiopia. As in other low income countries a significant percentage of Ethiopian women live in chronic, acute poverty and the links between poverty and sex work are at their least ambiguous – it causes more women to sell sex than there is demand for sexual services which means that the sex industry is a ‘buyers’ market’ from which most women can only find subsistence livelihoods. In very low income countries sex work does not offer women a ladder out of poverty as it can in wealthy and middle income countries. In this context it is crucial to work out what ‘economic empowerment’ of sex workers means, identify the policies and programmes that can achieve it and get them in to place at scale. We also need to know which ones are a waste of time or money.

Basket weave your way out of prostitution

The first time I heard about rehabilitation programmes for sex workers was at an AIDS conference in 1988. I whispered to my friend, ‘What? Basket weave your way out of prostitution?’ He whispered back ‘if it’s that easy, why not get everybody to weave baskets?’. Six years later when I was researching Making Sex Work Safe: a guide for field workers, programme managers and policy makers’ I noticed accounts of sex worker rehabilitation in developing countries coming in alongside the first data from targeted HIV interventions. I included pieces in the book about a programme aiming to help sex workers earn income from other sources in Kenya and about social workers in the Philippines who were disappointed and puzzled because women who had said they desperately wanted another job had abandoned the programmes they’d set up for them.

Since then thousands of HIV projects for sex workers have developed and many sex worker groups have formed, some of which have established and sustained strong economic empowerment projects. In most places, rich and poor, HIV programmes for sex workers include some training or support to help women out of sex work. I have visited several and slowly formed the impression that they are frequently a side event to the public health work operated by an unregistered community based organisation while the funded HIV work is done by a ‘parent’ NGO. I was often told by NGO staff that their rehabilitation or ‘exiting’ programme was a kind of window dressing to help reduce opposition to programmes that might be seen as encouraging immorality because they advise about safe sex and distribute condoms. At the same time some more dynamic initiatives seemed to be emerging from NGOs that had been formed to respond to HIV economic empowerment programmes like that of the Usha Co-operative in Kolkata and VAMP Maharashtra India. Most recently anti-trafficking initiatives have spawned hundreds of projects that aim to rehabilitate exploited or trafficked women. Often called ‘aftercare’, these have burgeoned with the increases in anti-trafficking funds and they are operated by a variety of religious, military, feminist and development organisations such as the International Justice Mission, and Restore International.

Policy on the rehabilitation of sex workers has also developed although not always smoothly. In 2007 UNAIDS recommended rehabilitation as one of three strategies for preventing HIV among sex workers (the others were preventing women and girls becoming sex workers and ensuring that those that were not rehabilitated could access condoms and HIV tests) but replaced this in 2009 after criticism about its reliance on the possibility of relocating significant numbers of women into other occupations or reducing the total number of commercial sexual transactions. Several governments have introduced policy to support women to leave sex work, most notably in India where a Supreme Court decision obligated States to offer rehabilitation services to sex workers.

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no

Sex workers activists have been consistently critical of rehabilitation and developed a catalogue of serious human rights abuses associated with it across the world. Several anti-rehabilitation campaigns have called for rehabilitation to be abandoned in favour of rights based approaches to increasing economic options. Because sex work is posited as a valid occupation activists reject both the ideology of ‘rescuing’ women from prostitution and the human rights violations associated with coercive or moralistic programmes. They argue that money would be better spent on increasing sex workers access to justice, education, safe workplaces, finance, housing, health care and other building blocks of fulfilled lives. The sewing machine has been used to symbolise rehabilitation and it has been accompanied with slogans opposing ‘raid and rescue’ such as ‘Save us from Saviours’; ‘Not Your Rescue Project’ and ‘With Rights I can Rescue Myself’. I think everyone’s favourite was created by Cambodian sex workers – ‘Don’t talk to me about sewing machines, talk to me about workers rights’. It encapsulates that position perfectly.

sewing machine logo for Cheryl's blog oct 14

Logo of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers

But although the damage associated with ‘bad rehab’* has been well documented, it can’t be ignored that many sex workers want a livelihood that enables them to absorb economic shocks, access resources and services or to retire or escape from violence, criminality and abuse associated with sex work, which frequently also affects their children. Logically, the poorer the country, and therefore the less profitable the sex industry, the more women will want development agencies to work on giving them this option. This raises the question, what is ‘good rehab’ in a low income country?

I began to answer that question in 1994 in Making Sex Work Safe by distinguishing between moralistic services that aimed to ‘save’ women by setting them up to earn an alternative income and those that aimed to help sex workers by:

  • reducing the discrimination which bars access to economic opportunities
  • developing supplementary income
  •  career development within the sex industry.

I argued that the former were disempowering and the latter empowering – which were fresh and fashionable words in 1994! Since 2011 I have been revisiting this issue, reviewing the relevant literature and conducting field work over several trips to Ethiopia.

The written word

When I looked at the literature to catch up on progress in economic programmes for sex workers I was disappointed to find that few are documented and that there is still no overall map of them and that research and guidance is scarce. I was alarmed that the picture I had painted two decades earlier of two essential approaches seemed to be intact but not much further articulated or evaluated. It appears that most programmes aim for women to abstain from commercial sex completely and a few aim to expand sex workers economic options and power in the way I had previously outlined. The latter seem to be more ethically sound and popular with sex workers and there are signs that they benefit more women than abstinence based programmes which, even where they haven’t violated human rights, don’t appear to deliver the sustainable, new livelihood streams they promise. But I am deliberately using vague words like ‘appears’ and ‘seems’ because there is not enough information to make a call here.

Almost no data is available from any of the HIV projects about outcomes – how many women they caused to leave sex work or what impact that has had on HIV, and which industries and types of programmes (microcredit, training etc) are best. The focus on a narrow scope of alternative occupations is striking. In a margin I scribbled, ‘isn’t it unlikely that there is sufficient market demand for hairdressers to justify training whole groups of sex workers in hairdressing?’ There is even less information about the outcomes of ‘aftercare’ and religious programmes for trafficked persons and/or sex workers and/or victims of exploitation. Much is written about the potential for women to find new livelihoods after various short trainings and small loans but most are anecdotal ‘success stories’, typically about the redemptive transformation of a sex worker into hairdresser, or internal evaluations written by the operators of programmes. We don’t know if sex workers leave the sex industry at all and, if they do, whether they are replaced. We don’t know which sex workers benefit from which kind of program or who qualifies for micro-credit. Nor do we know what impact rehabilitation programmes have on the sex workers who don’t participate – which is important because most programmes can only offer places to a tiny percentage of the total number of candidates.

Methodologies, and the questions of scale and coverage that are usually central to development and public health programming remain unaddressed. No-one has identified how many sex workers would need to earn how much alternative or supplementary income to reduce the overall number of women selling sex or to drive shifts in the number and pattern of commercial sexual transactions/networks sufficient to impact on an HIV epidemic, the incidence of gender based violence, or any other outcome.

This lack of information needed to make the call about what constitutes good or bad ‘rehab’ is alarming because a large amount of money is spent on economic programmes for sex workers, much of which comes from large agencies that would normally require solid evidence before they support specific approaches. Rigorous research here is sorely needed. Why it hasn’t happened already is a mystery.

What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need

Over four years I conducted interviews with adult female sex workers, NGO workers and policy makers in three Ethiopian cities. The work explored the impact of the laws against sex work (minimal because they are not enforced); the incidence of coercion and violence (low compared to other places but still serious enough); mobility (the vast majority of sex workers live and work away from their place of origin); underage prostitution (far too much and few efforts to stem it); trafficking into the sex industry (it happens but is minimal because poverty ensures a steady flow of recruits); police corruption (bribes are not paid) and exploitation (yes, but how much depends on the benchmark of non-exploitative work). Freelancers can work independently but women who depend on third parties often suffer poor conditions and are overcharged for services and accommodation. I also asked lots of questions about the dynamics of income generating projects and visited several. I was trying to sort out ‘window dressing’ from useful projects and work out how to identify, measure and encourage ‘good rehab’.

In the process I ate the Ethiopian staple, injera which has been produced for many years by a self-funding sex worker collective; watched football in a crowded café run by HIV positive sex workers; helped at a 24 hour ‘hole in the wall’ condom kiosk and saw a sex worker catering collective providing lunch at a police training workshop. I also had a wonderful coat made for a great price (but within my benchmark of exploitation!). I heard some bad things too. One NGO told me about funds they had for a ludicrous silk production scheme that might save a handful of ‘fallen women’ years down the track but which, in the meantime, was covering the salaries of a gaggle of project officers with an office and shiny Land Rover. I talked with women who were working very hard to sew goods that they are only permitted to sell at an NGO market that’s mainly patronised by foreigners. They couldn’t work out why they sold so little. Sadly, I was able to figure it out with a glance at the colours and designs.

I was curious about which sex workers did, and didn’t, attend the income generating projects or enrol in trainings or join savings and loans groups. I asked focus groups and individual interviewees “Who joined?” “Who stayed?” “Who dropped out and why?” One woman answered the ‘why’ with a lesson in basic arithmetic:

To support my family and live with any kind of dignity would cost 100 birr [about 3 pounds] per day. I make between 20 and 70 birr from sex work, but only on some days. I can get 20 to 50 [from the income generating project] and sometimes I can make a few birr in another way. What is sure is that every day, with all I do, I always have less than I need.

As those words illustrate, broader economic conditions mean that multiple strategies are needed because every available strategy is weak and highly likely to fail at some stage and welfare safety nets are non-existent or unreliable. It also illustrates the need for daily income and thus why schemes that require a women to invest time and money before she has any return may not be suitable for sex workers.

sewing at the Sisters Project cheryl overs blog oct 14

Sewing at the Sisters Project

Another important motivation to attend the income generating projects emerged from my interviews that surprised even their operators. By enrolling in an income generating programme sex workers can obtain the address and supporting documentation they need to obtain a government identity document. These ID cards are needed to conduct any economic activities, travel or access services in Ethiopia, similarly to ration or voting cards that Indian sex workers have also struggled to obtain. This is especially important for mobile sex workers (as already mentioned, the majority) because the cards are recognised locally not nationally.

I asked everyone I spoke to about women exiting the sex industry as a result of NGO economic empowerment programmes. Most said they didn’t know any young women who had gained a new occupation as a result of the programmes yet but that some were on the way in that they were trained and/or had received a loan. Some said that they had heard of older women who had attended NGO projects or joined traditional local income generating groups (Idars) stopping sex work permanently. Mothers said they can take their children to the income generating projects that produce and sell goods (usually injeras) on a daily basis and provide lunch. Several older women said they benefit from even tiny amounts of money when they cannot earn much from selling sex.

From all this I could see evidence that for Ethiopian sex workers, NGO economic empowerment programmes are a strategy for dealing not only with low income but with discrimination and lack of access to various services, commodities, spaces and to citizenship itself. I argued that the neo liberal ideals that place enterprise as a central element of development are not serving sex workers well and that programmes would almost certainly work better if they were targeted and planned rather than rolled out to a frankly tired formula. But I also suggested that improvement is unlikely without more resources, some evaluation and better accountability.

Revisiting Soloman

After writing and talking about sex work and poverty in Ethiopia over the years I visited in mid-2014. I was wondering if any of my arguments about the potential benefits of sustainable, rights based economic empowerment initiatives for sex workers had fallen on fertile ground.

My first stop was the Addis Ababa sex worker group Nikat. Since my last visit its economic empowerment project had been funded by the Dutch organisation that I had urged to adopt the idea of developing careers within, without and alongside sex work. The programme is called Stepping Up Stepping Out and the women in it are dedicated to their studies of trades by day and they don’t need to make it a secret that they still sell sex – ‘but not every night and not until late like I used to’ said one women in the programme. The bad news is that the programme is miniscule. At best it reaches tens of women in a place where it needs to reach tens of thousands. Hopefully it is a pilot and a larger donor will pay for rapid and significant scale-up.

I was delighted to hear that the NGO Timret, who had shown me around its centres, had conducted a successful campaign in its 34 centres across the country to obtain ID cards for sex workers in response to my observation that lack of them drove sex workers vulnerability. Hundreds of women became ‘legal people.’ I was even more pleased to hear that Timret found most local authorities to be more co-operative than they had expected. The bad news is that most of those centres will close or be scaled right back due to funding cuts.

The EU Delegation to Ethiopia asked me to advise about how they might be able to support ‘good rehab’ through their work with local authorities. ‘No need for me’ I said, ‘Come to Nikat’. A traditional coffee ceremony and an excursion to talk to women in sex work shanty towns were quickly arranged. The Nikat leadership held forth on issues around poverty and their vision of ‘rights based’ policies and programmes to alleviate it. The women in the shanty town explained that while talk about becoming a shopkeeper or a hairdresser was good for a select few, it isn’t relevant to the thousands of women living in huge slums without sanitation, basic health care, education or child protection. Their points about what ‘economic advancement’ and ‘access to services’ meant were underlined by there being a newborn baby on virtually every bed. They explained that their babies stay there while their mothers service clients and the toddlers play outside amid open drains and live electricity cables. As well as the visible conditions which were shocking enough, the women provided eye popping facts about how much they pay to live in tiny leaking huts and what it takes to earn it. The EU delegation is supporting local government to improve services in slums and I left confident that some excellent information had been shared and that there would be follow-up that explored how to make sure those benefits extend to these slums.

I had yet another pleasant surprise when I visited the office of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, (PEPFAR) at the US Embassy in Addis. USAID’s PEPFAR programme is the major donor for HIV services for sex workers in Ethiopia. I asked what its policy is in respect of helping women get out of the sex industry. Those who know about US HIV policy will know that PEPFAR has favoured abstinence and required the organisations it funds agree to oppose prostitution and that this has caused much gnashing of teeth. The Ethiopia PEPFAR director began defensively. He is clearly used to this enquiry coming from people who want or expect US funding to be used to reduce sex work. ‘It is not realistic to try to get all the sex workers in Ethiopia into new jobs. It’s also moralistic and that alienates them. Now our programmes are focussed on helping expand options which includes human rights, access to services and better living conditions and generating income that supplements sex work which allows women to work less or refuse clients that don’t want to use a condom.’ I resisted the impulse to make a wisecrack about how a lot of time and money could have been saved and HIV prevented if USAID had have listened two decades ago. Later I shared this with a colleague who had contributed all those years ago to Making Sex Work Safe. “We can sure rack that up as a belated success” she chuckled.

Conclusion

It’s clear that economic empowerment for sex workers in poor countries matters – it must work if human rights, public health and development goals are to be reached. My work on poverty alleviation and sex work is limited and it asks many questions as well as making some recommendations based on the evidence I gathered. It supports one solid conclusion above all others – that more research is needed to drive better conceptual frameworks and practical guidance to identify what policy and programmes should be scaled up and how. Now I know, I know – all researchers call for more research – but I am confident that if anyone doubts my assertion about lack of reliable data or thoughtful modelling about economic empowerment for adult female sex workers they will find the information abyss of which I have spoken.

*Sex workers made a film about abuses associated with rehabilitation named Bad Rehab

Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at The Michael Kirby Institute of Human Rights and Public Health at Monash University Melbourne Australia and is a visiting research fellow at IDS.


Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces

15/10/2014

Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Picturing gender, ethics and health systems: a competition for photographers

20/08/2014

The aim of this competition, organised by Research in Gender and Ethics (RinGs), a new cross-RPC partnership between Future Health Systems, ReBUILD and RESYST, is to capture the everyday stories of the ways that gender plays out within health systems around the world. The winning entry will be exhibited at the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, and be used to illustrate our website, and in other published materials with full credit to the photographer.

Gender-sensitive health policy is a feature of international commitments and consensus documents and national-level normative statements and implementation guidance in many countries. However, there are gaps in our knowledge about how gender and ethics interface with health systems. Our project shines a light on some of the ways that gender and health systems come together in a variety of settings. We are looking for photographers who can help us communicate this area of work visually. We welcome images of people of all genders from all areas of the health system, all around the world – be creative!

The deadline for entries is the 1 September 2014.

The judging

Photographs will be judged by a panel of gender specialists and a representative from the creative industry. They will be marked according to:

  1. Their content, i.e. their relevance to subject.
  2. Their ability to tell the story of gender and health systems, i.e. the message they contain, their creativity. We are looking for original and authentic visual representations of health systems in action.
  3. The technical merit of the photo, i.e. exposure, focus, colour, lighting etc.

We are looking for images which challenge stereotypes, encourage the viewer to learn more and act differently, and which respect the integrity of any people who may be photographed. There is a rich discussion on the ethics of photography in international development which should help guide entrants. Further information can be found here and here.

Who can enter and how to submit?

Those who have an experience of, or interest in, gender and health systems are very welcome to send images.

Send up to a maximum of three photos by email to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com

Submission requirements:

  • Size: At least 1MB
  • Print resolution: 300 dpi
  • Format: JPEG or tiff only
  • Landscape and portrait images are acceptable
  • Although some digital enhancement is acceptable we cannot accept images that have been digitally altered to change what is portrayed.

Send each photo separately and include in your message the following information:

  • Name of photographer:
  • Photographer email:
  • Photographer phone:
  • Title of photograph:
  • Location (country and city/town/village where the photograph was taken):
  • The date (if unknown, please provide the year) each photograph was taken:
  • The level of consent provided from any people pictured in the photo (see informed consent guidelines for more information):

Submit your entry:

All images should be emailed to RinGs.RPC@gmail.com by 1 September. We look forward to receiving your entries.

For more details please download the entry requirements and terms. Information about informed consent and a sample consent form are also available.


Motorways to Nowhere?

19/08/2014

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. 

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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”. 


Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers

24/07/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Following David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, the UK government has moved from having three women in the cabinet to five: and these two new members are working mothers, a presence not there before. This still fails to improve the overall gender equity: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union the UK currently ranks 65th globally for women parliamentary membership. Women comprise 22.6 per cen of the total UK parliament, compared to 51 per cent of the population. A focus just on numbers, however, doesn’t give us a complete picture. Even if countries have high numbers of women political representatives it doesn’t necessarily mean that the women are full, active members; they could just be there for window dressing, and they may not promote women’s rights once they get into politics. Recent research conducted in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Sudan suggests that exploring women’s political pathways from the ground up may provide a more comprehensive understanding.

What do we mean by politics?

Lessons from the eight country studies suggest that we need to have a broader understanding of the history of women’s political activism before they entered formal politics. Most of the women interviewed had been involved in community support professions before taking up politics, such as teaching, nursing and NGO work. Quite a few of the women had also been involved in student politics. Community service and charity work were also significant aspects of their lives before formal politics. In Bangladesh many of the local women councillors interviewed had helped in providing emergency relief and welfare, building them a reputation for aiding the disadvantaged. In Ghana one woman councillor explained how her work with the youth was important for appealing to a key constituency as 15-24 year olds constitute almost a quarter of Ghana’s population. It is important that political empowerment training programmes recognise the full extent of women’s experiences and help them to draw upon this in building their constituencies and working in formal political spaces.

Where and when politics happen

Politics happens in private and public spaces for 24 hours a day, not just in parliamentary headquarters between the hours of 9 to 5. For young girls growing up in a political family this can provide an invaluable early immersion into the political world. A councillor from India explained how she had an open house growing up, ‘with endless streams of people coming and going’. She, ‘enjoyed meeting people, talking to them, learning about their problems, listening in how [her] father and uncles solved these’. It can also, however, be exclusionary. In a recent article for Contestations, Mariz Tadros asserts that parliamentary sessions and council meetings held late into the evening block access for those women politicians with unpaid care responsibilities. She contends that if we are to be serious about inclusive political representation, ‘Processes of deliberation and decision-making be they at the local or at the parliamentary level need to be sensitive to unpaid care responsibilities and how they feature in timelines’.

Family support?

For women in the case studies, family support was key to their ability to carry out their political duties. Husbands provided moral, organisational and campaign assistance, even cutting across party divides. Few husbands, however, provided childcare support and their motives were not always completely altruistic. Power and prestige for the family were motivations for many of them. The support given does however go against much feminist literature, which often casts men in a disempowering light. But let’s also not forget that family importance can be less positive. Maintaining political power in the hands of a few powerful families creates an elitist system. It also reduces the women’s autonomy in terms of what they do once they are in government. Nevertheless, women’s relationships are a significant factor in how they operate within politics and recognition of this and support for these family networks is important.

Supporting women’s politics from the ground up

If we are to move beyond numbers and women getting into cabinet being front page news (rather than just the norm), we need to support women much earlier in their political careers. We need to recognise that politics begins informally and to support women’s roles in this and also their jump, should they choose to make it, into formal politics. We need to move away from ‘projectivising’ political empowerment training and support programmes and provide help for women over the long-term, not just focusing on elections and then abandoning them once the vote is over. This also means following up on what worked and what didn’t and providing continued support for those women who advocate a social and gender justice agenda who failed to get elected. Most of all we should recognise the importance of relationships. This includes recognising and supporting the roles of family members in helping women in their political careers, but also taking into account women’s unpaid care responsibilities. If we take this much broader and also bottom-up approach to women’s entry into politics, perhaps then we will begin to see a much broader, comprehensive spectrum of society within politics.

Further reading: Women in Politics: Gender, Power and Development by Mariz Tadros.

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

 

 


The paradoxical role of families in women and girls health in slums

09/07/2014

Pauline OosterhoffPauline profile

One of the things that strikes one most clearly in working in the slums in Kenya is that, as in many developing countries, the state is barely present in most people’s lives. For the women my colleague Emily Kahega Igonya and I encountered in Nairobi’s slums last week, the government was inactive while they were sold by their sisters or brothers-in-law, tricked into unpaid work with false promises of education, and kicked out of their parental homes as orphans.

Yet Kenya’s recent constitutional reforms are based on the idea that devolution, handing off central government responsibilities to municipalities, can solve people’s problems by bringing government closer to their lives. This seems doubtful, given that for most of the women in slums we talked to, it is family and friends, not the state, that provides them with support. It made us wonder how and to what extent state policies can interfere in dysfunctional families, when it is the family that provides for the services that dysfunctional states fail to provide.

The impact of the new Kenyan constitution on health outcomes

According to the new Kenyan constitution introduced in May 2010, all Kenyans have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. To realise access to health, the constitutional reforms prescribe “devolution”, a transfer of responsibility from the national government to the counties. Devolution should bring the government closer to the people.

Last week Emily and I examined the effects of Kenya’s constitutional reforms on access to HIV and AIDS services for women and girls in Nairobi slums. We worked with HIV-positive women, all young mothers, on digital storytelling to inform policy makers of the effects of these national policies on their health. All women described betrayal in their families –often by other women- that exposed them to HIV, violence, and destitution. Yet it is their sense of family –even if it is just their own children – that allows them to survive in the absence of a functioning state.

When Larissa, a widow with two children, completed primary school in a village, her mother was no longer able to pay for her school fees. She called her elder sister in Nairobi, who offered to pay for her education. Upon arrival in Nairobi, however, her sister told her that she would only pay for school fees if Larissa agreed to marry her husband as his second wife. When she refused, her sister’s husband presented Larissa with a widower with two children who would marry her and pay her school fees if she were to take care of him and his children. She ran away and met a man with a job in a restaurant who paid her school fees and married her. Shortly after the delivery of her second child, he fell ill with AIDS. He encouraged her to seek treatment from international donors but he denied that he was HIV positive to her until the very end. She has now been inherited by his younger brother. He takes good care of her, and she is pregnant with his child. Who is failing women like her?

The implementation of the devolution of health services began last year, with the election of governors and county principals, but it has barely affected these women. For sex workers -some of whom have been involved in sex work since their early teens – the effect on their health has been clearly negative. Municipalities interpret and enforce laws on sex work more harshly than the central authorities did, chasing women off the streets and detaining them. Police detention makes it harder for them to take their AIDS medicines. Sex workers reported having to stop their medication completely, or change to herbal medication. In their perception, devolution means that “law enforcement can now use their cars freely to extort more bribes from us later at night.”

Sex work, the family and state support

For sex workers, other sex workers and community-based organizations are the main form of support after their own family failed. Rose, a young mother, was taken in by older sex workers when she was orphaned at the age of 15 and rejected by her family. She has worked as a sex worker ever since. Sarah’s mother decided that her job was done after her daughter finished primary school. Sarah decided to go to Nairobi to live with her aunt, who could not pay for all her expenses. She had to look for money herself, and at the age of fourteen she found herself on the streets as a sex worker. When her aunt guessed how she made her money, she threw her out, leaving her at the mercy of different men who took her in until they were bored or she became pregnant. Linda finished high school and went to college, hoping to become a secretary. She came to Nairobi to look for work and live with her uncle. He had no money to pay for her. The only people who were willing to help her find a job and a home were bargirls who moonlighted as sex workers.

Women we spoke with –no matter how poor- had done their best to avoid the state health services for years. As Lucy, a young widowed mother of two, explains, “there is no confidentiality, the lines are long and the hours are short, and everyone can see you.” Instead, they obtain AIDS medicines through internationally funded and managed services like MSF and CDC. Kenyan community-based organizations, like HAKI and COTANET, help women to organise themselves and establish their own peer support systems. But for housing, food and other essentials, it is their own family they rely on first. And when that system fails- without any safety net offered by the state, charities or INGO’s – women are exposed to many risks, including HIV. Policies that aim to support the right to health of women and girls in slums need to recognize the central roles of families in responding to governmental irresponsibility.

All names in this article are fictional to protect the identity of the women.

Pauline Oosterhoff is a Research Fellow for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter as: @PPJOosterhoff

Previous blog posts by Pauline Oosterhoff:


5 take home messages from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Beyond 2015

30/06/2014

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

The life of a meeting report writer is a lonely one. It is easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of an issue when surrounded by fascinating and challenging speakers. But once everyone has flown home and you are wading through 50 pages of meeting notes, trying to decipher acronyms and cryptic quotes you sometimes feel like you are drowning in a mass of information you will never make legible to those who didn’t have the privilege of attending. So to give myself a bit of impetus and help order my thoughts I have come up with a list of what I consider the top 5 take home messages from the recent Pathways of Women’s Empowerment meeting.

To add to the complexity of synthesising simple messages, the meeting made it clear that there is no single feminist nor a single development actor. Those involved in this field inhabit very different worlds, subject positions, politics, and positionalities. When we sit outside the places that people live and look in on them, we can fail to make sense of, listen to, and resonate with women’s lives. Those caveats aside, here are the messages:

1. That there is a gulf between policy advocates engaged in post-2015 agenda setting and the fears, dreams and demands of many women organising in disparate settings. The skills required to track and influence advocacy at the global level are very technical and a particular cadre of feminists occupies this space doing vital and necessary work. But somehow, post-Beijing, the parallel structures which enable these staff to adequately network with women at the grass roots have been lost. (Re)building this dynamic and organic network of links and entry-points for dialogue is a key priority.

2. There is a translational issue. Women’s movements have been just as good as any other advocacy group in developing clear messages for policy. However, what is understood by the term ‘women’s empowerment’ differs between large development institutions and social movements struggling for justice. All too often empowerment is instrumentalised – as exemplified by catchphrases like ‘gender equality is smart economics’. The reductionism and sloganeering of the development sector sometimes strips the politics out of the work.

3. Feminist networks and monitoring, learning and evaluation experts need to work together. Participants at the meeting decried the difficulty of generating indicators and systems which would allow them to trace the impact of strategies like collective organising and consciousness raising. They also rightly pushed back against a value for money and results agenda which inadequately traces the types of change in women’s lives which women believe are important. More could be done to foster partnerships between feminist activists and progressive evaluation experts who are trialling methodologies such as process tracing and realist evaluation to strengthen this area of work.

Andrea Cornwall speaking at the conference

4. Research has failed to adequately deal with the implications of global capitalism for women’s empowerment. The global financial crisis has had a very debilitating effect on global policy spaces. At first people with a progressive slant to their politics thought that it would highlight the failure of capitalism and provide an opportunity to create a new world. But the opposite has happened and neo-patriarchialism has been enforced. Moving forward this needs to be central to research agendas.

5.Forging new alliances and intersectionality will be central to the future of feminist activism. The importance of partnering and working together with men, sexual rights activists, the creative industries, workers movements, revolutionaries and legal and religious scholars with an interest in social justice all came through strongly in the meeting. As did the idea that women have complex identities which encompass a number of interests and issues beyond women’s rights. There is a need to be strategic about these alliances and understand that there will be instances where interests do not necessarily collide. Furthermore, women’s movements need to guard against instrumentalising others in the push for women’s empowerment.

I hope that this blog gives a flavour of some of the issues that we discussed. I am relying on my co-author Jenny Edwards to add a bit of oomph to the text I have come up with. And we are planning to bring together some of the multi-media content from the meeting which will make it all the more engaging. Join the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment mailing list to get a notification of when the report and the multi-media contents go live and watch this space for details of how to learn more…

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group and the Director of Pamoja Communications.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins