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. 

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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”. 


I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain photo mini

Is it just me or have we come full circle on care* in development? Back in 1994, armed with a box-fresh copy of Naila Kabeer’s Reversed Realities, I got my first job in development, in Bangladesh. There I was first set to study whether non-traditional jobs empowered women, and then to analyse rural women’s time-use diaries. My eyes were opened to the perennial contradiction of women’s empowerment: earning money is lovely and really important if you want autonomy and control. But someone still has to wipe the dirty bums.

Naomi Hossain blog 7 Mar image 1What happened in the last 20 or so years that took our (my) eye off the care-ball? We started to glamorize women’s empowerment as always and necessarily positive-sum.** Gender equity got a makeover as ‘smart economics’; development meant high return investments in future mothers, clever low-cost micro-credit, and win-win global export industries employing poor young women to make fast fashion for rich young women. At its glossiest, gender equity was uber-modern, future-looking and positive-sum. Celebrities got in on the act (I was once in a workshop breakout session with Renee Zellweger – yes, Bridget Jones – on girls’ education). Rarely a dirty bottom in sight. And certainly no expectation that for women to do these great new jobs would mean men might have to do their share of bum-wiping.

So what has changed? As far as I can tell, the focus on care has sharpened with the financial crash and food crisis. How did all these people manage to cope, particularly with export sector jobs and micro-credit looking so shaky, we wondered? By letting unpaid care work absorb the shocks, it turned out. People, particularly women, have been working longer and harder, figuring how to stretch resources to ‘make do and mend’. A research project I’m involved with tracking the impacts of food price rises on care finds the pressures mothers feel to feed children are particularly powerful: ‘I’m hungry, Mum’ is a familiar sound for many women in developing (and indeed, developed) countries. The cumulative pressures mean more women in hard, low-paid jobs, as street vendors or sweepers, laundrywomen etc. This is all shifting what Annie Whitehead once called the ‘conjugal contract’: more hardworking and frustrated men feel they are failing as providers, even while more over-stretched and exhausted women feel they are failing as mothers and housekeepers. We find older people, particularly older women, picking up their adult daughters’ care responsibilities, in a sometimes reluctant renegotiation of the generational contract. And we also see a small but definite growth in institutional care: low-cost crèches and school meals schemes are popular and effective – and quick and easy processed foods (like the ubiquitous instant noodle).  Naomi Hossain blog 7 mar Image 2

The smallness of these mundane concerns is out of sync with development fashion, with its high-tech evidence-based solutions to everything. It’s about the fact that a vital source of social protection is being eroded by development policies that valorise that which can be paid for over that which cannot. Talking about care is the reverse of the ‘everyone’s a winner’ glitz of the empowerment industry.

Care has done a lot of the heavy lifting in people’s ‘resilience’ to the ups and downs of the past five years, but it is still often ignored in development policy. As Rosalind Eyben points out in her blog on care today, this is a matter of power. Real gender equity means recognising care, reducing its drudgery and redistributing it to men and the state. On International Women’s Day let us bravely face the filthy facts: progress towards real gender equity is unlikely to be positive-sum; there will be losers, and they will have to wipe their share of dirty bums.

This blog draws on a forthcoming IDS working paper on care and crisis, by Naomi Hossain, Alex Kelbert and Arran MacMahon.

*There are lots of good definitions out there: try Action Aid’s new report for starters. What we now commonly call care is short for unpaid care work, and was once upon a time called social reproduction among other things.

** Google ‘women’s empowerment’ today and you have at No. 3, a fashion show, and at No. 12, a Facebook game.

Annie Whitehead’s ‘I’m hungry, mum’: the politics of domestic budgeting’ was a chapter in the 1984 feminist development classic ‘Of Marriage and the Market’ (Kate Young et al, London: Methuen).

More info about the project tracking food price impacts on care can be found at Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The first year research results will be published in May 2013.

The Recognise, Reduce & Redistribute Care formula is Diane Elson’s.

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

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