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Empowering Women: Beyond the Lamppost

by on Apr 7, 2016  |  posted in Market Development, Women's Economic Empowerment  |  2 Comments

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

In 2011, the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) published a paper entitled: Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment: Definition, Framework and Indicators, which defined the concepts of power and agency. Now more broadly recognized as access and agency, these concepts have become well known within the development community for those working on women’s economic empowerment (WEE) programming and have even been incorporated into the conceptual frameworks of large development organizations, including USAID and DFID.

What Do We Mean By Access and Agency?

Women’s Economic Empowerment: Pushing the Frontiers of Inclusive Market Development, a paper published by the Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project very succinctly defines the terms:

  • A woman’s access has been enhanced when she has the capacity to obtain greater economic resources. In other words, she has been able to access the opportunities, services, and assets required to upgrade her economic position.
  • A woman’s agency has been enhanced when she has the capacity to make decisions and act on opportunities that lead to economic advancement. Agency is not only about acting on opportunities and decision making but also about a woman’s ability to influence her surroundings.

  • What I like about the concept of access and agency, as a whole, is that it assists us in looking beyond the formal, structural barriers to greater economic inclusion for women – a look beyond the lamppost, if you will – and recognizes the less tangible, cultural and behavioral barriers for WEE. The LEO briefing shows very clearly this interplay between various subsystems – both formal and informal – and posits an approach for gender programming within a market systems framework that targets the structural transformations necessary as well as the bottom-up behavior change. Market Development Facility’s (MDF) paper, Women’s Economic Empowerment: How Women Contribute to and Benefit from Growth, further refines the notion of access and agency into five domains of the Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework, as shown below:

    brammblog1

    Another Challenge: Measuring Empowerment

    In addition to outlining the two concepts, the ICRW paper also offers a number of indicators for measuring change in women’s access and agency. Since then, a number of other organizations have posited schemes for measuring changes in women’s access and agency, most notably International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), which outlines a set of indicators for each of the five domains listed above, and the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development’s (DCED) Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment in Private Sector Development. With some overlap, both these documents present approaches to measuring changes in women’s empowerment, and in a way, the relative success of development initiatives. As is evident from the research mentioned above, the concepts of access and agency are important ones for assisting in understanding the complex dimensions of women’s empowerment. But do they restrict us too much to thinking about economic empowerment? While there is a utility in focusing on the economic side of women’s empowerment, are we falling into the fallacy of using women’s economic empowerment as a proxy for women’s equality?

    “Empowerment is a process”

    Andrea Cornwall, in exploring the development discourse on women’s empowerment in Women’s Empowerment: What Works and Why?, traces that discourse back to feminist writings on notions of power and empowerment. Her research concludes three main points on empowerment:

    First, empowerment is about changing power relations, not just about people gaining more confidence to be able to act on the world with more impact, but about recognizing that the inequalities of everyday lives are neither natural nor acceptable. Second, empowerment is relational: it is about the relations of power in which people are located, within which they may experience disempowerment or come to acquire the ‘ability to make strategic life choices’.

    These first two conclusions are not entirely absent in the development discourse, and even echo some of the discussion on access and agency. Her third conclusion, however, provides a notion of empowerment that stands in stark juxtaposition to almost all development frameworks:

    Third, empowerment is a process. It is not a fixed state nor an end-point, let alone a measurable outcome to which targets can be attached. It is a process that can be captured in the metaphor of a journey along pathways that can be travelled individually or together with others, in which the nature of the terrain comes to be as significant in determining progress. The work of external actors is not ‘empowering women’ but clearing some of the obstacles from this path, providing sign-posts, stiles, bridges and sustenance for those making these journeys.

    The notion that empowerment cannot be bestowed upon someone else resonates strongly throughout her research, challenging modern notions that women and girls are ‘smart economics,’ requiring only investment to realize their full potential. Citing corporate campaigns and international development agendas, Cornwall sums “this ‘business case’ for women’s empowerment speaks in one breath about women being important in and of themselves and also a means to enhance economic efficiency, and moves quickly to the slippage of ‘empowering women’”. If we in the development community allow economic rationalities to drive women’s empowerment, are we really empowering them or have we co-opted the agenda?

    I mention Cornwall’s work not to undermine the works I referenced earlier, but to enhance their value. Access and agency are useful terms, particularly if you recognize their limitations. The same can be said for women’s economic empowerment. Recognizing that there is something beyond what we can see under the lamppost is only part of the solution. The other part of the solution may be less in venturing out from under the lamppost and more about inviting women in, and in so doing, creating a partnership and process that is truly empowering.


    Adam Bramm is the Associate Director for West Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East at MEDA. Mr. Bramm is responsible for economic and financial analysis, value chain analysis, and developing and managing market-driven projects integrating small scale producers, farmers or business owners into viable market systems within these regions. In addition, Mr. Bramm also manages USAID’s Libya Women's Economic Empowerment (LWEE) project and the GAC-funded Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project in Ghana.

    Explore other blogs in the series:

    Empowering Women: Looking Under the Lamppost by Wade Channell

    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

    2 Comments

    Helen Loftin says:
    Apr 04, 2016

    Such a great blog! Thanks Adam. Given the points made by Cornwall and their application in our work, perhaps we ought to reconsider our language when communicating results. We garner improved environments for empowerment to build. It IS a process and it’s iterative.
    But, don’t you feel that the work we do is ‘..clearing some of the obstacles from this path, providing sign-posts, stiles, bridges and sustenance for those making these journeys.’
    A woman’s empowerment is realized individually – but we can provide the temporary scaffolding to establish needed foundations.
    great blog, Adam. thanks.

    Emmanuel Musonda says:
    Apr 04, 2016

    This are good programs that will help women to contribute to sustainable development.

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