Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ratna Sudarshan, an economist here in Delhi who is currently a fellow at the National University Education Planning Administration. We had a long discussion about how to look at female employment in India and then about the cultural dimensions of women’s empowerment and agency. I’ve often said that I really dislike the term empowerment. First, because the word literally means to give someone power and you can’t really give someone your own power, but secondly because it’s a term that’s quite jargon-y and steeped in a Western sense of what it means to be independent, have agency, and make one’s own decisions.
Ratna asked me what I meant by empowerment and I gave a litany of possible answers, ending with, but it all depends on where you are. And she responded with a story of girls in Rajasthan, an arid, desert-y state in Western India, where age of marriage is very early, but girls tend not to live with their husbands until they’ve finished their formal schooling. So while the outward measure of “empowerment” bodes poorly for women, their age at first birth is actually quite high, so the health risks normally associated with child marriage aren’t really present.
It was with this in mind that I read about a series of World Bank reports summarizing impact evaluations on what works to reduce maternal mortality, delay age of marriage, and generally improve the lot of girls in the developing world. The reports were released this month in anticipation of the coming Millenium Development Goals deadlines.
So, while I highly recommend you read them, I also urge you to think about context.
Context, context, context, and how important it is in determining the effectiveness of policy or programmatic interventions.