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Empowerment Beyond the Buzzword: The Unintended Consequences of Empowering Women

Alexa Rosco is Private Sector Advisor for CARE International.

Alexa Roscoe is Private Sector Advisor for CARE International UK.

Empowering women is not without risks – we need to identify and overcome them.

There’s a statistic that most development practitioners will have heard quite frequently: empowering women farmers would decrease the number of hungry by up to 150 million. There are many facts like it, all meant to make the case for women’s economic empowerment. Reduced gender barriers in access to formal sector work could improve labour productivity by as much as 25 per cent in some countries is one. Equal pay for women could increase national GDPs by 9 to 20 per cent is another.

The UN cites these figures. Businesses like Deloitte cite these figures. I cite them as well. But there’s a problem. It is not that they’re incorrect, or even that used strategically they don’t add force to the well-justified case for women’s economic empowerment; it is that by exclusively emphasising the positives of economic empowerment, these facts obscure how difficult – and how radical – empowering women can be. Repeated so persistently, they risk glossing over some hard truths about women’s empowerment.

Unintended Consequences

To state the obvious, economic empowerment is at its heart about power – and upending power relations, whether between countries, classes, races or genders, is never a tidy process. There will be strong resistance to every step forward, and not infrequent steps back. For instance:

  1. Increased control over assets or access to financial resources can upset household power dynamics and generate unintended consequences, often in the form of violence such as domestic abuse.

  2. Even if not physical aggression, women risk subjecting themselves to verbal abuse or community isolation as a result of what Dr Gül Berna Özcan calls “toxic social capital”. For instance, in developing CARE’s social enterprise Jita, which hires poor women as sales agents in rural Bangladesh, women were teased by their neighbours for violating the practice of purja, which forbids women from working in public.

  3. Even if women do not face reprisals in the form of violence or abuse, gains from their improved income can easily be captured or replaced with new responsibilities. One savings group member reflected that because of her group membership, “I’m responsible for everything at home. My husband said that I’m the one who has money and he no longer contributes for family expenses.”

Are these women fully economically ‘empowered’ just because they have been able to obtain employment or access a loan? Not when the price of empowerment is taken into account.

Facing the Backlash

These are just selected examples. Still, when the sheer scope of the problem is sized up the truth becomes apparent. Women’s wages are just 70 per cent those of men. Forty per cent of women will suffer from gender-based violence during their lives. Altering these statistics will require not just surface-level changes, but transformation at every level of society and the economy. This will, in turn, instigate substantial backlash, and we have to be prepared to face it.

Development actors rarely speak publicly about their limitations. In this case, silence limits understanding of and ability to influence how gender transformational change occurs in practice. More nuanced monitoring can change this; for example, an excellent report from GSDRC identifies specific variables which increase or decrease the risk of violence against women resulting from economic empowerment initiatives.

Even the current, imperfect understanding does suggest concrete steps which can be taken to mitigate risks. The first of these is to engage men in empowerment initiatives. Recruiting men as gender champions can reduce the ‘men vs. women’ dynamic that can be a by-product of empowerment initiatives gone wrong. In Jita, for example, consulting with male elites in the areas where saleswomen were operating improved community support.

Engaging men is also important because women aren’t the only potential targets: men who violate gender norms, whether in terms of sexuality, household responsibilities, control over income or countless other ways, are also subject to backlash.

The second is to shift the dialogue from women’s empowerment to gender equality. Too often, the two terms are used synonymously, whereas a more nuanced dialogue would reflect women’s empowerment as one method of achieving the larger goal of gender equality, which CARE defines as “the equal enjoyment by women, girls, boys and men of rights, opportunities, resources and rewards”. This requires increased focus on the benefits for all of women’s empowerment, and the refutation of gender equality as a zero sum game.

Empowerment isn’t easy and it’s not without risk: empowerment is revolutionary.

However, just because economic empowerment is radical does not mean it is impossible. The scope of the challenge may be daunting, but the progress that has been made in recent decades is remarkable. Acknowledging, and seeking to overcome, risks and unintended consequences of this progress means women’s empowerment, and gender equality, can be achieved that much sooner.

Alexa Roscoe is a Private Sector Advisor at CARE International UK. To read more of Alexa’s blogs on women’s economic empowerment visit or follow her on Twitter @AlexaRoscoe


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