In the days and months after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, aid groups wasted little time.
Many women had been on the front lines, fighting among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Now, these groups decided, those women needed a healthy dose of “empowerment.”
In development circles, the word “empowerment” has become synonymous with an income stream. So the organizations offered the women opportunities to take sewing classes or attend beauty school. “These are women who had joined an armed movement because of their political ideals,” said Kate Cronin-Furman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who studies human rights and mass atrocities. “And they were being sent to learn cake-making.”
A lot of these programs were actually disempowering, Cronin-Furman found. They kept women at home, disconnected from their networks and from opportunities to organize. One government official told Cronin-Furman that despite years of training programs, she had never seen any of the women earn a living from these skills. “It's not just that they failed to help,” Cronin-Furman said. “It's that it actually made them worse off, cutting them off from political power.”
As she looked around, Cronin-Furman and her colleagues noticed this dynamic around the world.
“Women's empowerment” has become one of the buzzwords in development. Look online, and it's easy to find "10 Amazing Nonprofits Empowering Women in 2017" or the "154 organizations” that “make the top-rated women's empowerment nonprofits list.” Organizations such as FINCA, Heifer International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation regularly describe their mission as one of “empowerment” for women.
But many international aid groups that set out to empower women define their goal so narrowly that their mission is, essentially, useless. As a new report by Cronin-Furman and two other academics says, the whole idea of “women's empowerment” is broken.
The problem, the report says, is that many groups see empowerment as something pretty narrow: providing women with economic livelihoods. To aid organizations, that means a woman is empowered once she's given a chicken or cow or sewing machine, even though there's no evidence that this leads to long-term economic gains.
This narrow definition ignores something important: Women suffer not just because they don't have a form of income. Women are part of a system that fundamentally doesn't favor them, that makes it hard for them to obtain and stay in power. To change that, the report says, these women need political power. As one of the report's co-authors, Rafia Zakaria, wrote in the New York Times: “Without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable.”
But few, if any, development groups make political change a core part of their agenda. Often, that's by design. For one thing, a lot of aid organizations pride themselves on their neutrality, and they explicitly stay out of politics. Another issue is that aid organizations are focused on statistics showing results. It's hard to quantify political change. But it's easy to show the number of chickens distributed or sewing classes attended.
As Zakaria wrote in the Times:
U.S.A.I.D. statistics on Afghanistan, for instance, usually focus on the number of girls “enrolled” in schools, even if they rarely attend class or graduate. The groups promoting chicken farming measure the short-term impact of the chickens and the momentary increase in household income, not the long-term, substantive changes to women’s lives.
The report's authors are calling for a revolution in “women's empowerment,” one that brings the movement closer to its roots. The concept of women's empowerment emerged in 1987 from a meeting of women in Bangalore, India. The group, known as DAWN, or Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, had watched for decades as “experts” flocked to developing countries, promising to improve the lives of women and children. But too often, these top-down approaches did little to actually improve lives.
Instead, the members of DAWN called for a new mode of development, one that “empowered” women to “transform gender subordination” and break down “other oppressive structures” through collective “political mobilization.”
They wanted, in other words, a women-led movement that actually gave women some power. They're still waiting.