July 19, 2018 09:55:45
Type the words “sewing machine” and “empowerment” into a search engine and you’ll yield hundreds of thousands of results.
That’s because non-profit organisations and aid programs have led us to believe that small-scale business ventures — via sewing machines, microloans and even goats — empower women in developing nations, known collectively as the Global South.
Mainstream books and documentaries have touted this idea, too.
In 2008, New York Times bestseller Half the Sky argued that women in the Global South can turn oppression into opportunity by entering the labour market and becoming “engines of economic growth”.
But American-based academic Serene J Khader, who is this year’s Alan Saunders lecturer, says such logic is deeply flawed.
“Calling policies like giving goats and sewing machines ’empowerment’ makes them seem not just like they reduce poverty, but like they reduce injustice,” she told audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference this week.
“Many policies … fail to see that empowerment is supposed to act on oppression.
“A woman can have adequate food and health while still having less access to it than men, and without seeing any changes in her educational opportunities, her vulnerability to domestic abuse, her level of political voice in her society.”
Individually beneficial, collectively detrimental?
Dr Khader concedes that increased incomes can improve livelihoods on an individual scale — although, the evidence is mixed — but warns employment-based strategies ignore the underlying problem: patriarchal power structures and attitudes towards women.
She believes this individual-over-the-collective approach can reinforce — even worsen — the oppression of women in the Global South.
To illustrate her claim, Dr Khader points to research by economist Naila Kabeer on microcredit in rural Bangladesh.
Female participants reported their “value” went up after they brought loans into the family home.
“Some of the women [said] things like, ‘Now husbands think, ‘If we beat up our wives, they won’t give us loans, we won’t survive’,'” Dr Khader noted.
“Of course, decreased violence is a good thing. But … decreased violence based on the ability to bring income into the household is continuous with existing sexist norms in South Asia.”
Microfinance programs have existed in Bangladesh since the 1970s, when Grameen Bank founder Professor Muhammad Yunus began offering small, low-interest loans to families.
Today, the bank has more than 8 million borrowers, and 97 per cent of them are women.
This may sound like a positive for women in the Global South, but Cardiff University research fellow Dr Santi Rozario says it’s not that simple.
“After about 25 years of microcredit programs in rural Bangladesh, ingrained gender values are still essentially unchanged,” Dr Rozario reported in a 2002 paper.
Women already work, they’re just not paid
For more than a generation, New Zealand economist and feminist Marilyn Waring has argued that the definition of work, in most countries, excludes the responsibilities traditionally assigned to women — child rearing, cooking, cleaning and so on.
Unlike formal labour, care work and domestic duties are — by and large — unpaid. They’re also physically out of sight from the public domain.
So, the notion that women in the Global South should start a business or enter the labour market — and therefore engage in “real work” — ignores the time-intensive, physically exhaustive reality of domestic duties, and impels women to do more.
According to Dr Khader, men have traditionally been enabled to work because their wives take care of children, the house and the garden.
“Many of the women would ostensibly be empowered through work are women who already get up at 4:00am to fetch 20 kilos of water from a well that is miles away; who spend hours cooking, shopping for food, and tending to fields, children in tow, and can only go to sleep after an evening meal is cleaned up after at 10:00 or 11:00pm,” Dr Khader said.
“We need to move from seeing women in the Global South as an ‘untapped resource’, and learn to see them, as [British economist] Diane Elson puts it, as one of the most overutilised resources in the world.”
A fair share of the burden
But rather than acknowledging the existing load women carry, numerous aid organisations are keen to burden them with an even larger responsibility.
“It has been argued for many years that development interventions that target women are good because of what they do for their families and countries,” Dr Khader pointed out.
“You may have heard, for example, that increasing women’s literacy is a great way to control overpopulation … [or] that empowering women is the key to reducing child poverty.”
In Mexico, sociologist Professor Maxine Molyneux says women — particularly mothers — have been “positioned as the key to the success of the new anti-poverty program”.
Based on a co-responsibility model, the program gives stipends to poor women. In exchange they are expected to participate in child welfare activities, such as health courses and school clean-ups.
But Dr Khader warns that, in some cases, the extra workload benefits children at the expense of their mothers’ wellbeing.
She calls for a new approach to tackling social issues in the Global South — one that involves men.
“If policies perpetuate social norms that say that women matter as individuals less than men do, it is a stretch to call them empowering; they seem to promote rather than reduce sexist oppression,” Dr Khader said.
“This means changing how women think about what they deserve, but also changing how men think about what women deserve.
“Women’s empowerment irreducibly means that men will have to change.”
The annual Alan Saunders Lecture is a collaboration between RN and the Australasian Association of Philosophy. Each year a significant thinker explores an important idea in memory of the late philosopher and radio presenter Alan Saunders.
This year’s lecture, presented by Dr Serene J Khader, will be broadcast on RN’s Big Ideas on July 26.
July 15, 2018 07:30:45