How we’re talking about women’s empowerment

Now that the development industry has fully pivoted its language to a rights-based approach (RBA), programming must be close behind. (Though not too close – the image that comes to mind is a tugboat trying to turn around a supertanker…) With the next generation of MDGs around the corner, the way we talk about things now will impact development practice for a long time. So we should be deliberate about what we’re saying, especially to each other.

Take gender. Classic RBA language talks about “power shifts” as the goal – give women more power in households, societies, governments. So many big NGOs use this term, or similar ones, and people are creating tools in all elements of programming – from design to evaluation and back – to accommodate this. (How do you measure a power shift from husband to wife? From thousands of husbands to thousands of wives in hundreds of towns & cities over the world?)

But I wonder how much we’ve thought about the implications of this term. To me, “power shift” implies a simple transfer from A to B – if Timmy has 5 apples, and an NGO comes and gives Susie 2 of them… In political science terms, it’s a zero-sum game. It’s not about increasing the number of apples; it’s only about making sure that Susie gets her fair share of what’s there.

Now, I know that’s not what people mean. In a typical microfinance project for women, the idea is not to take income away from the man, but rather to empower the woman by helping her earn some income. So technically, it’s not designed to reduce anyone’s power.

But as a smart man has said, “power is the perception of power.” NGOs write things like “women gain more influence over household decisions.” But what does the man in that household perceive? Does he see it as a zero-sum game, and thus feel his power reduced? What does he think about this NGO that doesn’t seem to care about him?

Those following microfinance will know of some less-than-peachy results from recent evaluations. In particular, two are relevant here:

  1. Deadbeats – when a wife’s income increases, sometimes men seem to take that as a sign that their contribution is no longer needed. I found at least one study from Asia, Africa and Latin America with this same result.
  2. Silent partners – in many cases, husbands had their wives take out loans for them. This can be especially nefarious when the husband doesn’t help repay the loan.

This isn’t to say that all men are either lazy or manipulative. As a man myself, and I try to be neither. Nor is this to say that we shouldn’t be trying to help women empower themselves and reverse gender discrimination.

What we should consider, however, is approaching power as a positive-sum game. Everyone should have something to gain, including the men. After all, men living in poverty aren’t typically very empowered to make changes that they value in their societies either. But if we just talk about “shifting” power to women – or write proposals that assume we can increase a woman’s power in a vacuum – a whole agenda may miss the opportunity to engage men in creating gender equity. Instead of the message being “give women more power,” how about collective empowerment of families & communities – discussed and practiced in a way that both men and women play equitable, valuable roles?  

I am open to arguments that this may not be practical, or that it may not be effective and that gender relations need to be addressed head-on. And I know it’s not a new debate. But I think it’s still a relevant one.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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