Making Development Work for Women For a Change!

8 March 2012

From all the talk about women’s empowerment, you might be under the impression that development agencies are – at long last – about to pay more attention to addressing the deep-rooted inequities that give so many of us around the world cause to march on International Women’s Day to demand equal rights, equal pay and an end to violence and discrimination.

Woman watching television, Nicaragua
Photo: Panos / Tim Dirven

But development’s women’s empowerment agenda is more interested in what women can do for development, than what development can do for women.

What’s missing from mainstream development’s women’s empowerment agenda is a focus on women’s own desires and needs. We hear about the benefits to development of women’s work, and of having more women in public office. Social policies target women because they are assumed to care more for their children, and have more to offer their communities than men. But few development agencies seem to be concerned about improving women’s quality of life.

It’s time to change this, concluded a high-powered conversation held last week at the Commission on the Status of Women between UN officials, delegates from member states, researchers and activists. The meeting ‘Making Change happen through Women’s Collective Action’ was co-organised by Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Programme Consortium (Pathways), an international research and communications programme established in 2006, and UN Women. Summing up, Anne Marie Goetz, UN Women’s Chief Advisor for Peace and Security, commended the ‘empowered research design’ of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme, praising it as ‘an extraordinary model for collaboration on women’s rights and empowerment’. Noting that Pathways had highlighted dimensions of women’s empowerment that have been disregarded by development agencies in the past, she highlighted the need to open up space to talk about some of these neglected issues – such as women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure. Goetz called for a new approach to measuring empowerment: ‘leisure and pleasure as measures of women’s empowerment is something that UN Women needs to take very seriously’.

Pathways research reveals that for women a major indicator of empowerment is ownership of a television – not just as a window into other worlds, providing them with inspiration and insight and expanding the horizons of the possibilities they might see and seek for themselves, but also as a valued source of pleasure and leisure. Pleasure is missing from development discourse, but is a focus for Pathways researchers working on sexuality, who highlight the positive benefits of a focus on the pleasurable aspects of sexuality for sexuality education and women’s empowerment.

On International Women’s Day, Pathways’ Director Andrea Cornwall calls for a pleasure-based approach to development - one that reverses the instrumentalism of development approaches to pay far more attention to enabling women the world over to have a happier, more enjoyable, more pleasurable existence.

How are we going to make this happen? Pathways research suggests that women’s organisations play a vital part in making change happen for women. Women’s movements have been fundamental to the changes that have improved women’s lives. Organizing as women has made a big difference to informal sector workers, whose struggles for rights and recognition are the subject of a Pathways research project co-ordinated by former IDS Fellow Naila Kabeer. Women’s  organisations are crucial for constituency building and for mobilising women’s political participation, as Pathways’ work on politics shows . Women’s reproductive and sexual rights have been won through struggles that continue the world over with those who would deny women a voice and a choice over what they do with their own bodies.

But women’s organising does not seem to be valued as much by development agencies as it is by women themselves. A study co-ordinated by IDS Fellow Rosalind Eyben and Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay from KIT (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen – Royal Tropical Institute Netherlands) with Pathways partners in Bangladesh and Ghana shows, women’s organisations are being starved of resources by donors. Rather than wondering why development agencies are ignoring the evidence of what works and ploughing so much money into the instrumentalist initiatives of banks and corporates, it might be time to seize back the agenda for ourselves.

In our discussions at the Commission on the Status of Women, a Ugandan commentator pointed out that dependency on donors was part of the problem for those in the global south seeking to address gender justice. Donor fickleness can leave those civil society organisations used to receiving support from outside high and dry when the donor’s agenda shifts. ‘We have to fund our own revolution’, she said. We need to take back the initiative and to become part of the change we want to see.

Andrea Cornwall is Director of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Consoritum.

Photo: Panos / Tim Dirven.