Women’s empowerment requires fundamental shifts in social power relations
This week we read Andrea Cornwall’s post ‘Donor policies fail to bring real and sustained change for women‘ on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog with interest. Andrea wrote:
“The research suggests that 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. “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 this rarely translates into the kinds of transformations that lie beyond such limiting measures, such as changes in women’s sense of their own possibilities and horizons, and shifts of power that are the precondition for creating a more just and equal world.”
At Womankind, we share these frustrations at the failure to centre power imbalances in donor approaches to women’s empowerment. Our experiences have shown us that women’s empowerment necessarily entails bringing about shifts in the social power relations that mediate women’s access to resources, rights, security and independence. And we know this cannot be achieved solely through technical solutions like provision of microcredit or condoms.
An example: reproductive rights
A good example is current interest in improving women’s control of their reproductive lives. This requires challenging the barriers that prevent women from having agency and autonomy over their bodies and lives. And the most entrenched of these barriers are structural – systemic violence against women and girls, gender discrimination in accessing services, inequalities in sexual relationships as well as in public life, the low status of women in society.
Improving women’s control of their reproductive lives is thus a profoundly political endeavor to do with changing unequal power relations and structures. It is also fundamentally about human rights – the right to be able to control what happens to your own body. This is why at Womankind we take a feminist approach to development that seeks not only to improve the lives of the individual women we work with but to support women to come together to tackle the forces that keep women in subjugation.
The danger of speaking up
What is also overlooked in these linear stories of positive change is the tremendous violence and intimidation that often occurs against women and girls who become more empowered and challenge the status quo. The repercussions can be severe, yet there is little space in these ‘warm and fuzzy’ narratives to have a serious conversation about risk, including to women’s lives. This should be a principle concern of any responsible development intervention on women’s empowerment. Yet this necessarily requires acknowledging that genuine empowerment is about shifting power which comes with repercussions that need to be anticipated and managed.
The vital role of women’s rights organisations
Importantly, the article also points to the vital role of women’s rights organisations and movements in changing the bigger picture for women and girls. Women’s rights organisations are critical and effective partners for donor agencies working to advance women’s rights and empowerment. They are key in sustaining community and government accountability on women’s rights, and mobilising men and communities against gender discrimination. They provide protective spaces for women to come together to develop their self-confidence and leadership skills, and build supportive relationships with other women. They also have social credibility that external agents lack and understand the opportunities, constraints and risks involved in advocating for change.
Funding true empowerment
That’s why at Womankind we work in partnership with women’s rights organisations across the globe to share learning, provide resources, and advocate together for women’s rights. Despite a worrying trend towards declining donor funding for women’s rights organisations, there is a willingness among some donors to explore new and innovative channels to reach women’s organisations – for example, Women’s Funds such as the Dutch MDG3 fund are increasingly significant players and budget lines dedicated to advancing women’s rights are being used by some donor agencies. We hope others will follow suit and move towards more dedicated support to women’s organisations. This would be one vital step towards putting women’s experiences, priorities and aspirations at the heart of development efforts.