Providing equality of opportunity for women and men requires a commitment to equality and empowerment for all women, regardless of their other social group memberships like class, ethnic/racial group or caste. As empowerment improves intergenerational wellbeing and contributes to escapes from poverty that are sustained over time, it is also critical for poverty eradication.
A truer commitment to empowerment requires acknowledging that intersectionality matters, recognizing the women who thrive in spite of adversity, and pairing policies with programming that can promote inclusive empowerment and so help reduce poverty.
The case for an intersectional approach to gender empowerment
Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (CPAN) studies supported by the USAID Center for Resilience across ten countries have highlighted that economic and multidimensional deprivations are often severe among women living in poverty. Regression analysis found that female-headed households in rural Kenya and in Nepal, for instance, are more likely than male-headed households to escape poverty but then fall back into poverty over time. In these countries and Cambodia, female-headed households are also more likely to descend into poverty than to escape poverty and stay out of poverty over time.
These differences for female vs. male-headed households arise partly because of gender-based inequalities that poor women in particular experience. These can be seen through adverse social norms and discriminating practices that restrict women’s mobility and wider agency to engage in activities that can promote sustained escapes from poverty.
In Nepal, for example, a life history respondent, Aarshi, recalls: “I used to work here before and live with my husband. After he went abroad, I could go and stay in urban area [of] Dailekh and Surkhet but I didn’t go because people will think badly about me if I went and stayed there alone. People of the village perceive badly if women go out more often here.”
Related research on disability and poverty dynamics in Bangladesh identified persistently poor women with disabilities as facing "triple discrimination," making it very difficult for them to escape poverty.
Despite adversity, women thrive and are resilient
Even with these intersecting inequalities and discriminatory norms, our studies highlighted clear signs of women’s agency that can build resilience and have the potential to sustain escapes from poverty. Signs of this agency are reflected in collaborative relationships between spouses, often linked to effective communication around financial planning and managing businesses. In Malawi, for example, Agnes’ husband, who sold second-hand clothes, supported her decision to build a restaurant in urban Mchinji, which helped her sustain an escape from poverty.
Policy directions for a transformative, pro-poor empowerment
Collaborative forms of decision making between men and women in poor households should inform the implementation of poverty reduction policies and programs, building on good practices already underway in several donor organizations. There is also need for a negotiated approach to norm change, underpinned by supportive laws and with institutional reform that brings local leaders, community members and male members of society into the fold, throughout a program’s lifecycle and beyond. Shorter-term measures that work for the poorest women are also critical, such as affirmative action to redress gender imbalances and improving implementation of legal protection.
The upswing in women’s social movements today presents a timely opportunity to take the discussion forward through pro-poor empowerment and to more consistently apply intersectional approaches conceptually, analytically and practically in policies and programming. Pro-poor empowerment is not a zero sum game but a transformative pathway towards zero poverty.
Author: Vidya Diwakar, CPAN Senior Research Officer.
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