Politics of Poverty

“First, do no harm” in supporting women’s economic empowerment

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The owner of, Típica Sinaí which produces and sells locally woven and embroidered pieces, is a loan recipient through WISE in Guatemala. Short for Women in Small Enterprise, WISE aims to tackle some of the barriers that typically hold women business owners back. It offers intensive financial training, one-on-one business coaching, the opportunity to network with other women entrepreneurs, and access to loans big enough to help women grow their businesses significantly. Backed by a guarantee fund established by Oxfam America and offered through a commercial bank, the loans range from $3,000 to $50,000—the kind of cash women rarely can raise on their own. Photo: Ilene Perlman / Oxfam America

What’s the impact of women’s economic empowerment programming on women’s risk of domestic violence?

Mara Bolis is a Senior Advisor on Market Systems at Oxfam America.

Let’s agree on one thing: development challenges take place in complex systems that are hard to make sense of.  That said, I have become frustrated with the development community’s tendency to separate issues into neat little boxes in order to make our lives easier.  Take, for example, the pursuit of greater gender justice, which we – the development community – conveniently organize into separate programs on the prevention of gender based violence, enhanced political activism and economic empowerment. In reality, a woman does not weigh her decision to pursue economic opportunities or political activism without first considering the risk of backlash; and this is particularly true for women living in countries, like Guatemala, where domestic violence is still largely dismissed as a private matter.

According to María Machicado Terán, the representative of UN Women in Guatemala, “80 percent of men believe that women need permission to leave the house, and 70 percent of women surveyed agreed. ”  We see clear evidence of this in the Women in Small Enterprise Initiative, a holistic women’s economic empowerment (WEE) initiative underway in Guatemala.   When we ask if their husbands support their ambitions, WISE participants often answer, “Yes.  He gave me permission to attend the WISE training.”  In a country where according to the UN two women are murdered every day, it’s not hard to imagine what could happen to the woman who takes the risk of attending  a training like WISE without her husband’s “permission.”

Are development practitioners sufficiently well versed in these linkages?  What risks do we introduce into a woman’s life when we offer her an opportunity to participate in an initiative that expands her economic independence?

Economic empowerment initiatives, at their core, seek to expand the influence of women in their public and private lives.  In my view, many in the development community make an assumption that if a woman has more power somehow, almost magically, her risk of being subject to domestic violence decreases.  But, if power is a zero sum game, expanding a woman’s household bargaining power, means reducing that of her husband or partner.  And no one gives up power without a fight.

In our recent article “Women’s Economic Inequality and Domestic Violence: Exploring the Links and Empowering Women”, my co-authors and I looked specifically at this question of the impact of women’s economic empowerment programming on women’s risk of domestic violence.  What we found was that – unsurprisingly – it’s complicated.

For example: more economically empowered women may be less vulnerable to abuse on account of their enhanced financial contributions to their households[1], while on the other hand, WEE programs ‘could unintentionally increase their chances of being somehow abused by their partners’[2], especially if women’s increased earning power results in ‘atypical roles within the household such as the woman being the main income earners’[3].

Based on what we have found, initiatives that integrate prevention of gender-based violence interventions into their WEE programming are few and far between.  There are clear barriers around better integration, including: (1) recognizing that the problem exists, (2) incentivizing cross-disciplinary collaboration and (3) resourcing interventions.  All of which we delve deeply  into in the paper.  However, the point I really want to make is this — “awareness of the potential links between WEE processes and domestic violence risks puts development practitioners in a position of ethical responsibility to minimize the unintended negative consequences and maximize the positive potential implications[4].”

This means that along with economic empowerment opportunities, women should also receive information about how to manage potential negative dynamics that can arise in their personal lives and, insofar as we might be contributing to those outcomes, it’s up to us to make sure that they get that information.  Through WISE, we have developed a working relationship with Oxfam’s Prevention of Gender Based Violence team that has allowed us to leverage their relationships with domestic violence prevention organizations, such as the Centro de Investigación, Capacitación y Apoyo a la Mujer (CICAM), to provide training on prevention of gender justice violence for women within the context of the WISE business training activities.  Negative household dynamics hold women back from making the most of their business training; in a striking example of this linkage, one woman in the current WISE training cohort reported that her husband responded violently to her proposal of how she was planned to expand her business with support from the WISE initiative.  The first module on violence prevention has already taken place and a second will occur later this month.

Furthermore, economic empowerment programs must include male partners of female participants in order to generate “buy in” for their participation as well as reduce the potential for backlash down the line.  In WISE, we will soon be introducing facilitated conversations between WISE participants and their husbands to ensure that partners don’t see the initiative as a threat, but rather its value for the family as a whole.

Freedom from violence is a necessary condition to allow a woman to pursue her dreams.  A woman who is being beaten, or who worries that there’s a chance she could be beaten in the future, will be ruled by this one central fact and organize all of her decision-making around her safety and survival.  If our programs aren’t set up with this in mind, we risk the possibility of making the problem worse – not better.

[1] Vyas and Watts 2009

[2] García Aísa 2014, 10

[3] Hidrobo and Fernald 2013, 305

[4] Hughes, Bolis, Fries, Finigan, 2015

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