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Empowering Women: Looking Under the Lamppost

by on Mar 8, 2016  |  posted in Women's Economic Empowerment  |  1 Comment

This blog is part of the “Lamppost Series on Women’s Economic Empowerment

While recently working on a gender analysis, an old joke came to mind:

A guy walks out of a bar and he sees another guy, obviously drunk, searching for something under a nearby lamppost. "Lose something?" he asks.
The drunk guy answers, "Yeah, I dropped my car keys."
The guy responds, "Where'd you drop them?"
"Over there." He points to a dark area in the parking lot.
"Then why are you looking for them over here?" the guy asks.
Exasperated, the drunk responds, "Because this is where the light is!"

I'm afraid I've been looking in the wrong place to understand the full range of constraints to women's economic empowerment. As someone who has spent most of his career working on business-enabling reforms, I'm quite used to spotting problems in that space, but on a gender-neutral basis. I've now turned my attention to constraints for women, and to looking for barriers in the commercial, legal, and regulatory environment.

I look for walls: legal prohibitions that say "no women allowed" and don’t find many. It turns out that most commercial framework laws are gender neutral, at least superficially. But if that's the case, why is there such a huge gap between many of the world’s male- and female-owned businesses? Why are women's businesses usually smaller, or less likely to be formal, if business regulation is apparently so benign?

Looking in all the Wrong Places

It turns out the keys aren't under my lamppost; or more likely someone kicked them into the parking lot. Many of the constraints to economic participation are caused by secondary laws—civil procedure, family and inheritance codes, labor regulations, childcare benefits, personal identity cards, travel restrictions—the list goes on. These aren't part of the Doing Business framework for companies, but are part of the daily life of millions of women who are eking out a living around the world.

Let's look at property rights. Many women find that their “ownership” of property they use ends when their husband dies. Although most countries provide for widows to inherit upon the husband's passing, that doesn't make it happen. In land-scarce regions, widows are frequently dispossessed by relatives or powerful neighbors. An aggrieved widow could go to court, but courts are often too complex, expensive, or distant to be useful. She could go to the police, but the police don't know the law or require payment or are under the influence of those who took the land. Alternately, she could see the official government advocate who works 200 miles from her.

And if she does go to any of the above, she may find her testimony is not permissible in court, because, despite clear inheritance laws, as a woman she's not entitled to testify. Or maybe she finds that her customary marriage isn't recognized, so she's not legally a “widow,” because she was never legally a “wife.”

Great inheritance law. Too bad about the rest of the system.

Beyond Legal Reforms

I'd suggest we start looking in darker sections of the parking lot, away from the much needed international treaties on equality and constitutional guarantees of women’s rights. Legal reforms aren’t about changing laws, but changing behaviors, so much so that reforms won’t create gender equality until people who run the legal system behave in accordance. Maybe it’s time to focus on strengthening implementation.

Some of the walls are less formal, but just as detrimental. Lack of education, among other reasons, translates into a weak ability for women to overcome headaches of regulatory complexities. Unnecessary regulations governing new business startups could be quite gender-neutral—they burden everyone, not just women—but in practice they hurt women more than men. We call that injustice, unfairness, or just plain discrimination. This implies a desperate need to simplify the start-up process for companies if we want women to compete. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the laws, and instead to the systems they perpetuate. After all, having a level playing field doesn’t help much if a large part of the population can’t even get to the stadium.

Recent studies identify troubling starting conditions for women, including lower education, incomplete business skills, the “time poverty” of traditional gender roles, and hostile labor environments that limit entry. The effect: fewer women are educated, build business networks, or get a loan. Yet not all barriers are immediately obvious.

Speaking of Barriers

Take education, for example. Many of us have heard about the problem of hygiene, causing girls to drop out of school at puberty for lack of appropriate sanitary facilities. For those who stay, however, puberty commences a different period of vulnerability—to sexual abuse from male teachers and students. Perhaps our empowerment programs need a component for enforcement of criminal laws.

The same holds true for informal businesswomen. Women working in informal cross-border trade may experience increased threat of rape or economic exploitation by border guards, often in unlighted corners of the border post. Maybe programs teaching better accounting to informal traders should be paired with designing safer places to transact business, and even a sting operation to identify abusive officials.

Starting a company is hard for anyone, and famously takes more hours than most days offer. For women who are responsible for childcare, house maintenance and all the cooking a family may need, the chances of success decrease by “time poverty” in ways most men don’t experience. It, then, does not come as a surprise that fewer women than men launch formal companies. If that’s the case, perhaps the path to economic empowerment should include work on time-saving improvements (indoor water, anyone?) and childcare services.

That’s Not All

Most lending systems are based on real estate, which few women own outright. Despite reforms, these systems will provide few mortgage opportunities for women in the coming decades. Yet movable property systems—common in North America and Europe—are neglected, even though they are gender-positive in creating opportunities based on equipment, inventory and receivables without regard to expensive titling or complex land reforms. Mortgage-based lending gets a lot of lamplight in development, yet the financial parking lot has keys aplenty, if only we could see them.

Laws have opened doors to the workplace for women, yet it has not always welcomed them. Sexual harassment, inappropriate physical spaces and facilities, lack of adequate sick and maternity leave—these all send a clear signal that women are not wanted. Girls, in some places, are not registered at birth and enter adulthood without the basic documentation needed to obtain a formal job, open a bank account, or apply for a license. Perhaps, programs in enterprise development should start working with midwives and register tomorrow’s women today.

So, What do We Do?

Economic empowerment intersects with political and social empowerment. If we are serious about any of these, then it is time to get serious about all of them. The stovepiped approach—law by law, loan by loan—is not working. The parts are too many, but not if we take a different tack.

What if our empowerment programs—for women or any vulnerable group—were multi-disciplinary? What if our focus was on reforming systems, not just laws? What if we brought together thoughtful experts in economics, health, politics, culture, education and business to work closely with our partners to expand their economic and political rights and opportunities?

The parking lot just got a lot more interesting.

Wade Channell, J.D., is an economic development expert specializing in the use of law and legal reform to stimulate economic growth. A senior legal reform advisor for USAID, Wade has more than 20 years of experience in identifying legal and institutional constraints to private sector activity and economic freedom. He has worked extensively in Africa, Eastern Europe and Eurasia on economic reform projects and has lived in Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, Croatia and Belgium.

Explore other blogs in the series:

Empowering Women: Beyond the Lamppost by Adam Bramm

Brighter Lights from the Lamppost: Government Mandates for Gendered Data Collection by Ruta Aidis

Empowering Women Beyond the Lamppost: Give the Ladies Some Flashlights by Kristin O’Planick

1 Comment

Mbinya Mutiso says:
Apr 04, 2016

I really like the analogy of the lamppost and will use it when examining relationships in my work. What you are talking about is very systemic change that would go a long way towards achieving development Agenda in Africa, my home. I think you need to get on that lamppost and shout that the keys are in the parking lot, the darker area. Wow, thanks

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