Measuring women’s empowerment: A retrograde step?

The FAC gender approach (see the discussion paper Gender and Other Social Differences: Implications for FAC?) argues that gender relations are dynamic. Women and men, as spouses, parents, siblings etc, seek both to maintain and change these roles to meet both individual and shared interests. We also acknowledge that changes in gender relations are intrinsically ambiguous and cannot simply be read off from sex-differentiated data. So is the WEA Index a step forward or actually a step backwards: does it learn the lessons from past attempts to highlight ‘women in development’?

As is noted in the material introducing the index, the WEA Index has been produced ‘because women play a prominent role in agriculture yet face economic constraints’ that reduce both their agricultural production and productivity, compared with that of their male counterparts.  In the realm of agriculture, the use of this kind of efficiency argument to justify policy support for women’s productive roles has been central to much policy and practice on gender, or more commonly women, over the last 40 years.  Today, this would be called ‘the business case for investing in women’.

Supporters of women in development (WID) approaches have provided considerable data over the years highlighting women’s labour contributions (‘time’ in the WEA Index) in various parts of the agricultural sector – perhaps suggesting implicitly that these role data reflect their interest in agricultural production – along with data on their (lack of) control over the use of assets such as land, capital, technical knowledge and income from production.  WID-influenced agricultural policy options have always been about achieving positive economic outcomes, with the assumption (too often unexamined) that positive social outcomes (such as empowerment or equity) would follow.  Associated programmes and projects have concentrated on filling the identified ‘gender asset gaps’, by targeting women with credit (usually microcredit) or seeking changes in women’s land or other natural resource rights.

As might be expected, criticisms of this policy approach abound, and success stories based on reliable evidence remain few and far between.  The approach to gender analysis based on sex-differentiated data (as in the WEA Index) is not new (remember the Harvard Gender Roles Framework introduced in the 1980s?) Moreover, its use has not improved our knowledge of social change processes, or of the way in which individuals, either separately or with others, use agriculture to get where they want to go. It also hasn’t resulted in significant changes in women’s position in society.  If this index helps provide greater insight into social change and decision-making processes within small-scale agricultural production units in sub-Saharan Africa, it must surely be welcomed.

Will the results of the WEAI initiative answer the question that is foremost in my mind: will our empowered women ‘go and dig’? What is their interest in agriculture? Are they simply using it as a means to an end – to get where they want to go?  Does this Index simply lead us down the same well-worn path of trying to fill a ‘gender empowerment gap’?

The claim for WEAI is that it is ‘grounded in evidence’ – supporting a view that equalising individual access to similar assets for women as for men results in better development outcomes.  Empowerment is presented as individual self-fulfilment, with individualised assets and clear ownership in the sense of freehold rights providing the necessary incentives to produce the economic outcomes that will justify a focus on (and investment in) women in agriculture.  Even if we choose to measure income increases, for instance, over which individual women and men have some decision-making power, can we really accept this as an indicator of empowerment?   Decision-making is not a process undertaken by men and women in isolation, with no reference to the interests and projects of others. How do we interpret responses like “it was his decision” or “I had no input into decisions about income”, knowing what we know about the complexity of ‘voice’ and ‘choice’, and bearing in mind that empowerment is an essentially relational concept? Clearly we should be very wary of accepting these responses at face value.

Is it not possible to view the income-earning decisions of individuals, households and families in the context of their economic and social lives as a whole? This would then shift the analysis towards the inter-dependency and linked lives of men and women, and towards a life course analysis that highlights shifts that have implications for the changing ways men and women engage in agriculture, rather than assuming that ‘one size fits all at all times’. It would also force us to agree that empowerment does not look the same for everyone, nor is it a fixed state. Surely a better understanding of the dynamics of decision-making, and therefore social change, would be a more satisfactory product for 2015 than an index that will only lead us back into an analytical, policy and programmatic cul-de-sac.