Female Empowerment and Extreme Poverty Reduction

Progressing On One without the Other?

Lucy Scott

Women are increasingly seen as an important part of the international development agenda. Empowering women and promoting gender equality are enshrined as global development objectives with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000. Despite empowering women widely being viewed as a ‘good thing’, the questions of how development interventions can contribute to making progress along the long and winding road of female empowerment, and so enable women to make more choices about their own lives, is a contentious and debated area.

The road to empowerment: practical versus strategic needs

On the one hand, for some, poverty and disempowerment go hand-in-hand. As income poverty goes down, so do women become more empowered. Development interventions which focus on ‘practical gender needs’, including women’s income and material assets, will therefore lead both to reduced poverty and to increased female empowerment. Microcredit and women’s savings groups are examples of interventions which, through a focus on practical gender needs, aim both to reduce income poverty and contribute to women’s empowerment.

Critics of this view, on the other hand, argue that such an approach fails to address the root causes of disempowerment, notably women’s unequal position in society relative to men. It burdens women with additional responsibilities; they are already responsible for running the household, and this increasingly has to be combined with income generating activities. Rather than development working for women, women are working for development.

Instead, it is advocated that development agencies focus on ‘strategic gender needs’, including removing institutional discrimination and claiming rights from the state. These are normally achieved through collective action and bottom-up struggles. Development activities facilitate the achievement of strategic gender needs through uniting women, raising their awareness, and encouraging their mobilization so they receive what they are entitled to and begin to overturn the unequal structures within society.

This article examines the processes resulting from the implementation of a programme which is primarily based on the achievement of women’s practical needs, but aims to combine this with a strategic component by raising women’s awareness and group-based livelihoods training.

The Chars Livelihoods Programme: integrating economic opportunities with an awareness of rights

The goal of the Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP) is to reduce extreme poverty. The first phase of the programme, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and operating between 2004-10 targeted around 55,000 extremely poor households living on the chars (islands) of the Jamuna River, in northwest Bangladesh.

The programme gave women within targeted households GB£100s worth of investment capital to spend on a range of productive investment options—the majority purchased cattle. In addition, these women also attended training sessions on how to manage their investment. These components of the programme aimed to open up economic opportunities for the women.

Another major component of the programme was a social development curriculum, with female beneficiaries meeting in groups over a period of 18 months to discuss and be taught about a range of topics including the illegality of ‘social evils’ such as dowry, child marriage, and domestic violence, and also their entitlements from the state.

Over the period of a year from September 2008 I undertook focus group discussions, informal conversations and semi-structured interviews with 143 female beneficiaries in four villages. This fieldwork commenced 17 to 21 months after these beneficiaries had received the investment capital, meaning that by the end of the fieldwork period everyone interviewed had finished their direct involvement in the programme. The next section elaborates on the findings from this research.
Did the CLP approach contribute to female empowerment?

The short answer is ‘yes’, though this needs to be qualified. In particular, it should be emphasised that empowerment is not guaranteed. Most women are becoming more empowered, with programme activities contributing to this, but this is not the case for everyone.

The transfer of investment capital specifically to women has reduced their economic dependence on their husbands. Female beneficiaries, with very few exceptions, have maintained control over their cattle. Through rearing livestock on their homestead—an activity which conforms to the traditional role of women in rural Bangladesh—women are directly contributing to gaining income from them.

Female beneficiaries have not felt overburdened by this additional responsibility. Rather they enjoy having cash-in-hand which they can choose to spend on small purchases, such as school books and cooking pots. Limited employment opportunities for women on the chars, combined with the social unacceptability of women undertaking paid work outside the home, means that this is a first for many women who previously always had to ask their husbands for money.

Using an economic entry point has not just resulted in economic changes in the lives of these women, but has also had spillover effects into other areas. For instance, due to their contributions to household income, women now have a greater say in small household decisions, such as how much money their husband should spend at the market. There are, however, very few examples of women influencing decisions about strategic life choices, including having children or purchasing a large piece of agricultural machinery. These decisions still tend to be made by the husband.

Perhaps the most important change is the decline in domestic violence. Here, the empowerment of individual women is starting to translate into wider changes in the social acceptability of domestic violence. Psychological empowerment, manifest through improved self-esteem, is widespread, stemming from a more secure livelihood and a greater sense of hope for what the future holds. This change has contributed to the election of 17 female beneficiaries, across the approximately 700 villages where the CLP operated, as Union Parishad (local government) members during the 2011 elections.

However, on the chars the process of individual empowerment is only just beginning and in some instances is constrained by existing social norms. For example, through the social development curriculum all the women know that dowry payments (given by parents on their daughter’s marriage) are illegal. The costs of not following this practice though, are so great that most households continue to follow it. Not paying dowry may mean that your daughter cannot get married, or has to marry an ‘unsuitable’ man; maybe becoming a second or third wife.

Female beneficiaries do not even realize that, to an outsider, their limited ability to move in public spaces (particularly the market) maintains them in a subordinate position to men, limiting their choices. They are not aware that there is an alternative.

Where empowerment is occurring, how are CLP activities contributing to this process? There are three mechanisms at work, a combination of the processes resulting from the transfer of investment capital and the social development curriculum:

  1. Group meetings and training have given women more self-confidence and a greater feeling of solidarity, for instance, to stand-up for another woman if she is a victim of domestic violence.
  2. Women’s control over cattle and their direct contribution to household income, through helping rear them, have improved their position to make decisions over the purchase of small household items.
  3. Overall improved household material wealth and food security have greatly contributed to reducing domestic violence, with husbands being less hungry, having a greater sense of purpose and seeing more hope for the future. In addition, women in single person households no longer have to work as maids, hugely increasing their self-respect.

Moving beyond the ideological dichotomy of practical and strategic needs

Analysis of CLP interventions shows that, when reducing extreme poverty, it is not a case of ‘either’ meeting practical gender needs ‘or ’achieving strategic needs. Rather, short-term material gains and reduced insecurity can provide a platform for changing intra-household relationships and empowering women beyond the economic realm.

The approach of the CLP ensures that practical gender needs are met while also providing a material base which can contribute to achieving strategic needs. The balance which interventions give to practical and strategic needs, and the sequencing of these interventions, depends very much upon the operating context. For women living in extreme poverty an initial focus on practical needs, which acknowledges the daily imperatives of survival, is likely to be most appropriate.

However, it is clear that using an economic entry point is insufficient for ensuring strategic needs. In particular women need to expand their understanding of the choices which are available. Raising awareness of rights through social development interventions is one way of doing this. Knowledge however, is only a necessary, but not sufficient condition of changing behaviours and social norms, especially over the short time period. Awareness-raising should be accompanied by other interventions which reduce the economic and social risks associated with individuals making particular choices. This may mean involving men in social development activities, aiming to reduce the potential for recriminations as their wives become more empowered.

It is naïve to think that women living in extreme poverty will not have to struggle to progress along the road of empowerment. Whether this is through engagement in economic activities, or through mobilizing against the powerful to claim their rights, women will have to work hard. Clearly, empowerment for some is likely to mean loss of power for others. It is not easy for women to renegotiate existing relationships or to negotiate new ones. Development activities should both build the capacity of women to do this and also ensure that they have the material support and social networks, not just to overcome any recriminations, but to be able to enjoy an increased ability to make choices about their own futures.

Lucy Scott, Research Associate, UNU-WIDER.

WIDERAngle newsletter
May 2012
ISSN 1238-9544