Index Offers Improved Method to Gauge Women's Progress

  • by Charundi Panagoda (washington)
  • Wednesday, February 29, 2012
  • Inter Press Service

The new index is a first in directly measuring to what extent women are included in the agricultural sector. Previous surveys lacked specific questions of women's empowerment in agriculture, in comparison to other areas such as household expenditures and family planning traditions.

'With this survey, taking two enumerators at the same house at the same time, we've been able to make a breakthrough in how gendered data is collected,' Sabina Alkire, director of Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, told IPS.

Agriculture is the most effective way to drive economic growth in the world's poorest communities, and women's inclusion is considered paramount to sustainable growth.

Yet despite comprising nearly half (43 percent) of the agricultural labour force, women in developing countries still own little land and have limited abilities to hire labour. Their access to credit extension and training services is also limited.

A partnership between the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative (FTFI), the U.S. for International Development (USAID) and other organisations, the index focuses on five areas: decisions over agricultural production, power over productive resources such as land and livestock, decisions over income, leadership and allocation of time.

Women are considered empowered if they meet four out of the five areas.

The index also offers insight into women's own empowerment and gender parity in households, Alkire said. Pilot surveys have been conducted in Bangladesh, Uganda and Guatemala, and already the number of disempowered women is high.

In Guatemala, only 22 percent of women met the empowerment requirements.

'The Index identifies areas in which women are disempowered -these are precisely those areas where interventions might be the most useful' for policymakers, Agnes Quisumbing, senior research fellow for the poverty, health and nutrition division at the International Food Policy Research Institute, told IPS.

The index is designed to allow flexibility in the definition of 'empowerment', deviating from the standard way economists evaluate women's empowerment through income and education, Alkire said, and indeed, women across different regions have different ideas of what empowerment means to them.

'Empowerment is a very personal thing. The woman will have different ideas about what it means to be empowered depending on her values, personality, upbringing and people with whom she has close relationships with,' Alkire said.

'It's very difficult to compare empowerment across countries. What we have done in the index is to try to find very common aspects of women's empowerment, such as being members of a group, having access to credit, (or) being able to control how income is spent,' Alkire explained.

Seema, a Bangladeshi participant in the pilot survey, for example, didn't think leadership was necessary for empowerment. A 35-year-old mother of three who met her husband on the day of their wedding, Seema is disempowered, according to the Index.

She scores only 64 percent, somewhat higher than the 51 percent regional average. She lacks access to credit and doesn't have gender parity with her husband.

But Seema sees empowerment as the ability to work on her own land, send her children to school and have adequate food and shelter. She doesn't believe women should be leaders, even though a woman in a different region might view political decision-making power as a key element of empowerment.

'Cultural notions of what is appropriate may get in the way of women’s empowerment. In Seema’s case, gender norms got in the way of her seeing what is actually possible,' Quisumbing told IPS.

'But gender norms can change….One might say that culture takes a long time to change, but it does change - with development interventions being the stimulus. One of the things that many NGOs have done is precisely to awaken women to the possibility that leadership is something that they can attain,' she added.

Alkire thinks countries should have adaptations to reflect empowerment in a cultural context. For the sake of an international standard, definitions of empowerment are uniform across countries, but they may be complemented by versions tailored to specific cultural contexts.

The innovative but still young index could also use improvement in some areas, Alkire admitted. Some survey questions might need adjusting, for example.

'Right now, (participants are) questioned about the past 24 hours, which don't necessarily reflect your average day. We need to adjust the time use module in the survey so it is a better reflection of the woman's time burden across the year,' she added.

'If yesterday was my only holiday of the year or if a child was ill, then it'll affect the entire index. That's one problem we are very aware of. '

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?