Hidden pathways and motorways to nowhere – beyond “empowerment lite”

There’s an appealing simplicity to the argument for investing in women and girls. Women and girls have been overlooked. They have so much potential. Get them into work, and poverty will disappear. Get them into school, and high birthrates will decrease. Get them into politics, and peace will reign. Invest in their potential and in their families, and communities and nations will yield the benefits. It’s a formula that harnesses persuasive gender myths with an agenda blind to many of the principal underlying causes of women’s disempowerment.

These myths – that women are more industrious and responsible than men, that women politicians can’t be corrupt and always represent women’s interests, that women care more for their children and the environment and that they are closer to the earth – may be based on some truths. But their power is based less on reality than on what they offer those who tell and listen to them. All this makes for a promise to investors of a safe bet, and a guaranteed return.

But a disquieting truth is staring us in the face. All around the world changes are happening in women’s lives – in many countries, women are discovering new freedoms, exploring new horizons and breaking away from old patterns, constraints and certainties. In the process, they are facing opposition and exploitation, and encountering new forms of oppression. Change is happening, but women’s journeys of empowerment rarely follow the simple linear formula that development agencies and their corporate sponsors would have us believe.

Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, a multi-country collaborative research and communications initiative that’s been working together since 2006 to understand what brings about positive change in women’s lives, suggests that women seize opportunities for empowerment wherever they find them. Sometimes, women find these opportunities in interventions targeting women – like the micro-enterprise programme that offered one Afghan woman the chance to set up a hairdressing business: a space that allowed her to make money, but perhaps more importantly, to socialise with other women. Sometimes, these opportunities come from women’s own collective action – like the Indian sex worker collective that routed out under-age sex work in their community, and challenged the abusive treatment of sex workers at the hands of police and society. Where projects, programmes and policies have made a difference, they have done so because they recognised the power of relationships, the significance of recognition and the importance of confronting limiting stereotypes and institutionalising new norms. At the heart of these changes have been women’s organisations and movements, visionary and committed feminist bureaucrats and collective action by women themselves.

Pathways research suggests that powerful sources of empowerment may lie in places overlooked by development. Research on women’s sexuality highlights the empowering dimensions of pleasure, and the transformative possibilities of approaches that recognise this power. Other pleasures emerge from surveys of women in Bangladesh and Afghanistan that came up with the unexpected finding that women’s access to television was the most powerful indicator of empowerment. Television brought these women in contact with worlds, ideas and possibilities that they might otherwise never have experienced, and it exposed them to new tactics for navigating tricky relationships with their husbands and in-laws. It also gave them an opportunity for leisure, something so vital to women’s and girls’ empowerment and so absent from development narratives.

Piecemeal economic and political empowerment programmes might give individual women opportunities to improve their lives through loans or training, but they fall short of achieving real and sustained change. Compared to the kind of empowerment that works to create critical consciousness and catalyse collective action, these kinds of intervention might be termed “empowerment lite”.

“Empowerment lite” might deliver the kind of results development agencies have been reduced to measuring – numbers of women on courses, numbers of girls at school, numbers of women on councils. But these interventions rarely translate into the kinds of transformations that lie beyond such limiting measures, such as changes in women’s sense of their own possibilities and horizons, structural changes that can address the root causes of inequality and shifts of power relations that are the precondition for creating a more just and equal world.

For all the warm and fuzzy images of smiling women and laughing girls that appear in donor agencies’  marketing materials, the vision of change purveyed by “empowerment lite” is frighteningly stark: one in which women and girls are recruited for their industriousness, and put to work to maintain a status quo that is deeply unjust. Narratives of “investing in women” present women as if they are unencumbered by gender relations. Men appear in the background, as shadowy figures, menacing or useless, never as allies or agents of positive change – women and girls are left to bear the responsibility of improving everyone’s lives. Rather than getting development working for women, women – and girls – are consigned to doing the work for development that is neglected by the state and in which men can no longer be relied upon to play their part.

“Empowerment lite” offers women entry into labour markets that continue to devalue their labour and does nothing to support them to organise to claim their rights. It fails to address the sexism they face in the labour market and political institutions, or the violence that blights so many women’s lives, or to support their efforts to challenge the structural inequities that produce and sustain their disempowerment. And rosy as it is, there is nothing in this vision about enabling women and girls to enjoy life’s pleasures and realise their own hopes and dreams.

If women and girls are really to be put at the heart of development efforts, a good place to begin is to ask not what women and girls can do for development, but what development might do for them. It’s almost 20 years since the fourth world women’s conference in Beijing set out a Platform for Action. It’s time to revisit and revitalise those commitments.

This is an adapted version of a piece that was originally published on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog on the 5th of March, 2012.

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