The Limited Long-term Impact of Gender-specific Empowerment Projects
The World Bank estimates that nearly 400 million women, almost six percent of the world’s population, live in extreme poverty of $1.25 or less per day. Given this figure it is not surprising that the international development community is focused on developing and implementing gender-specific projects and programs to help women and their families out of poverty. While there is growing evidence that empowering women can lead to improved social, health, and economic well-being over the short term, there is limited evidence showing that women remain empowered for any extended period of time beyond the life of the project. Why aren’t poor women empowered for the long term? How can strategic approaches and project implementation be improved to better facilitate long-term empowerment? To answer these questions, it is first necessary to delve into the different empowerment approaches.
Most female empowerment projects have focused on economic empowerment. Specifically, getting money into the hands of poor women typically through cash transfer programs or microloans. This approach is based on the widely accepted idea that women are more likely to invest in their families than men do. Women’s economic advancement is commonly seen as benefiting household food security and child nutrition and there is a fairly large body of research supporting this belief. Studies conducted across Africa and Asia have found that when women controlled the income, household calorie consumption increased significantly, a family’s budget share for food is higher when women have higher household cash income, and when women had more money the caloric intake of the household was higher. However, all of these studies were only focused on evaluating impacts over the course of the intervention, which tended to be three to five years.
If the goal is to improve the short-term nutritional and economic well-being of children and families, then solely focusing on economic empowerment is a practical approach. However, this strategy fails to consider the social norms and culture specific to a region that may inhibit the impact of the economic empowerment. What good does it do to provide a woman with cash or credit to buy and raise a cow when she does not have the power to decide when and how she will sell it? Additionally, the long-term sustainability of giving women capital to invest in business development and their families is questionable.
Even though a woman has access to credit there is no guarantee she will be able to manage and or invest it in a way that promotes a sustainable source of income for her and her family.
The focus only on economically empowering women without taking into account cultural context, social pressures and sustainability has well-documented negative consequences.
A story of a Bangladeshi woman who committed suicide due to her high amount of debt is a prime example of the dangers of economically empowering women without providing targeted financial management assistance and oversight. At the time of her death the woman had a total of $3,500 USD in outstanding loans from eight different microfinance institutions. Most of the loans had been used to pay for her daughters wedding and with an income of only $13 USD a week there was no way for her to save enough to pay back the loans and accumulating interest. A different study in Bangladesh found that nearly 50 percent of loans taken out by women were used by their husbands or other male family members. And in Honduras, a study found that women’s male partners had the power to both facilitate and limit a woman’s use of a loan and her plan for repayment.
Instead of providing women with microloans and little guidance, there needs to be a refocusing on building capacity and providing technical training that teaches a specific skill so that women can actually invest in a business venture or purchase assets that will not only generate enough money to pay the loan back, but will also allow them to invest in the long-term well-being of their families and in themselves. The current focus on empowering women means that the burden of family survival is being placed on women alone, and not enough attention is being focused on the broader issue of how family relations impact women’s financial stability. The relationships between the male and female heads of household and general family power dynamics need to be taken into consideration when designing programs and projects. Without this the sustainable empowerment of women and their ability to achieve long-term livelihood security for themselves, their families and their community will be severely jeopardized.