Does Your Organization Actually Empower Women?
Index tracks women’s involvement in agriculture to improve programming and impact
Faruque Ahmed, executive director of BRAC International, recently wrote for NextBillion about the need for women entrepreneurs to bolster economic recovery in post-Ebola West Africa. One of the most effective ways to counter the repercussions of Ebola and specifically address food scarcity and the destruction of agricultural value chains, he wrote, is to empower female farmers. Here, Tarini Mohan and Emily Coppel of BRAC write about a new scientific method has the potential to change the way NGOs develop empowerment programs for female farmers and dramatically improve outcomes in West Africa and beyond.
“Data not only measures progress, it inspires it. What gets measured gets done. Once you start measuring problems, people are more inclined to take action to fix them because nobody wants to end up at the bottom of a list of rankings.”
– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 2012
Women’s empowerment programs have surfaced as a key component of the international development agenda. Although many organizations working in international development make grandiose claims of their programs’ ability to empower women, with few tools available to actually measure empowerment, it is hard to tell if these claims are based on fact or whether they are an organizational appeal to funders.
Until recently, no major development agency had devised a mainstream method to track and measure changes in the level of women’s empowerment in any field, but particularly in agriculture, where it has significant potential to improve food security on a global scale.
Why in agriculture, specifically?
No fewer than 27 different studies have found that male farmers achieve higher yields than female farmers. The yield gap is as high as 25 percent. This is not because women are poor farmers. It is entirely explained by the severe constraints women face in accessing productive resources, such as land, seeds, fertilizer, pest control measures, extension advice and mechanical tools.
Empowering female farmers and enabling equal access to inputs could not only increase yields on their farms by 20-30 percent, but also put more resources in women’s hands, which would strengthen their voice within the household. Empowering women in agriculture is a “proven strategy for enhancing food security, nutrition, education and health of children,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. “And better-fed, healthier children learn better and become more productive citizens. The benefits would span generations and pay large dividends in the future.”
Does a solution exist?
In March 2012, USAID, along with the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, developed the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) to track women’s involvement in agriculture. It monitors five domains of empowerment: decisions about agricultural production; access to and decision-making power about productive resources; control of income; leadership in the community; and women’s control of their time. A woman or man is considered empowered if (s)he has “adequate achievements” in four out of the five domains, or is empowered in some combination of weighted indicators that makes up 80 percent of the total adequacy score.
Practitioners can also look at the segment of women not empowered and identify in which of the five domains the problem lies. This helps practitioners to improve program design in a targeted way to better reach clients. Apart from the five domains, the WEAI also includes the Gender Parity Index, which compares the level of women’s empowerment to the level of men’s empowerment.
The most compelling feature of the WEAI is its international comparability. Women’s empowerment is by essence context-dependent; for example, how empowered a woman feels in society is largely driven by the socioeconomic, cultural and political features of that particular society. To address this, the WEAI was constructed after a review of hundreds of women’s empowerment indicators in more than 30 studies across several countries in subjects ranging from economics to psychology. The primary purpose of these indicators was international comparability and to construct an index that comes as close to universal applicability as possible.
What does empowerment mean?
The most accepted definition of empowerment – one that was developed by Naila Kabeer, professor of gender and development at London School of Economics and Political Science, is the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them. Thus, empowerment arises from some state of disempowerment.
Currently, the majority of international development organizations use proxies to measure empowerment – such as a woman’s education level or employment status – rather than measuring empowerment itself. For example, claiming that a woman is empowered if she already has access to credit would not be correct for two reasons. First, the woman’s access to credit represents a static state, rather than a dynamic one, if the time period being studied is one in which she always had that access. Secondly, resources like access to credit can be thought of as “enabling factors,” or important inputs to foster a good environment for empowerment to take place, not as measures of empowerment itself.
BRAC, the world’s largest development organization, operates programs in agriculture aimed at empowering women and the poor by helping them to build secure livelihoods for themselves. Through our sustainable agriculture programs, millions of women have gained access to markets, resources and financial services. These women, by existing measures, have been empowered, but using a formal index like the WEAI would help BRAC and similar organizations improve their programming and impact.
BRAC fosters an enabling environment to achieve women’s empowerment. It does this by operating programs primarily in rural areas, to combat food insecurity, financial constraints, inadequate healthcare, education and vocational training of a large pool of youth, as well as by focusing programming on and targeting primarily women. Being a part of the rural community, BRAC tried to identify the real needs of the communities and what would allow them to flourish; it identified food insecurity and unemployment as the most pressing needs. BRAC is aiming for a multiplier effect by running a last-mile delivery system through female community agriculture promoters and agriculture input distribution.
BRAC helps secure female farmers’ livelihoods, thereby elevating women’s importance in the household through trainings, providing access to information on crop production, credit services through BRAC’s microfinance program, and encouraging use of high-quality inputs (disease-resistant seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) at an affordable cost.
BRAC, to date, has measured enabling factors to gauge women’s empowerment levels. Its results have been positive, showing that women who participate in its programs have greater control over their income from farming and increased access to financial services. However, BRAC and many other development and agriculture NGOs would benefit by adopting a more systematic way to measure women’s empowerment using tools like the WEAI. It would not only be a more accurate measure of empowerment, it would also help to improve program design and outcomes.
BRAC is giving serious thought to adopting the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.
To adopt or not to adopt?
To some extent, women’s empowerment will always be an empirical question, but adoption of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index is a step in the right direction, as it maps out the sphere in which corrective action needs to be taken.
Adopting this index is not as simple as this article may make it sound. It is quite a time burden on staff, and may distract from the overall initiative. However, once use of the index becomes routine, it could become the very basis for the agriculture program of various organizations.
Photos courtesy of BRAC.