The Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Programme Consortium recently conducted a synthesis of learning from their research over the past 4 years. The paper I co-authored with Andrea Cornwall and Tessa Lewin makes the intimate connections between sexuality and women’s empowerment visible and provides some recommendations for decision makers on how they can strengthen policy and programming in this area.
The simple story
The popular video, ‘The Girl Effect’ produced by the Nike Foundation provides a simplified view of how the development sector views the world of a poor 12 year old girl. The Foundation’s aim of alerting the world to the need to support girls and young women is laudable. Unfortunately in the minds of the video makers the world inhabited by poor women and girls is unremittingly grim. As the video illustrates she is surrounded by flies, she is literally squashed and overwhelmed by first a baby, husband, hunger and then HIV – as if one automatically leads to the other – plunging her into a desperate situation. When it comes to sexuality the Foundation’s vision is equally problematic. Its video portrays sexuality is as something that brings pain and ill health. It paints a picture of a girl who is automatically married off by the age of 14, pregnant by 15. If she survives childbirth she will go on to sell sex at the behest of her desperate family – something in the video that automatically leads to the acquisition of HIV and the onward transmission of the virus. Sexuality is portrayed as a set of sinister (black? male?) hands which chase her throughout her short life. In the alternate ‘happy ending’ to this video being in employment prevents HIV, allows her to get married and have children (in that order mind!) and magically her children are healthy.
Is there an alternative vision?
I haven’t the space in this blog, and it’s not my intention, to provide a wide ranging critique of these videos. Needless to say HIV is treatable and many people live healthy lives with HIV, give birth to healthy babies and protect their sexual partners’ health. Sex education for young people and access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and commodities allow them to make informed choices about risk and when to become pregnant. There are many men who support their daughters, colleagues, friends and wives. Governments and society as a whole – not just young women – are responsible for tackling inequality, poverty, war etc.
It is important to review the messages these videos provide about young women’s sexuality since it is clear that they are being used as teaching aids in schools. Whilst marketing can be a blunt tool, and I am sure that the Foundation’s funding and programming is far more nuanced, what the videos provide us with is the short hand script that is often used by development agencies when they are advertising their work with women. You can confirm this with a quick google search!
WAIT…another world is possible
Our report looked at research on women’s empowerment using a sexuality lens. Sexuality is not simply a matter of sexual orientation or preference. Whether or not a woman is lesbian, same-sex desiring, heterosexual, bisexual or asexual, she will experience, at different times in her life, constraints, restrictions, pleasures and possibilities that derive from her sexuality.
We sought to understand how narratives of sexuality change and can be changed. Our research prioritised popular culture as the most important vehicle for changing narratives. Second, we gathered examples of initiatives that sought to transform sexual cultures in a very practical way.
The key findings are worth repeating in full:
- Sexuality is integral to women’s political and economic empowerment. Women need control over their bodies, be able to assert their right to physical autonomy and protection from abuse, and realise sexual rights such as the right to a safe and satisfying sex life. If they do not have this, women have limited scope for making claims in other areas of their lives.
- Women’s intimate relationships can be a vital source of support in their pathways of empowerment. But where those relationships undermine or deplete women’s resources or well-being, and where women are unable to forge relationships of their own choosing because of prevailing sexual norms, they are unlikely to gain the personal sustenance that we have found to be essential in supporting empowerment.
- Norms and structures that regulate sexuality can prevent women from leading fulfilled lives. Conforming with norms related to sexuality can sometimes lead to material benefits for women. But it can also lead to a loss of control over their lives. The regulation of women’s sexuality affects their ability to organise and engage politically, to access social services, to earn a living, to learn and to impart information, to enjoy the kind of personal and family life that they desire and to maintain bodily integrity.
- Challenging norms about women’s sexuality can lead to exclusion, marginalisation and impoverishment. It is vitally important to support women who are marginalised because of their sexuality and to see their political struggles as legitimate sites of resistance to injustice and inequality.
- Action on injustice related to sexuality is a priority. This could mean challenging the ways in which women who do not conform to social, economic and political norms are isolated, or pressing for policy and law reform to create an enabling environment for the positive enjoyment of sexuality.
- International development has dealt poorly with sexuality issues. This has a negative impact on the effectiveness of interventions to support women’s empowerment. A sexuality lens can provide new ways of looking at seemingly intractable development problems such as tackling poverty, preventing violence against women, and improving access to education. Struggles for social justice and equality can intersect with the realisation of sexual rights.
Pathways research demonstrates that women in diverse settings consider their sexuality as a source of power and a mechanism for shaping and controlling their destinies. An overwhelming negative focus on women’s sexuality and the victim narrative that often accompanies it can be disempowering. It does not provide women with opportunities to express their desires and to imagine and work toward a positive vision of sexuality. It can also dovetail with conservative narratives about the inherent vulnerability of women and the need to protect them from male sexuality which is usually depicted as beastly, uncontrollable and violent. Acceptance of these stereotypes does nothing to challenge them.
Read the report in full here.
Kate Hawkins is the Convenor for the Sexuality and Development Programme, based in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.