Female empowerment, decisionmaking, and how to measure it

How we define women’s empowerment or autonomy using decisionmaking questions in the DHS surveys (and similar questions in other surveys) has always bothered me. I’m glad someone decided to look into it rigorously.

While there has been little evidence explicitly testing indicators and sources of bias in conventional intrahousehold decisionmaking, the literature does discuss a number of reoccurring limitations. The first is around the treatment of jointness in decisionmaking. Although questions are typically sensitive enough to identify whether a decision is made solely by the woman or jointly by the woman and someone else, how should we treat these distinctions? Whereas it is tempting to assume for all cases that an autonomous decision, relative to a joint decision, is the one in which the woman has more power, the rationale for that possible ranking must clearly be conditioned on household composition. In a household with several adult members, a woman is more likely to make joint decisions based on sharing of resources and responsibilities. In addition, in such cases, it is often difficult to understand in the presentation of indicators with whom the decision is being made jointly and how much that matters for rankings. The implications for women’s empowerment may be very different if the woman is making a decision jointly with her spouse or if she is making it jointly with her father, mother-in-law, or son. Further, in western societies, we often think that in the most equitable partnerships, decisions are discussed through open communication and made jointly. Therefore, it could be claimed that joint 5 decisions should be ranked equal to or preferred to sole decisions; however, the actual dynamic may vary case by case. The issue of jointness further interacts with the importance of the decisionmaking domain. For example, one woman may make a sole decision on a relatively less important domain (for example, daily food preparation) and another woman a joint decision on a relatively more important domain (for example, purchase of a house). In this case, how would we rank or interpret their decisionmaking power relative to each other?

From a new paper by Amber Peterman and colleagues on women’s decisionmaking indicators and their usefulness. (Emphasis added by me).

FGM and legal reform

Somalia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs announced it will introduce legislation to ban FGM/C. In my twitter feed, this news was met with exclamations of how it’s a win for women and such progress. But a little more reading shows that the 2012 Somali constitution already considers FGM/C torture and prohibits the practice.

And yet, the WHO estimated in 2006 that 97.9% of women and girls aged 15-49 in Somalia had been cut.


Outlawing the process through the Constitution likely has not resulted in much change to that figure. So, what’s the purpose of making another law that people won’t follow? Well, perhaps the government could direct services to women and girls who didn’t want to be cut, or pay for programming to encourage local leaders and parents to publicly denounce cutting, as has been tried in parts of West Africa, or maybe just getting it in the news again will be useful.

I’m not optimistic, though. Unless real efforts are made to identify and address the normative and cultural aspects of the practice, it’s hard to imagine outlawing it actually being effective.

Photography, History, and Awesome Women

If y’all don’t know how much I love photographas, well, I’m telling you now, I love photographs. I haven’t written much lately about history, but I love history, too. And I really love old photographs, historical photographs, and photographs of women doing awesome things. So, for this International Women’s Day, I saved a link to some fantastic old photos of women being awesome. That’s just how we do.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Using technology to report crimes against women

I tweeted about an ATM-style machine in India a couple weeks ago that is designed to help women to report crimes of harassment and abuse. I’ve been thinking about what the implications are and what they might mean for women and since Katina prompted me, here are a few thoughts.

Inasmuch as I can tell, reporting a crime of harassment, rape, or sexual assault in any country is a terrible experience. In India, it is particularly bad for many of the reasons listed in the article: all-male police forces with little to no knowledge or training on how to work with victims, threats by family and community members–some of whom may be part of the police force–and threat of revictimization by the police themselves. There are groups and governments trying to combat this. For instance, the police force in Gujarat is experimenting with quotas for women in the police force. Other groups implement gender sensitization training.

So, a way to circumvent that process seems pretty ideal. The added bonus of being able to speak into the machine in the case of illiteracy is also pretty awesome, provided the ATM is in a safe place. My first question, though, is what happens next. The article mentioned at least one incident where an abusive husband was being pursued by the police, but are all complaints acted upon? If they are, a woman is eventually going to have to have contact with the police and potentially face those embarrassing questions, harassment, or groping mentioned in the article. Where is the change in the police force itself that makes reporting a not-quite-as-awful experience? One that might result in outcomes that actually help a victim?

Finally, it’s not clear that interaction with the police is the best way of stemming abuse. A widely circulated piece by a British-Pakistani entrepreneur last week showed how a serial abuser was welcomed back into her community even after several individuals had alleged abuse. A prison sentence likely won’t mean he can’t get a job or eat dinner with his family. Reporting abuse often means that for a woman.

Ultimately, until there is evolution in the acceptability of domestic violence and a rejection of norms that put women’s safety last, I’m not convinced that novel methods of reporting will have a great effect on the incidence of abuse, assault, and sexual harassment or the structures that support it.

Workin’ for a livin’ in Bangladesh: Garment workers and outcomes for women

The garment industry in Bangladesh has received a lot of bad press in the last few years with the collapse of factories and threats of boycotts by workers’ rights groups. The question of whether employment in these industries is beneficial to workers, and particularly female workers, remains open. Economists tend to emphasize the effects on female empowerment (bargaining power, buying power, delayed childbearing, for instance), while rights groups enumerate the safety concerns and potential human rights abuses (long hours, low pay, no overtime pay, etc.).

While by no means offering a definitive answer the question, a new paper by Rachel Health and Mushfiq Mobarak (NBER gated or not gated) attempts to show that the economist are right. The paper shows that exposure to garment sector jobs increases age at marriage and first birth for girls and women in Bangladesh. Child marriage and early childbirth are common in Bangladesh, outcomes which expose women and girls to abuse, early mortality and morbidity, domestic violence, low educational attainment and more. If the garment industry is avoiding or delaying some of these outcomes by providing different opportunities, that’s certainly something to note.

Perhaps more importantly, the paper shows that there are significant returns to education within the garment sector. More educated employees receive higher pay and opportunities for advancement. Subsequently, knowledge of these additional returns to education may actually increase educational attainment in addition to these other desirable outcomes. There’s some concern about endogenous factory placement in the paper and how that might affect their results, but the authors do a nice job addressing it.

What works for women and girls, redux

Woman ironing clothes in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India
Woman ironing clothes in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, India

Last week, I wrote a little about my contiuous struggle with the word “empowerment” and what it means in the context of improving the lives of women and girls. In particular, I mentioned a few World Bank studies that examine “what works?” and how can we incorporate the knowledge of local context into our understanding of empowerment. Then, a survey by DFID came across my desk asking a similar kind of “what works” question, but posing it to researchers, practitioners, and funders. If you’re involved in research, funding, or implementation of programs that target violence against women and girls, I encourage you to take the survey and be involved in the subsequent discussion groups. For my part, I can say that my involvement with DFID (through the partnership with the Nike FoundationGirl Hub) was extremely informative and worthwhile.

Because the survey asks about rigorous evidence, I think it’s also worth mentioning some of my own work on the subject (with Laurie Ball Cooper). While the programmatic mapping is a bit old by now (I know plenty of new programs have been put in place), I think the overarching takeaway is the same. We need more evidence about what works to reduce violence and discrimination against women and girls. Whether that’s accomplished through increased impact evaluations, RCTs, use of secondary or administrative data, or experimental ethnography, great, but we need more evidence.

All of the papers that came out of that DFID workshop are worth a read. Here’s a link to one a linkt to one more from IFPRI’s Agnes Quisumbing and Chiara Kovarik.

What works for girls?

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.