Female empowerment and extreme poverty reduction: progressing on one without the other?

Author:Scott, Lucy

Women are increasingly seen as an important part of the international development agenda. Empowering women and promoting gender equality are enshrined as global development objectives with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed in 2000. Despite empowering women widely being viewed as a 'good thing', the questions of how development interventions can contribute to making progress along the long and winding road of female empowerment, and so enable women to make more choices about their own lives, is a contentious and debated area.

The road to empowerment: practical versus strategic needs

On the one hand, for some, poverty and disempowerment go hand-in-hand. As income poverty goes down, so do women become more empowered. Development interventions which focus on 'practical gender needs', including women's income and material assets, will therefore lead both to reduced poverty and to increased female empowerment. Microcredit and women's savings groups are examples of interventions which, through a focus on practical gender needs, aim both to reduce income poverty and contribute to women's empowerment.

Critics of this view, on the other hand, argue that such an approach fails to address the root causes of disempowerment, notably women's unequal position in society relative to men. It burdens women with additional responsibilities; they are already responsible for running the household, and this increasingly has to be combined with income generating activities. Rather than development working for women, women are working for development.

Instead, it is advocated that development agencies focus on 'strategic gender needs', including removing institutional discrimination and claiming rights from the state. These are normally achieved through collective action and bottom-up struggles. Development activities facilitate the achievement of strategic gender needs through uniting women, raising their awareness, and encouraging their mobilization so they receive what they are entitled to and begin to overturn the unequal structures within society.

This article examines the processes resulting from the implementation of a programme which is primarily based on the achievement of women's practical needs, but aims to combine this with a strategic component by raising women's awareness and group-based livelihoods training.

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