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Empowering Women Beyond the Lamppost: Give the Ladies Some Flashlights

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

Women’s economic empowerment (WEE) boils down to a series of choices; choices by an individual are a product of the system in which that individual is operating. Wade Channell wrote about how we need to look beyond the immediate problem and past where the metaphorical lamppost is shining. Ruta Aidis championed governments supporting the evidence base and data required for us to take informed action. Both of these perspectives speak to changing the root causes of barriers for women. Getting new results that allow for the process of women’s economic empowerment will require the system that women operate within to change, and also that women are active agents in that systemic change.

Breaking down the system

Where do we start? USAID’s Local Systems Framework uses the 5 R’s conceptual framework to help us break down aspects of a system where change might manifest. Bearing in mind, as Wade reminds us, that these systems were created by men (for men), let’s take a look at how the 5 R’s might be applied.

Results - This is what we’re trying to change via the other four. What does the equity of the results look like? What is the status of WEE and how are results trending?

Roles - Who is responsible for what functions in the system? Where are the women and women’s allies? Are roles absent that impact the results for women?

Relationships - What types of relationships exist? Between whom are the relationships? How strong and valued are these relationships? Which relationships are missing, weak, or unnecessary for results? How are the relationships involving women different than those between men?

Rules - Formal rules harken back to Wade’s post. They matter. There are also the informal norms that impact women’s lives. What are they? Who makes them and enforces them? Are they enforced equitably? Who can change them, and how?

Resources - Who has access to and control of resource inflows? How are results translating into sustained resource flows and influencing their distribution?

Once we better understand the system, we must enable the women involved to have agency within attempts to change that system.

Agency within the systemic shifts

Adam Bramm brought up the access and agency dynamic. For so long, much of the “gender” conversation has been around getting women access: access to land; to finance; to productive assets. That’s all great and still necessary. But without the agency piece, what can she really do once that access is granted?

Not that long ago I was in a conference session where an anecdote was shared about how a program was proposing to give goats to women, but couldn’t because it would trigger domestic violence. That was an “aha” moment for me. We were seeking to give women access, but not always the agency to go with it. By making that paternalistic decision to “protect” these women, we eliminated their agency in that scenario. Why couldn’t they decide for themselves how to manage that situation? Why couldn’t the program equip those women to do the risk analysis and decide if taking a goat was a good idea? What if in doing that analysis, a group of women had an idea to shift the implementation in such a way to enable them all to receive goats at reduced risk of violence?

I am hearing more discussion on the issues of risk, particularly around gender-based violence. The USAID toolkits are one example of how we can all try to create impact on that front, which is important. But are we still falling short? Without a doubt, we should take measures to help mitigate risks as we seek to enable WEE. I’m suggesting that we need to be thoughtful in doing so, such that we don’t harm women’s agency in the process. Can we find more ways to approach it so women can take ownership of the risk associated with WEE system changes and have the agency to manage that risk as they see fit (supported by us, as appropriate)?

Maybe with their own flashlights, these ladies will find the keys. Then they can drive home and redesign the system so the lampposts are more useful in the future.


Kristin O’Planick is a Market Systems & Enterprise Development Specialist at USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment. She provides assistance to market systems, enterprise development, and workforce development programming. Kristin also manages the Leveraging Economic Opportunities project.


Explore other blogs in the series:

Empowering Women: Looking Under the Lamppost by Wade Channell

Empowering Women: Beyond the Lamppost by Adam Bramm

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

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