Is it really working for women’s empowerment?
As a woman development practitioner, what is encouraging to me is that gender is being discussed as a main agenda of the Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. It is also encouraging to see that the Government of Bangladesh has prioritised gender issues in the 7th five-year plan (FY 2016-2020) where it mentions that women’s advancement will be ensured as self-reliant human beings.
But how effective are the numerous projects launched to address this challenge?
Now, we see Gender Mainstreaming, Gender Justice, Women’s Empowerment, Women’s Rights, Inclusion of Women etc as ‘development terms’ that are used daily by development practitioners.
Short-term projects can only address various parts of this large agenda and can only contribute towards the overall goal of achieving gender equality in the long run. However, these terms are often simplified. Empowerment at times end up meaning only ‘economic gain’ and not overall empowerment.
To me, empowerment is a strong term and should not be used lightly. It does not happen only through economic advancement but also through personal accomplishments and social acceptance. A common practice in NGOs is adding the assumption that economic empowerment will take place if the income increases. However, are these women really empowered economically if their income increases? Is she taking part in family decisions on savings? How many have to hide these incomes from their husbands?
Similarly, gender equality mainstreaming may only mean sex segregated data – the number of men and women reached through an activity and not really looking at the critical qualitative aspects of their lives. Mainstreaming for many projects may only mean increasing female beneficiaries in numbers and not really looking at critical issues, such as better access to resources, rights at home or workplaces, work-life balance and last but not least, their contribution to care economy.
Thus, when projects are designed with a gender lens in mind, are we really looking at the challenges of access to services for men and women separately? Because the challenges are different. How many projects are designed in a way that look at gender mainstreaming as a process to bring about the long term ‘mindset’ change that will empower women as a solution? Is this even a project’s job?
Moreover, who is responsible for bringing about the structural and institutional changes that will create an environment of equal opportunities? Projects need to critically analyse while measuring empowerment and not only report to benefit their own funding.
Changing not just jobs, but also mindsets
As I work in the skills development sector, I can only share the challenges of mainstreaming gender in this sector. While large projects are targetting poor youth to be trained for jobs that will contribute to the economy; how many of these projects are working to change mindsets? How many are talking to markets so that women are not threatened in public spaces? How many are raising awareness so that working women are not viewed as ‘bad influences’?
This lack of initiatives in changing mindsets mean NGOs that largely work as service delivery agents rather than advocacy and awareness building agents, often face challenges while placing these women into jobs, and in fulfilling their target of women beneficiaries. Many women mention that their families will not allow them to learn different trades other than tailoring or beautician occupations as these are ‘safe’ for women.
Any woman in this country, especially in rural settings, has a lower chance of being hired at a marketplace if she is trained as an electrician. This is simply because the market is not ready to have a female electrician. The question arises, is a female electrician in demand? No, then do we need to ‘push’ women to be electricians? Or may we dare ask, what if a girl wants to be an electrician?
Even if she is allowed to learn the trade and work, whether she will be accepted in the market in the long run remains a question. But how many women will then be trained as tailors if new occupations do not accept women workers?
Then who is supposed to work on these ‘enabling environment’ issues where women do not feel threatened to walk to a market? Who will make the structural and institutional changes where business owners are sensitised enough to hire women? Who will sensitise male family members so that women have equal access to the labour market? Lastly, who will share their care giving work when they are at work?
As long as society as a whole does not feel that women need equal access to resources like men; we will have sporadic successes, not a mainstreamed one.
The government can play the role of ‘enabler’ and work with the donor community to scope sectors to assess the demand for workers and incentivise industries to hire women. They may also work with NGOs to train women in technical occupations which are in demand and then incentivize the private sector to hire a percentage of women in their industry.
Also, mass awareness campaigns are necessary to change mindsetsso that women are accepted in mainstream labour markets and not only precarious, low paid jobs. Only then, women’s empowerment will come out as an outcome.
The author is a development practitioner for the last 10 years in Bangladesh and in Nepal. The contents in this article are only her opinion and not the opinion of her employer. She can be reached at [email protected]