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Economic Versus Non-Economic Empowerment: Is it a False Dichotomy?

Thu, August 10, 2017
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Naila Kabeer
Professor of Gender and Development
London School Of Economics And Political Science
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This post originally appeared on the SEEP Network blog as a part of the WEE Global Learning Forum blog series.

I was asked in my keynote to address the question: economic versus non-economic empowerment: is there a false dichotomy? The fact that this question is being posed suggests that somewhere along the line, these two ways of thinking about empowerment may have got detached and have floated off in different and non-converging directions. So why has this happened and does it matter? To answer this, it would be useful to go back to earlier conceptualizations of women’s empowerment and trace how the idea of economic empowerment emerged out of them.

What do we mean by women’s empowerment?

Women’s empowerment involves gaining a voice, having mobility and establishing a public presence. Although women can empower themselves by obtaining some form of control over different aspects of their daily lives, empowerment also suggests the need to gain some control over power structures, or to change them (Hazel Johnson, 1992) .. the exercise of informed choice within an expanding framework of information, knowledge and analysis…a process which must enable women to discover new possibilities, new options…a growing repertoire of choices…to independently struggle for changes in their material conditions of existence, their personal lives and their treatment in the public sphere….The process of challenging existing power relations, and of gaining greater control over the sources of power…. (Srilatha Batliwala 1993)

Concerns with women’s empowerment were central to grassroots mobilizations of various kinds and to the work of politically engaged feminist scholars. They analysed gender in terms of the inequalities of power and privilege that characterised the relations between men and women across the world. While these power relations were manifested in daily life as inequalities in resources, capabilities and opportunities at the individual level, the apparent resilience of these inequalities reflected their historically entrenched nature, their pervasiveness in all spheres of life and their internalization by both dominant and subordinate groups:

  • gender inequalities were rooted in the larger structures that governed the distribution of valued resources in a society, structures that had evolved over considerably periods of time and become naturalized in in everyday practice. They were not easy to shift.
  • these inequalities straddled both domestic and public domain. While gender ideologies often appeared to be domestic ideologies that governed the gender division of roles and resources within the family, in fact they expressed societal models of masculinity and femininity so that the inequalities they embodied were reproduced and reinforced across different spheres society.
  • and finally, these inequalities were constituted at both material and ideological levels. They were as much about a sense of identity and awareness of one’s place in the social hierarchy, the internalization of power relations, as they were about material inequalities in the conditions of existence.

The conceptualizations of empowerment that came out of this analysis therefore had a number of different dimensions. They emphasized the need to address the material inequalities which curtailed women’s capacity to exercise greater control over key aspects of their lives (‘the power to’). They acknowledged the ideological dimensions of power and hence the need to transform women’s subjectivity and consciousness (‘the power within’). And they recognized that the structures of power could not be challenged through the action of individuals, that women would need to come together as women if they were to understand the injustices they shared in common and take collective action to tackle them: (‘the power with’).

At the same time, these conceptualizations recognised that women did not form a homogenous group. Gender inequalities intersected with other forms of socio-economic inequality, the inequalities of class, caste, race, ethnicity, location and so on which frequently exacerbated the injustices associated with gender. The distinction made between women’s practical gender needs and their strategic gender interests partly helped to capture some of the differences and commonalities in women’s experiences across the world. Women’s practical gender needs were seen in terms of the concrete imperatives of daily life that rose out of the diverse ways in which gender was organized across the world and its intersection with other inequalities. Their strategic gender interests reflected that stake that they had in the transformation of these inequalities. What was neglected in this early literature was the role of men, the extent to which there might be costs to the dominant ideals of masculinity that men were expected to live up to and that these might give men a stake in the struggle for more egalitarian gender relations.

What do we mean by women’s economic empowerment?

As we can see, these early conceptualizations of women’s empowerment acknowledged the importance of the material conditions of existence, of women’s exclusion from the material levers of power and of the need to address material inequalities. However the reconceptualization of empowerment in economic terms is relatively recent. One of the earlier references to it can be found in the Beijing Platform for Action which spoke of the need to promote women’s economic independence, including employment, and ‘ensuring equal access for all women…to productive resources, opportunities and public services’. This was followed a decade later by more explicit definitions of economic empowerment:

‘Economic empowerment is about making markets work for women (at the policy level) and empowering women to compete in markets (at the agency level)’ (World Bank 2006)

‘Women’s economic empowerment can be achieved by targeting initiatives to expanding women’s economic opportunity; strengthen their legal status and rights; and ensure their voice, inclusion and participation in economic decision-making’ (UNDP 2008)

‘Economic empowerment increases women’s access to economic resources and opportunities including jobs, financial services, property and other productive assets, skills development and market information’. (OECD-DAC GenderNet, 2011).

Women’s economic empowerment is the process that increases women’s real power over economic decisions that influence their lives and priorities in society. Women’s economic empowerment can be achieved through equal access to and control over critical economic resources and opportunities, and the elimination of structural gender inequalities in the labour market, including a better sharing of unpaid care work (SIDA 2013).

It will be seen that these definitions vary in their scope and the extent to which they incorporate earlier feminist concerns with the structures of inequality. The idea of economic empowerment has an appeal for mainstream development agencies because it resonates with their concerns with markets and growth. Their interest in this issue has been intensified by increasing claims that gender equality contributes to the pace of economic growth so that investing in gender equality seems to offer a win-win solution. (The awkward question of whether growth contributes to gender equality is less frequently posed).

Operationalizing economic empowerment: truncated analysis, limited vision

The availability of funding, the potential for profit, the promise of growth associated with the women’s economic empowerment agenda has brought new kinds of organizations into the field of gender and development. Some of these are focused on developing women’s businesses, some work on women’s role in farming and some concern themselves with women as wage workers in global value chains. It is possibly this influx of new organizations, some with no previous exposure to feminist ideas or contact with women’s movements, has contributed to a growing divergence between the economic and non-economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.

Many of these organizations operate with theories of change that assume that once women have been provided with access to, or control over, particular economic resources, they will be able to compete in the market economy and to benefit from processes of growth. This is a very truncated understanding of the challenge of change and gives rise to at least two sets of problems. The first can be described as the ‘upstream problem’ of programme design. These stem from the failure of programmes to take account of the multiple and overlapping constraints that women have to negotiate in order to respond to their interventions. Many of these are non-economic in nature and include women’s primary responsibility for unpaid care and household work; cultural norms that block their access to certain jobs; sexual harassment at work or the way to work; discrimination by employers or public officials; lack of supportive networks and mentoring opportunities; restrictions on their mobility; lack of self-confidence due to limited market experience; and the range of stereotypes and prejudices that operate to keep women in their proper place.

If the goal is to set women up in their own businesses, to facilitate their entry into waged employment or to make them better farmers, the failure to factor in these non-economic constraints means that programmes may fail in their own terms. But if this is all that programmes aspire to, then we also have the ‘downstream’ problem of programme goals. It is possible that having their own businesses or access to wage employment or better farming techniques will enhance women’s status within the family and their role in its decision-making. But will it empower them to negotiate fairer terms for their labour, to resist sexual harassment at work or on the streets, to challenge gender discrimination in hiring, firing and promotion? Will it give them greater voice within their communities, the capacity to demand policies that can address some of the structural barriers to their livelihood efforts and an end to laws that block their ability to participate on equal terms in the public domain? Or will it simply leave them worried, stressed out and exhausted as they try to juggle the demands of having to earn a living and care for their families?

Integrating economic and non-economic empowerment

If the aim of women’s economic empowerment is not simply to create more female entrepreneurs, farmers and wage workers but also to dismantle some of the barriers that perpetuate gender inequality in the economy and the wider society, then programme goals should include greater attention to the non-economic dimensions of change. This is where the subjective (the power within) and collective (the power with) dimensions of early feminist conceptualizations of empowerment remain relevant. While these acknowledged the practical needs associated with imperatives of daily survival, they also stressed the strategic importance of building women’s critical consciousness and capacity for collective action. This consciousness and capability is central to the larger struggle for gender justice, whether it takes the form of women going as a group to confront violent husbands and stop child marriage in their community or organizing nationally and internationally to get their governments and the ILO to recognize their rights as domestic workers.

I am aware of the struggles faced by those of you in this room who are involved in the practical project of women’s economic empowerment. I am aware of the huge challenges of bringing about change in the face of real-life constraints (as opposed to simply writing about them as academics do). I am aware also of the compromises, adjustments and pragmatism that are required to achieve the goals you set yourselves, the balance you must strike between your boards, your funders and your constituencies. But imagine for a moment that you did not have project cycles and logical frameworks to define your planning horizons, that you did not have to demonstrate outputs and impacts within an impossibly short space of time, that you could monitor the kind of changes that you were able to bring about and to adapt your practices in the light of lessons learnt, that you could work towards those changes that take longer to materialize, in other words, that you were in it for the long haul, would it change how you went about trying to achieve the goal of women’s empowerment? While structural transformation is never going to happen overnight, could you design programmes that would make it more likely to happen in the not too distant future? Abandoning the dichotomy between economic and non-economic empowerment would certainly be a good place to start!

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Naila Kabeer is currently Professor of Gender and Development at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. She possesses an extensive research experience in gender, poverty, social exclusion, labor markets and livelihoods, social protection and citizenship, and was previously Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University. Prior to that, she was Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex which is where she started work after completing her Ph.D and to which she is still associated as an Emeritus Fellow. She has authored several books, articles, and blogs on the topics of gender, poverty, and women’s empowerment. 

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