Feminisms, Empowerment and Development

Changing Women’s Lives
Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards

Each of the 15 chapters comprising this edited volume contributes to better understanding the role of women’s organised and individual action in bringing about change in their own and other women’s lives, but it is the excellent introductory essay by Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards that ensures that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. As they point out, the development industry has erased the politics and ‘relational dimensions’ (p. 9) of ‘women’s empowerment’, reducing it to a ‘business case’ (p. 8) for economic efficiency. Give women sewing machines, seeds and fertilisers for kitchen gardens, or microfinance to set up hairdressing salons or beauty parlours, and they will achieve economic independence, acquire the respect of their families and generally improve their lot: what might be described as the treadmill of having more and doing more in order to have more, and do more in order to sustain having more … This ‘empowerment lite’ (p. 9), however, assumes an unswerving path from having more to being more. This despite the fact that ‘what is empowering to one woman isn’t necessarily empowering to others’ (p. 23), and that the process of empowerment is one of ‘negotiation, accommodation and compromise’ (p. 25) that meanders through diverse and fluctuating courses that tend to fall ‘outside the conventional range of empowerment interventions’ (p. 27). Popular culture, for example, may have the ‘Heineken effect’ of reaching parts of people’s lives that development programmes seldom value – enjoyment, humour, intimacy and the capacity to empathise with and be loyal to others – none of this motivated by simple self-interest. Nor are empowerment and social transformation a race against the clock in ‘the rush for results’ (p. 28) – they are marked by false starts and setbacks as well as by incremental and occasionally tectonic changes in people’s lives. It used to be said that ‘gender’ is not an optional ingredient, a question of ‘add gender and mix’ to the usual recipe. Similarly, women’s power to achieve and sustain social justice takes many different forms, and playing the role of critical companion depends on respecting ‘women’s own assessment of opportunities and risks and the way in which we make sense of their exercise of agency’ (p. 25).

In keeping with this, many contributors illustrate that a single-pronged approach – such as legal reform (Mulki Al-Sharmani on Egypt) or political quotas (Ana Alice Alcantara Costa, focusing on Latin America) – cannot bring about substantive ‘hearts and minds’ changes in the absence of other elements. The chapter by Naila Kabeer and Lopita Huq on the chequered experience of Saptagram, a landless women’s organisation in Bangladesh, is particularly instructive. Saptagram ‘could be said to have failed’ (p. 250) before and particularly following the death of its ‘charismatic’ founder. The NGO focus in Bangladesh on the provision of microfinance to women’s groups as a means to empower them is well known, but has also been widely criticised: at the very least, it ‘has been found to create a business relationship – but little beyond that’ (p. 274). Saptagram defined its core mission as ‘the empowerment of rural women through a social movement against gender injustice’ (p. 254), and used savings (rather than loans, i.e. low-interest debts and peer pressure to repay) to facilitate ‘material, cognitive and relational’ transformation (p. 260). But when NGOs became the donors’ channel of choice in the 1990s, Saptagram’s three-year budget skyrocketed from around $160,000 to $3 million. It should have been blindingly obvious even to the most obtuse donors that it lacked the capacity to handle this budgetary tsunami, and a negative donor-commissioned review came too late for it to establish rules and procedures that might have pre-empted internal conflict and financial mismanagement: yet another example of donors helping to wreck what they intended to support. And yet, many years later, a number of women opted to revive the organisation. A major reason was that: ‘The bonds of solidarity between group members had been forged and strengthened through many years of dealing with adversity together’, and that the experience of ‘unconditional support in their efforts to better their own lives and the lives of women around them’ (p. 274) had changed these women’s values and self-esteem forever.

In another chapter on Bangladesh, Aanmona Priyadarshini and Samia Afroz Rahim examine the role of television in opening up ‘different worlds, both familiar and unfamiliar’ (p. 281). Fictional romances, for instance, may confirm or challenge traditional understandings of how heterosexual relationships should function. Educated young women seemed more at ease than less educated viewers with depictions of premarital sexual relations, admitting that they preferred seeing women playing ‘an active role and an exploration of pleasure’ (p. 285) – although the authors underline that people are often dishonest about their viewing habits, ‘perhaps because in detailing what they watch they are also self-censoring to provide answers that seem more “proper”’ (p. 286). Television is an intimate medium in that it is generally viewed at home, alone or in the company of friends or family; it provides substance for private fantasies and escapism, topics for discussion, ideas, language and even dance and clothing to emulate. Television therefore has the potential to shift women’s self-image and self-projection, experience enjoyment and broaden their horizons, all of them central to women’s empowerment.

In a similar vein, Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Awo Mana Asiedu look at changing representations of women in Ghanaian popular music. In observations that could equally be made in Latin American lyrics, women are depicted as manipulative, fickle, unfaithful, spendthrifts, enchanting, heartbreakers and ball breakers – embodying a decidedly ‘macho’ perspective and negatively internalised by women. The authors describe working with musicians, DJs, radio and TV shows to discuss popular lyrics, ‘taking our research to town’ in ways that offered producers and consumers to ‘propose a variety of pathways to alternative, more diverse and empowering representations of women – and that working together is a powerful tool for transformation’ (p. 156).

Rosalind Eyben, in contrast, describes the role of the ‘closet feminist’ (p. 162) – a role all too familiar to those of us who cut our professional teeth long before gender was anywhere near the ‘revolutionary’, let alone development, agenda. Aware that senior managers tend to prefer a technical response, femocrats can hold a subversive feminist line only if there is sufficient ‘political commitment and strong civil society mobilization’ to prevent ‘gender equality work to slide down the slippery slope from an incremental approach to changing the paradigm, to becoming entirely instrumentalist’ (p. 162). What Rosalind Eyben nicely refers to as ‘bureaucratic activism’ (p. 172) is a very thin wire to tread: feminists working in aid agencies stand to be accused of ‘selling out’ even as they work like ants within and seek to unsettle the system. As Rosalind Eyben underlines, ‘individual agency matters’, but so do the networks, formal and informal, that enable such agency to make a difference.

Other chapters focus on women’s organisations in Bangladesh (Sohela Nazneen and Maheen Sultan), women, and domestic workers, in Brazil (Cecilia M. B. Sardenberg; Terezinha Gonçalves), state support and women’s empowerment in Egypt (Hania Sholkamy), women and peace-building in Sierra Leone (Hussaina J. Abdullah), paid work and Pakistan’s Lady Health Worker Programme (Ayesha Khan), Dars in Pakistan (Neelam Hussain), education and empowerment in Ghana (Akosua K. Darkwah) and empowerment and resistance among Palestinian women (Eileen Kuttab).

Since this volume assembles contributions to the Pathways for Women’s Empowerment initiative, hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, most of the chapters are extracts from or updated versions of papers originally published in IDS Development Bulletin. Presenting them in book form, as part of the Feminisms and Development Series, will ensure that they reach a far wider audience – which they, and new readers, most richly deserve.

© 2015, Deborah Eade, Independent writer and editor, France

Feminisms, Empowerment and Development: Changing Women’s Lives is published by Zed Books
Review originally published in Gender & Development 23.3 (2015)