A training program in Ethiopia teaches women and girls to develop skills in industries such as leather, weaving, basketry, embroidery, gemstones, and spinning. What does it mean to empower women when traditional cultural roles and norms dictate a lack of societal value and rights for women? Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

I recently shared a women’s economic empowerment training curriculum, which has been hugely successful across East Africa, with an organization that I work with in Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese organization responded to it by asking, “But how do we teach our women to be empowered when even the little they have is taken from them by their husbands?”

This is a difficult question to answer. What does it mean to empower women in a context where traditional cultural roles and norms dictate a lack of societal value and rights for women? What does it mean in a post-conflict situation where many still face physical security issues in their daily lives? In much of the world, women still cannot own property, open a bank account, go to a public market and do not even have the basic control over their household income to ensure it’s spent on their family.

Situations where women are locked out of the economic system and processes require modifications to programs that have been successful in other contexts or geographic areas.  

Often, what is needed is not so much of a change in methodology, but rather an expansion of program scope to include a sociological analysis, community sensitization and advocacy. Think for a moment about the definition of empowerment: to give authority or legal power to someone. If we look at the civil rights movement in the U.S., it is clear it couldn’t have been accomplished merely through quotas or empowerment training; a shift had to happen in individuals, communities, the government and throughout society.

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Similarly, the process of economically empowering women in contexts that devalue women requires a multidimensional approach, including interventions that target women, their community and the larger society, to create true empowerment.

There is no miracle methodology when determining how to modify existing approaches to better suit fragile contexts or settings where women have minimal rights. The key to success, however, lies in developing an understanding of how women’s economic empowerment is affected by the complex factors at play. Therefore, there are a few general questions that must be addressed to understand what modifications must be made.

1. What is the cause of the fragility?

First and foremost, the responsibility to protect requires that any humanitarian intervention does not endanger women or make them targets. Implementing any program without a firm understanding of the cultural norms and potential effects of actions has the capacity to result in greater insecurity for women. While this concept is mostly used in relation to human security, it also includes the protection of economic, social and cultural rights.

When examining context, the first step is to understand if the instability and lack of empowerment is due to insecurity (war and conflict) or due to cultural factors (entrenched attitudes and societal structures) as each situation will require a different response.

Paradoxically, highly unstable environments that have suffered massive war or conflict may offer more opportunities for advancing women’s economic empowerment than seemingly more stable situations, where disempowerment is culturally entrenched. The moment when institutions are being rebuilt offers a great opportunity to integrate greater women’s participation. In conflict affected countries, however, there is also greater risk of sexual violence toward women due to displacement, economic insecurity and marred social networks.

In a study drawing on the World Bank’s “Moving Out of Poverty” data set, researchers found that women who live in communities directly affected by violent political conflict had higher levels of empowerment measures than women in communities that did not experience conflict. In fact, the study demonstrated that many women helped their households cope by expanding and intensifying their economic activities during periods of violence.

2. What institutional and societal changes need to be made?

We have learned a lot about improving economic access for women through shifting from a gender approach, where we are merely targeting women in our programs, to an empowerment approach, where women are included and made part of the process.

An integrated approach requires the analysis of structural changes that must occur in the rest of society. What rights do women lack? Where are the barriers that are locking them out of the economic system? This is where good advocacy work comes into play, by asking the question: What needs to change in society for women to be empowered?

Often, the necessary institutional changes are not what one would expect. For example, women in DRC can’t get a bank account because they need to show title to land, something that women are not allowed to possess in DRC. For this reason, the World Bank supported a program to develop a new family code to improve the business climate for women. The new code would no longer require the permission of a married woman’s husband in order for her to have financial access. To accomplish this, however, the project needed extensive support from government leaders and the larger community. Thus, they actively supported workshops for the Ministry of Women that were designed to advocate how the new family code economically benefits multiple actors like senators, private sector organizations, civil society and parliamentary duties.

3. How should men be involved?

Likewise, it’s not enough just to target and train women. In most societies where women are not economically valued, the problem has very little to do with women and much more to do with men, specifically how they view and treat women. To successfully empower women, it’s essential to have a household approach that educates both men and women on how to make household financial decisions, on the value of a woman in her community and society, and on the economic potential that women have for their households and communities. Thus, training, advocacy campaigns and other interventions should be geared toward both women and their families.

Moreover, if a women’s empowerment program doesn’t take men into account in situations of conflict or violence, the intervention can cause more harm than good and might even attract more violence to women. For instance, microcredit programs are often criticized for their capacity to backfire on the women they were aimed to empower. When microcredit loans were offered in rural parts of conflict-torn Kyrgyzstan, researchers found that some men were depressed and channeled this frustration into greater domestic violence and the suppression and discrimination of women at home.

While the program did provide women with greater financial access, this intervention ultimately failed because it never considered the context in which it was applied. Emerging research suggests that programs that also engage men can combat the observed increase in domestic violence as women become more financially independent.

4. Can developing an alternative structure bring about change in society?

R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Often the most efficient way to change structures is through working directly with the government. But some governments and institutions will be resistant to change or slow to progress. While keeping protection in mind, creating alternative structures can enable more widespread public acceptance, even without government and societal buy in.

Take for example Aga Khan Foundation’s work in Pakistan, where women traditionally are not allowed to engage in commercial activities. There, AKF is creating a substitute structure that circumvents the barriers to participation. During the two years of the intervention, 500 shops opened within 29 project-supported women’s markets. These shops inspired other women entrepreneurs, who joined to together to open over 100 nonproject markets with an additional 350 shops. The result was greater confidence in decision making and higher incomes for women and strong buy in from local male authorities and community leaders who have become champions of women-run businesses.

So, there actually is an answer to the question, “How do we teach our women to be empowered when even the little they have is taken from them by their husbands?”

It’s not as simple as teaching women to be empowered. The solution must involve a multidimensional approach that targets the individual, community — including men — and the existing institutions, as part of the solution. In more difficult situations, empowerment and change might require a more creative response, but even in the most difficult of contexts, progress can be made toward women’s economic empowerment.

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About the author

  • Sara Mason

    Sara Mason is the founder and principal consultant at SHIFT Social Impact Solutions, a consulting firm that focuses on supporting collaboration across the coffee value chain. A CPA and MBA in international management, she has worked extensively in private sector consulting with Deloitte, and in large scale development programs and international advocacy with World Vision. She has a passion for women’s empowerment, and also for helping diverse stakeholders work together to create sustainable impact.