What it will take to enter a new era of women's economic empowerment

A woman does construction work, which is mainly dominated by men. Many women now work in this field to support their family. Photo by: Joydeep Mukherjee / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — Cows, chickens, and sewing machines currently find themselves at the center of a global development rethink.

The provision of livestock and tailoring supplies has become a hallmark of global women’s economic empowerment initiatives. Now, the same symbols are attached to calls for change in a sector increasingly accused of “one-size-fits-all” approaches and overreliance on fragmented women’s entrepreneurship models.

Targeted skills training and other financial entrepreneurship support certainly have a role to play in unlocking income opportunities for women, according to Sangeeta Chowdhry, senior program director for economic justice at the Global Fund for Women. But for Chowdhry and several other experts in the sector, isolated economic-focused strategies have also come to represent a focus on donor priorities rather than on the tough, systemic change needed to increase women and girls’ agency and choice.

“When we talk about empowerment, we need to remember what that word means, and we need to focus on the ‘power’ piece of it.”

— Sangeeta Chowdhry, senior program director for economic justice, the Global Fund for Women

Despite the attention currently shining on women’s economic empowerment, “I think for me the question is what kind of attention and how far does it go?” Chowdhry said. “When we talk about empowerment, we need to remember what that word means, and we need to focus on the ‘power’ piece of it.”

Fundamentally, the root causes of disenfranchisement and gender inequality are power imbalances in society, she said.

Implementing more successful strategies to address power imbalances will require change in donor behavior and a bigger commitment from the aid sector to bring women and girls into the program design process. Advocacy, too, must move from the funding fringes to become a core part of programming, experts tell Devex.

A movement’s shortcomings

The aid sector’s focus on immediate needs reinforces women’s marginalization by ignoring the structures of repression that create them, according to the recent “Emissaries of Empowerment” report co-authored by Kate Cronin-Furman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Instead of ‘power,’ women are given livelihoods. Instead of conscientization about the structures of oppression, skills training. And instead of agency, the choice between raising chickens or cows,” the report states.

Feedback on the report has been largely positive, said Cronin-Furman, who has worked on women’s empowerment initiatives herself. She doesn’t believe the findings are telling professionals who work in the sector anything they don't already know: “I think most of the individuals, or I should say many of the individuals, involved in these interventions have a lot of the same concerns as we did.”

The Institute of Development Studies’ “No Time to Rest” report, published last week, is further proof that one-size-fits-all employment efforts are falling short. While women welcome the chance to earn an income, they often have little choice but to accept poorly paid, strenuous jobs like agricultural labor or brickmaking on top of unpaid care work, the report says.

“The current tendency in international development to view women’s economic empowerment as only a matter of access to employment is failing women and their families,” Deepta Chopra, research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and lead author of the report, said in a release.

These concerns have also found a home in the World Bank’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which aims to leverage funds raised from donors into more than $1 billion in financing to improve women entrepreneurs’ access to capital and provide them with technical assistance.

Emma Burgisser, gender research and project officer at the Bretton Woods Project, pointed out that the fund will exclude the majority of women in developing countries who work in the informal sector: “When you focus on women entrepreneurs in the developing world, you’re talking about such an incredibly small percentage of women, because overwhelmingly women are in the informal sector, which this fund does not address at all, and if they are in the formal economy, they’re in wage labor absolutely overwhelmingly,” she told Devex in an interview last year.

Donor desires

Last week, Canada committed 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.55 billion) over the next five years for its Feminist International Assistance Policy, dedicated to advance gender equality around the world. The Netherlands and Sweden are also often lauded for the breadth and depth of their funding for women. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced on Monday its first gender equality strategy, which will commit $170 million to women’s economic empowerment.

But further reform will need to come from the top — namely from the donors funding short-term “women’s empowerment” initiatives simply because women’s issues have captured international media attention.

Cronin-Furman describes it as a feedback loop between media coverage, donor priorities, and the design of interventions on the ground — where donors decide what they're going to fund based on what's getting public attention, and program design is then done with that in mind.

“Of course you want to do what's going to draw money, and that can have these really deleterious effects of basically programming on the ground being designed in a way that's responsive to donors rather than the actual needs.”

To counter this, Chowdhry would like to see donors and funders interested in supporting women first reach out and partner with women’s movements in countries where they want to affect change.

“I strongly believe that the social movements and women's movement are there for the long haul,” she said. “They're not there for the short kind of quick wins. They've been there for decades and will continue to be there for decades and they understand the realities on the ground.”

Other stakeholders, including the private sector, also have room to grow in terms of prioritizing current needs over their own, according to Jensine Larsen, chief executive officer and founder of social networking platform World Pulse.

Many tech companies are focused on one-off programs to expand women's access to technology for economic empowerment, but “they’re not coordinated,” she said. In India, for example, a digital boom and a mature women's rights movement aren’t as connected as they could be. Instead, many of the women's networks and movements are struggling with lack of technology capacity and skills.

“I think a call to action would be to the technology sector to actually organize themselves and align their investments and their programs to get up and underneath the women's movements and follow their lead,” Larsen said. “We know from the data that sustainable change, whether that's norm change or economic change, comes from healthy, thriving women's movements.”

No economic power without political power

Economic empowerment gets substituted for political empowerment around the world, according to Cronin-Furman. The modern “empowerment” paradigm at large also takes an apolitical approach, which explains the “global enthusiasm for building girls’ schools,” according to the report.

But economic empowerment shouldn’t be seen as detached from creating political agency, said Neena Joshi, director of programs of Heifer International Nepal, which provides livestock and trainings to rural communities. Women’s economic empowerment projects fail when interventions are designed without full understanding of the entire ecosystem of change, she said.

There is no shortcut to increasing women’s agency in Nepal, for example, considering historical marginalization and cultural barriers have limited women’s “ability to dream,” she said. Joshi describes the process of strengthening individual confidence that can later be harnessed to create community change: “Each woman has to believe that she is strong enough, and that's where the change starts from. And then the next step is to bring these women together in groups, and then higher level institutions like farmers’ organizations where their collective voice starts to be heard.”

Increased confidence and economic stability at an individual level allows women to think bigger, she said. In Nepal’s recent local elections, 28 of 30 districts where Heifer has a footprint saw a woman elected to positions such as ward member or ward chair, she added.

While the default in the aid sector is to remain politically neutral, there is also a growing recognition in the women’s empowerment space that advocacy for policies inclusive of women and girls is not an add-on activity, but should be considered an essential piece of any economic effort.

The Gates Foundation just awarded a $2.1 million grant for a new “Collective Impact Partners” project in India, where five international organizations will come together with India-based leaders and organizations to increase women and girls’ economic power through advocacy and leadership development.

“Having evaluations are really critical to building the evidence base for why advocacy is a strategic investment for systemic and large-scale change.”

— Denise Dunnings, founder and executive director of Rise Up

Gates is one of the very few foundations that does fund advocacy, according to Denise Dunning, founder and executive director of Rise Up, one of the international partners on the project. Dunning looks forward to sharing results from the new effort, as well as from an external evaluation of Rise Up’s advocacy work in Latin America currently underway.

“Policy change can take longer,” she said. “It's not as easy to point to as building a school, it's just not as concrete as direct service provision. And so, having evaluations are really critical to building the evidence base for why advocacy is a strategic investment for systemic and large-scale change.”

In the meantime, many of the aid sector’s actions have become detached from what empowerment meant when it was introduced by feminists from the “global South” — which is women gaining the ability to challenge and combat their oppression, according to Cronin-Furman.

“What we're calling for is essentially a revolution, and that's a big shift,” she said of the sector now. “At the very least, we hope for an end to the one-size-fits-all approach that implements roughly the same programming regardless of context.”

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.