Women & Economy: The Politics of Empowerment 1


By Bushra Zulfiqar

The last two decades have witnessed an increasing emphasis on women’s empowerment as gender has moved at the centre of contemporary development debates. International commitments like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have brought women’s empowerment as an extremely important component of all development interventions across the globe. Women’s empowerment has been approached with a variety of rationales such as women’s empowerment through improved access to educational opportunities, women’s empowerment through participation in the political process and provision of economic opportunities including but not limited to micro-credit programmes. However the market or economic participation approach towards women’s empowerment is highly debatable. The kinds of injustices and inequalities working women, particularly from the third world are subjected to depict an ugly and opposite side of a rosy picture. A deeper and closer look at the lives and experiences of these women reveal a different story, which raises serious questions about this conventional linkage. I feel for every possible reason that the first step towards women empowerment is to let women decide the kind of power or empowerment they want for themselves. Without a truthful and real understanding of women’s own perspective on empowerment, it is not possible to have meaningful policies for improving their status. Therefore there is a real need of an in-depth investigation of the concept of empowerment and it’s relationship with economic participation in the personal lives and struggles of grass root women. Women empowerment has to be promoted but only on the basis of an understanding of women’s lives as understood and defined by themselves and not as an imposition of a set of convenient assumptions.  Women have to be reached out to not as passive or inferior victims of discrimination but dynamic and diverse beings who should define and inform the policy, practise and discourse on women’s empowerment.

Women’s empowerment has been a major theme in Pakistan’s national development policies ever since the inception of the country. The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees non-discrimination against women and advocates full participation of women in all spheres of national life. Successive governments, both military and civilian have tried to elevate the socio-economic status of women through various policy approaches adopted in their respective terms. Today, although the status of women in Pakistan varies across economic, social, rural/urban and religious/ethnic divides, gender inequality remains high and intense in every sector of public as well as private life. Domestic violence, gender discrimination in access to education, health care facilities and career opportunities are to mention but a few of the manifestations of the social subjugation of women in the society. Policy failure, lack of commitment and political dis-continuity along with a seriously constrained resource and institutional base contribute to this situation. The disconnection of research and academic debate with policy and practise in Pakistan has further exacerbated the problem.

An extremely vast body of diverse kinds of literature including the conceptual, theoretical, research and policy related debates on women’s empowerment exist. A range of both the conceptual and policy related debates have been dedicated to economic empowerment of women but the focus on grass root women’s perspectives, experiences and expectations has been very little. Where there has been primary research, women’s own voices have not been predominant, particularly in Pakistan. Gender equality has all the complexities of a social and cultural process of change which has enormous challenges when it comes to policy responses. From a social policy perspective, women’s empowerment is an area which represents the real world development challenges and ground realities which make effective policy implementation the challenge that it currently is or has been ever since.

Women empowerment has so far been addressed under the two major frameworks: (i) women in development (WID) and (ii) gender in development (GAD). While the former emphasizes the participation and inclusion of women in existing development processes, the later came as a response to the limitations of focusing on women in isolation. GAD recognizes gender as a social relationship between men and women which has subjugated women and has consistently kept them at a position of disadvantage. It highlights the importance of involving and targeting men to address the gendered constructs of masculinity and feminity. The year 2000, witnessed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were endorsed by the world community from the platform of the United Nations. The third of these MDGs is exclusively related to women empowerment i.e. to promote gender equality and empower women. Although progress has been made in some of the indentified indicators, a lot more needs to be done in all sectors and sub-sectors if gender equality and women empowerment is to be achieved in due time.

There is also a growing realization that women empowerment is a complex processes with deeply embedded social and cultural constructs, which define the scope and limitations of this empowerment. Conceptually women empowerment is often equated with being able to make choices in life. Given this linkage, it implies that women who are economically engaged are able to make choices for themselves. In reality the exercise of choice is restricted by a range of factors and gendered perceptions of masculinity and feminity which obstacles gender equality or an improved status for women. Betata a contemporary writer on gender in 2006 has also argued that empowerment is not an outcome but a process which has elements enabling or restricting it. She has divided empowerment into issues of personal autonomy, control over body and sexuality and religiosity which are predominant in the private sphere of womens’ lives and fall beyond the tangibly defined aspects of empowerment. She has also gone a step forward to recommend a new indicator of women empowerment which is Gender Empowerment Enabling Environment (GEEE). The GEEE pinpoints towards the legal as well as cultural dimensions and societal attitudes required for enabling the empowerment of women in relation to men.

In addition to the conceptual abstraction of the term empowerment, the literature also identifies problems when it comes to measuring empowerment. Previously different interventions by governments, donors or NGOs had women empowerment as their shared objective but mostly without having a well defined method or indicator of measuring it. It was in the mid 90s that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developed the Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measure GEM). The looks into GDI life expectancy, education and earned income whereas the GEM comprises of  proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments, percentage of women in economic decision making positions and the female share of income. Both of these indicators have been severely criticized for being gender blind as these measures do not deal with relative inequality between men and women, build up on international data bases rather than data from national governments and exclude the real gender defined power relations.

There has also been a fundamental negligence of non-economic and invisible aspects of empowerment in these indicators, for example having a say in usage of contraception and issues relating to marriage, child birth and fertility. Similarly, the measures of participation in economic or political spheres fairly limiting in scope as participation may be controlled or dictated and therefore not very meaningful. The whole politics of participation includes the decision of who participates in decision making and who doesn’t is not really taken into account by these indices. It also does not recognize that the distribution of household work as unnatural and socially defined and fails to flag the inter-household power relations underpinning the labour division. The triple role of women including child birth and raring, domestic household chores and communal responsibilities do not get recognized by the GEM. Elite-class female politicians who get elected to parliament -with backing of influential figures are not representative of actual state and realities of the majority of women, in the rural and the grass root levels, particularly in the developing countries. These indicators have been extensively criticized for measuring gender inequality amongst the educated and economically better off women and ignoring other non-economic aspects of empowerment.

Women’s economic participation has traditionally been a controversial theme, it’s statistics have been criticized for being gender blind as women’s work go un and under reported. It is due to the fact that women’s household responsibilities and care work which includes but is not limited to cooking, washing, cleaning, fetching water and fuel, looking after the livestock and cattle, tending to the sick and the elderly (in extended household structures) is virtually neglected by all measurements of  labour force participation and GDP. The domestic work of women is not reported in the census or other data collection methods partly because it is not considered as work which needs to be compensated and partly because it gets effected by gender biased survey and data collection methodologies where women are virtually neglected.

Clearly related to the topic of women economic empowerment is the whole paradigm of micro-credit and loans. While many believe women to be less creative entrepreneurs than men and less reliable for the repayment of loans, in reality the situation is quite the opposite. Many independent evaluations have found out women to be much more reliable clients than men; they are better investors with quicker and higher rates of repayment. Goetz and Gupta (1996) in their analysis of Grameen Bank and three other credit institutions in Bangladesh have indicated that only 37 per cent of the female borrowers retain control over their loans within the household. This means that in 63 per cent of the households where women have taken a loan in their own name, men have partly or completely used the money for their own priorities. Nonetheless, a woman who takes a loan remains responsible for repayment by the bank, even when her husband uses the loan without generating any return on investment. Ultimately, some women may even be worse off with a loan than without it. Even in the literature on women’s economic empowerment, there is little if no recognition of the non-economic gender based roles, responsibilities and subjectivities having a direct bearing on economic empowerment. Empowerment has to be understood holistically and relatively i.e. in relation to men, in relation to different women groups and at different levels.

However, for the working women in most of the developing countries, the nature of work and it’s social dynamics does not shift the balance of power in their favour. It does not improve their status in relation to men. If one is to imply that economic participation leads to empowerment, then one can argue that a CEO of a company is a highly empowered person, but empowerment has a strong non-economic dimension and a very rich person may not necessarily be empowered. Authority itself cannot guarantee empowerment, neither can participation. They are highly relative concepts which have different meanings and interpretations for individuals and a generalized ‘one size fit all policy’ cannot be applied to all. Women’s participation in economy can lead to a reduction in incidents of domestic violence or can enhance their access to information and mobility but at the same time, it can also mean the exploitation of their labour by men who assert complete control over women’s earnings. There have been numerous examples in all parts of the world, where men have inflicted physical, mental or psychological violence over women for getting hold of their income or not allowing them a say in where their money is spent. Even the kinds of exploitation women are subjected to at workplace are many. Low and differential wage rates, long working hours, tough working conditions, health and environmental risks and sexual harassment are some of the many manifestations of such of female labour exploitation. This scenario makes the linkage between economic participation and empowerment very complex and superfluous; the most important issue in the empowerment discourse is the women’s own vision and views about empowerment.

However, all is not gloom. Women’s participation in economy has considerably improved and changes are occurring in the gendered division of labour. This is due to a wide range of factors like education, rural-urban as well as international migration, demographic changes, declining fertility and family size, globalization and technological advancement, though the pace of change is slow. The push factors towards female participation in formal economy have been many including commertalization of agriculture sectors, landlessness, recession and increased cost of living and lack of state provided social and health care services. Also the phenomenon of globalization has tremendously transformed the way both men and women experience their lives. The increased economic and social restructuring of the world has had a strong bearing on gendered subjectivities, roles and responsibilities. It has in many ways tilted the balance of power on the women side by offering them a wide range of economic opportunities even in professions which were traditionally considered male dominated e.g. pilots, scientists, economists and politicians. Factors like access to information and independent media have catalyzed a process of social change around the world which has tampered with deeply embedded gendered identities to quite an extent.  One can safely that the changing social and economic inter dependence between states has sharply highlighted the role of women in both public and private spheres and enhanced their status to an extent but the issue is that relative inequality. Gender equality and women empowerment have to make men and women equal partners with equal powers. It is for this complex relativity that women empowerment discourse has to be informed by an on-going analysis of poverty and gender in-equality and in-equity. However as a student of gender, I find the happy acceptance of oppression and gendered discrimination by women most worrisome. Gender to date has been a deeply problematic area mainly because it is unquestioned and unchallenged by women themselves.

My key argument is that economic participation alone does not lead to women’s empowerment. Access to labour market does not improve the status of women within the household hierarchy and does not influence the power relations in their favour.  Empowerment is a highly relative and complex concept which has different articulations for different individuals, though it is not possible to tackle with empowerment at an individual level. Empowerment is a state of mind which has to come from within and cannot be granted by any outside actor. What the outside actor like Government, NGOs and Donors can do is to create a conducive women friendly environment which enables them to exercise their fee will and choices in life.  Providing women with a social space free of discrimination, violence and fear is the first step. Women’s empowerment is a process that challenges and transforms the patriarchal beliefs and institutions that reinforce and perpetuate women’s inequality.  As a starting point, the Government of Pakistan should take measures to make work places safe and secure for women. It has to be recognized at the policy level that gender based interventions are socially transformative and unless the underlying gender inequalities, inequities and constructs of masculinity and feminity are addressed, the status of women within the household and in society at large will not improve. There is a need for equity and equality between the roles, responsibilities, powers and rewards distributed between men and women. This will require a long term process of social change and cultural transformation particularly in the Pakistani society, which is predominantly patriarchal. Globalization can potentially be the most important catalyst for this change and should be capitalized upon as an opportunity for mass education, rural-urban and international migration, technological advancements and access to information and socio-cultural exchange of goods, services, capital and people across the world.

Gender research and analysis has to be at the heart of all Government’s policy making and planning. Women have to be at the centre of poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihoods strategies because it is the feminization of poverty which keeps women vulnerable to dis-empowerment and dis-advantage. Women poverty reduction and empowerment have to be tackled simultaneously with a two-fold strategy.  Donors and NGOs should make more resources available for improving the living conditions of women. Direct Budgetary Support (DBS) should be provided to women living in extreme poverty to pull them out and Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) to help them establish a foot hold in society through entrepreneurship, micro-enterprise development and small scale industry. Women’s economic and social well-being go hand in hand and cannot be isolated with each other.

The misuse of the concept ‘women’s empowerment’ needs to be recognized and rectified. It is conveniently used as a fuzzy jargon, by a host of actors. Women’s empowerment has to be understood in a broader social policy agenda which mobilizes agency to bring about a socio-cultural transformation. Women empowerment has to be achieved in an overall conducive policy environment, within an effective framework of institutional governance which addresses the roles and responsibilities of different players including the government, donors, NGOs, civil society and communities. Not to mention political commitment and an adequately capacitated resource base which go a long way in realizing gender and development outcomes in a definitive manner.


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  • Raheem Post author

    Bushra Zulfiqar is a Pakistani writer and activist with a background in development. Studied at the London School of Economics, she has worked in the areas of policy making, institutional governance, education, gender and poverty alleviation. As a writer, she has written extensively over a broad range of issues facing Pakistan and has advocated equality and political pluralism at various platforms. Her first book Living Contemporary Pakistan is due to be published world wide in the end of 2011.