Women empowerment in nutrition: Ideas of empowerment

It has been close to two decades since the term women’s empowerment elbowed out other relatives, such as ‘women’s status’ and ‘gender equality’ and came to occupy pride of place in policy documents in international development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have given way to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the goal of empowering all women and girls remains central in the SDGs. In fact, the definition of the goal has evolved to encompass a wider set of dimensions such as freedom from domestic violence, reproductive health, and unpaid work. Yet a rich body of work has debated the very idea of empowerment of women. Many observers point out that it has remained difficult to define and even harder and perhaps futile to measure. Naila Kabeer defines a widely accepted understanding of empowerment, as the “… expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them.” She argues that changes in the ability to exercise choice involve changes in three inter-related dimensions, which make up choice: resources (the conditions under which the choices are made), agency (which is at the heart of the process by which choices are made), and achievements (the outcomes of choices). 

How rural women perceive the idea of empowerment

If indeed empowerment is a process by which women gain agency and self-determination, how do women in resource-constrained rural settings perceive the idea of empowerment? What characteristics do they associate with women they consider to be empowered, and what factors do they regard as contributing to their own sense of feeling empowered? We conducted an extensive exercise with community researchers and respondents in collaboration with civil society organisations in a multi-site study in Odisha (Ganjam, Khandhmal, Raygada, Nayagarh) and Bihar (Araria) in India to explore this issue, among many others. 


Photo credit: Krushna Ranware

Once we overcame the initial hurdle of finding appropriate words in the local languages − Bangla, Hindi, Oriya, Teti and Kui − to convey the definition of empowerment, we were surprised by the simple characterisations of empowerment offered by women in these communities.  A strong recurring description of someone who is empowered is of being able to venture out for meetings or work outside, of being able to speak up in public and to “solve problems” either by articulating these or by making demands. One woman in Ganjam, Odisha said being empowered is to be able to “stand in front” during protests or rallies and “speak loudly”. The idea of leadership and influence dominates these conceptions – the combination of having knowledge and teaching other women what they themselves might have learnt at training programmes. To have courage and atma-biswas (self-confidence) find frequent mention as traits of the empowered. As a woman in Araria, Bihar said, “I am empowered because I go outside the home, draw out other people for work, and persuade them to step outside and learn new things along with me. I say that it will increase your knowledge and intelligence, and make your household prosper. I even went to Delhi for (to participate in a rally demanding) old-age pension.” One woman said “we should not judge who is or who is not empowered and focus on being knowledgeable oneself”, while another said that anyone can be empowered and it is not the preserve of anyone and hence attainable by all.

Interestingly many of these qualities were seen to be of instrumental value that would enable women to carry out various tasks, or “all household work”, “efficiently”. Included in this was the idea that women would then have the ability to multitask and manage everything and ensure that the household prospers, bringing up children properly and putting them through school.

External perspectives on empowerment

Many of the aspects articulated by the women, figure as important dimensions of most conceptualisations of empowerment. Yet, there are several other dimensions crucial to external perspectives on empowerment, that is, the understanding researchers have of empowerment in the wider academic literature, that do not come through in the perspectives within the community. These include freedom from domestic violence; decision-making around a range of issues including age at marriage, and fertility; control over and access, legal or otherwise, to productive resources; and structural conditions or social norms that reduce the burden of unpaid work on women. 

In other words, many women were able to articulate ideas of empowerment, even as their own context and lived experience might be deemed extremely disempowering. Why then did some women not see the larger set of social norms and conditions as disempowering? 

The gap in perceptions

We offer three plausible explanations for this. One explanation is that several community researchers had been involved in self-help groups (SHGs) and collective action as part of unions and non-governmental organisation (NGO) activities. Perhaps their own characterisation of empowerment therefore focussed on their salient experiences in recent years. An alternate explanation is that women see issues such as ability to make decisions within the household and control over resources within the household and perhaps even of public goods as fluid and dynamic that changes with their own position within the family. The same woman who might lack agency and is perhaps therefore disempowered as a daughter-in-law appears to become more empowered as a mother-in-law. This was a recurring theme in several interviews that daughters-in-law had far less access to resources and say in most matters than did mothers-in-law. In some ways, therefore, perhaps women accepted these as part of norms that were not important to change. 

Or most likely it could be that the larger rubric of structural conditions and norms that are disempowering are yet to be challenged in substantive ways, and/or perhaps they choose strategically not to do so and pick their battles. For several women, it seems that even with control over resources and significant say in the process of resource allocation, their lived experience still undermines them.  For example, even if they decided what to buy, cook, and serve, they often went to bed hungry. “If we talk and argue more, there would be more disagreement…so why spoil our mood…that is why we don’t argue much”, said one community researcher.
 
It seemed that SHGs and other collectives increased the awareness of women members of their own rights, and the women drew strength from the fact that they were not alone in demanding their rights when in a group. Even if outcomes do not improve for the women, the risk of penalties or punitive backlash is less when women participate in the public sphere in activities that raise issues on behalf of the communities. Some of the elements of the State, in terms of laws and programmes, support these women in their struggle. In contrast, the fact that the women rarely acknowledge, leave alone articulate, insults to empowerment in the domestic or private sphere suggests that it is perhaps more difficult to challenge power dynamics or norms and roles within own household. It may even be the case that men find their wives’ social or political activities as part of an NGO or civil society organisation more palatable and less threatening than if they were to claim resources and rights in their own family. As one researcher in Araria, Bihar put it, when she first started attending training on worker rights, “People especially the men said: Why are you attending the training, you are not even literate, this is not your job…” and added “Nitish Kumar (the Chief Minister of the state) has gone mad, he has given women a lot of voice and freedom.” Some women claimed that people have now come to accept this and that their spouses and children are now proud of their work. 

The process of empowerment has begun for many

For sure, the increasing ability of women to participate in meetings, to speak up, and solve their own problems might be the thin edge of the wedge. Indications are that women are aware that the larger issues remain. For instance, many women speak openly of wage inequalities: “Do men work with two hands and women work with one hand that the women are paid less?” They recognise the challenges of being a woman-headed household: “A widow with small kids has to face troubles until the kids grow up.” When and how this process of empowerment in the public sphere permeates their private sphere and culminates in empowerment within the household deserves attention. While much work lies ahead in understanding and aiding empowerment of rural women in India, there is no denying that the process – and it is a process – has begun for many. 

Contributed by Sudha Narayanan, Indira Ghandi Institute. Sudha and her colleagues have been awarded an IMMANA Grant for the project The Women’s Empowerment in Nutrition Index (WENI): Measuring nutritional empowerment to better link agriculture to nutrition. 
Find Sudha on Twitter and on th ANH Academy portal

This blog is first in a series of five. The text first appeared in Ideas for India

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