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Analysis: Why Economic ‘Empowerment’ Is Giving Way to Women’s Rights

For years, international development has focused on giving women traditionally ‘female’ jobs in the name of ‘empowerment.’ But donors are increasingly realizing the error of leaving women’s rights out of their programs, writes gender and development professional Coby Jones.

Written by Coby Jones Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Is there more to development than giving women chickens? In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Last year was the year of women. It began with the Women’s March, where millions of people from around the world marched together for gender justice, and it ended with #MeToo. Now, 2018 kicks off with Time’s Up. Worldwide, women are taking a stand, demanding that their human rights are fully considered.

But what about the women who can’t participate in these pop culture movements? What about those who don’t have internet access, who live below the poverty line or who suffer from conflict-related violence?

In the world of economic development, there is also a movement to support a greater emphasis on human rights to improve the lives of these women.

At the end of 2017, we saw several articles call out the development sector for focusing too much on false notions of women’s “empowerment.” This was sparked by a report from Kate Cronin-Furman, Nimmi Gowrinathan and Rafia Zakaria, “Emissaries of Empowerment,” in which the authors are sharply critical of “programming that distributes cows and chickens to rape victims, enrolls former combatants in beauty school, and imposes sewing machines on anyone unlucky enough to be female and in need.”

This kind of programming, they say, reinforces restrictive gender roles by working around broader restrictions on women’s rights instead of confronting them, confining women to typically feminized roles, in the name of growing a country’s GDP.

The argument goes that by focusing only on the economic incentive to invest in women’s development and not looking at the larger view of women’s position in societies, such empowerment schemes can reduce a woman’s contribution to her economic role – and often a limited one at that.

When a woman’s role in society is reduced to the dollar amount she produces for GDP, critics say, development approaches miss out on addressing the other factors that contribute to economic success. Factors such as reducing intimate partner violence or providing women with the knowledge of their rights to land or inheritance are just as, if not more, significant when looking at sustainable frameworks for women’s economic empowerment.

The alternative approach holds that, in order to create sustainable change and growth, economic development must focus on what is known as a rights-based approach for women. The U.N. defines a rights-based approach as a framework that addresses and corrects inequalities, adjusting the distribution of power that inhibits development progress.

Representatives of small grassroots organizations say they have known this for years, and have been doing the work on the ground that moves away from the empowerment narrative and works towards rights-based approaches instead.

“Economic growth doesn’t necessarily mean increased rights,” says Emily Bove, executive director of Women Thrive, a grassroots advocacy organization that convenes hundreds of women’s rights organizations around the world with the goal of making gender equality a reality.

“Economic growth in Southeast Asia, for example, created new pockets of poverty and human rights abuses in the garment industry because a push for economic growth came first, instead of human rights.”

Women demand compensation be paid to the victims of the Rana Plaza building collapse that left more than 1,100 people dead. Critics say the rise of the garment industry in countries such as Bangladesh has not led to greater rights for the women who work in it. (Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Barcro via Getty Images)

Getting larger organizations in the international development world to embrace a rights-based approach instead of economic instrumentalization, however, has proven to be more difficult.

Often, the conversation about improving economic development is a top-down affair. Developing-country governments work with large international organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the International Development Bank, to help them better strategize around economic growth. This means that gender programs are often developed with growth, rather than rights, in mind.

“In Africa, governments have so many priorities, and you need to frame the argument around growth, how it will impact their entire economies,” says Rachel Dawn Colman, an analyst in the Africa Gender Innovation Lab at the World Bank.

“We have worked on messaging so they can see that women’s economic empowerment can contribute to economic growth.”

This is a classic instrumentalist approach. But change is slowly coming to the top levels of government and large multinational organizations too. In 2015, the World Bank published a strategy that integrated the principle of gender equality into its mission of ending extreme poverty by providing financial support to developing countries. Its updated gender strategy reflects what other organizations are hearing in the field.

“Members tell us on the ground that advocacy for a rights-based approach does bring sustainable change, whereas others don’t,” Bove says. “There is accountability with a rights-based approach.”

This idea gets at the heart of what ignoring a rights-based approach can look like in practice. Giving a woman a chicken so she can raise it to sell eggs isn’t going to be sustainable if she is not allowed to sell her eggs at the market because women are not allowed to work there. This means development programs must take on the laws, regulations and norms that prevent women from participating in the economy.

“If you’re not looking at the regulatory framework, legality, you’re not looking at the long-term picture,” Bove explains.

But donors aren’t giving up on the economics argument entirely. Deborah Rubin, codirector of Cultural Practice, LLC, a women-owned small business that provides consultancy about international development, says she uses an integrated approach.

“We are not approaching this as an either/or – a human rights-based approach or an economically oriented approach,” she says.

“From our perspective, you need to adopt inclusive orientation in your efforts to promote women’s economic empowerment.”

It’s clear that women around the world want equity. For that equity to be lasting, grassroots organizations and donors alike are coming to believe that change needs to be sustainable, and they are increasingly adopting a rights-based approach to ensure that happens.

In the sphere of women’s economic development, this means shifting away from giving women chickens and calling them empowered, and shifting toward an approach that considers economic growth as an outcome of supporting human rights, not the reverse.

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