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Improving family income does not ensure women’s economic empowerment

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Increasing family income does not necessarily increase women’s empowerment. A multi-sector multi-pronged approach is necessary. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic and social rightsEspañol

Greta Friedemann-Sánchez
21 July 2015

In a recent contribution to openGlobalRights, Barb MacLaren argues for advancing women’s economic and social rights, focusing her point specifically on employment and household income. She depicts education and health as ancillary to supporting income and employment, but not as a right in themselves or for the improvement of women’s capabilities. Unfortunately, her arguments overlook 30 years of research on gender inequality and the power dynamics inside households. She also replicates some of the shortcomings of the earlier WID (Women in Development) movement that ignored the interconnections between employment, income generation via agriculture, land ownership, the care of persons done on an unpaid basis by women, violence against women and the role of gendered social norms. MacLaren also reproduces the common neglect of unpaid care in programming design in development agencies, and the lack of gender mainstreaming in development approaches and debates. Lastly, although she mentions Colombia’s legislation addressing violence against women and on women’s human rights, she skips over it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, experts pretended that their development policies were gender neutral. They perceived women as reproducers, consumers and passive recipients of policy programs, but they saw men as productive workers and therefore agents of change. The 1970s Women in Development (WID) movement sought to change that by highlighting women’s active participation in the economy, especially their role in agricultural production. They tried to change how the development community engaged with women and to make them see women as productive agents in the monetised economy. However, the movement paid little attention to the role women played in unpaid productive roles—what would today be called unpaid labour and the care economy. WID also glossed over how women’s lack of access to economic resources, justice, education and health, along with the violence they suffered, allowed gender inequalities to persist.

Income and employment are but a few of the factors at play in women’s human development and wellbeing. Out of this realisation emerged the Gender and Development (GAD) movement in the mid-1980s. GAD studies the economic, social and political structures that create gender inequality. It questions not only the asymmetry in power, but also in decision-making between men and women. GAD highlights how social norms on male and female roles influence the distribution of paid and unpaid labour, caring labour, income, assets, political participation, natural resource allocation and violence. In short, while WID assumed that the economic advancement of women would improve their status, GAD understands that income and employment are but a few of the factors at play in women’s human development and wellbeing. The factors at play have also come to be seen as women’s human rights.  

McLaren argues that women’s participation in the rural wage market is held back by the small holder family farm; therefore, supporting women’s economic empowerment can only be done by supporting family incomes in the aggregate. This assumes that families behave as cohesive units and that benefits are shared equally among family members. But women’s poverty and inequality relative to men’s is not only generated through the capitalist economy, but also through the dynamics and logistics of family life and patriarchy. The difference in power between men and women in a family affect each person’s choices and behaviour differently. As a consequence, resources and opportunities are unevenly distributed among family members.

To argue that women’s economic empowerment will come by improving total family income disregards not only decades of evidence to the contrary, but the gendered social norms reflected even in small coffee production, household decision-making and the division of paid and unpaid labour, and care activities between women and men, girls and boys. A few answers are in order. What percentage of women work without pay in family farms? Do women control a portion of the income once the coffee is sold? How do landless female day-labourers coordinate paid labour with care and domestic activities?

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Flickr/Juan Alvarez (Some rights reserved)

A rural Colombian women teaches her son to read. The perceived feminine responsibilities of child-rearing, housekeeping, and providing seasonal agricultural labor are important considerations when discussing women's economic empowerment.


More importantly, development programmes should not aim to increase the income of rural Colombian women so that they can pay for day care, as MacLaren suggests, since this would further reinforce the patriarchal assignment of care only to women. Instead, it should strive to find ways to involve men in care, to distribute care more evenly among men and women, and to make care visible and valued by men and boys, the community and the nation. All of this should be utilized to bolster local, national and instrumental and financial support for care. Agriculture extension personnel and planners need to realise that women miss trainings not because they merge their welfare with that of their children, as McLaren argues, but because rigid gendered social norms designate the care of children, housework and meal preparation to women and girls and they simply have no one else to take care of the tasks. Women are as poor of time as they are of money, and poorer on both fronts than men.

As important as income and employment are for wellbeing and capabilities, even in the best of cases, Colombian women are up against a patriarchal culture changing at glacial pace. Global capitalism, however, is moving at light speed. An emerging paradox for Colombia and other Latin American countries is women’s increased risk of being battered by their partners when employed and earning income. It appears that men use violence—physical, psychological and financial—to affirm masculine authority, and when they feel their role and identity as breadwinners is threatened.

Colombia’s 2012 National Policy on Gender Equity, and the 2008 legislation addressing all forms of violence against women, mentioned in the article but not discussed, are remarkable in their multidisciplinary, multi-sector approach toward addressing gender inequality. Women’s rights are raison d’etre of the policy and legislation, not “growth” and “efficiency”. They are also remarkable in recognising that violence against women inside and outside of the home is structural and affects where, how much, and how far women work for pay, if at all. Considering that the life-time prevalence of physical abuse by an intimate partner in Colombia is 40% (22% for the past 12 months), Colombia’s laws, while insufficient, are a necessary first step and are important to improve the status of women in Colombia.

Local, national and international programs that take a multi-pronged approach—positioning employment, health, education, care and violence on the same plain, and as equally necessary and interrelated—are indispensable if we want to empower women. Policies that address care and violence cannot be satellite to employment policies, and women’s needs cannot be subsumed under those of their families.

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