Reaching New Heights: The Case for Measuring Women's Empowerment

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reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment a poverty-fighting program in bangladesh helps children grow taller and underscores the need for more evidence in the movement to empower women and girls worldwide.


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what i remember most is her easy confidence here we were in remote northwest bangladesh in a village reachable only by bamboo rafts and ruled by cultural norms that force many women to remain cloistered in their homes but this little girl she couldn t have been much older than 12 looked me in the eye and with poise beyond her years explained that she was in charge of promoting education i teach other women and girls how to read and write she said with the kind of pride that comes from knowing you are making a difference my mother taught me and i feel it is my duty to teach others that paddling slogging journey through waterlogged villages near rangpur bangladesh came in 2006 shortly after i started as president and ceo of care it was one of those inspirational days that left me thinking that s it that girl and millions of others like her can change the world yet on the way back home a nagging question challenged the epidemiologist in me was the girl i had just met the exception or was there empirical proof that this ambitious and innovative program a $126 million effort called shouhardo that mixed women s empowerment with health education and other interventions was having the desired impact i couldn t say definitely that the women and girls were more empowered and if so that their families and their communities were better off as a result but now i can nearly 6 years later we have the evidence to prove it what none of us knew at the time was that we were witnessing the beginnings of one of the most successful efforts the world has seen at reducing child malnutrition and as you ll read in this paper that girl those women and the hundreds of thousands of others like them in the shouhardo project were the biggest reasons why on international women s day 2012 we celebrate this progress the astounding results in bangladesh published recently by the institute of development studies are a testament to the effectiveness of smart foreign aid and underscore why care believes greater gender equality is the key to fighting poverty hunger and injustice around the world the results also shine a light on the need for more evidence in the growing movement to empower women and girls worldwide care is no exception we ve realized that we simply have to do more in this area and we encourage others to join us after all how can you celebrate wins or more importantly replicate them if no one is keeping score i realize that measuring women s empowerment is easier said than done it s complex and expensive but we owe it to that little girl in bangladesh our collective confidence will grow with each piece of evidence and one day perhaps even match hers helene d gayle md mph president and ceo care march 8 2012


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measuring women s empowerment economists and nutrition experts from around the world were shocked at the numbers coming out of bangladesh they had never seen anything like the results of a program designed to fight malnutrition and improve the lives of more than 2 million of the country s poorest people stunting a measure of the shortfall in a child s growth due to malnutrition had plummeted at nearly twice the rate of the typical food security program funded by the u.s agency for international development usaid compounding the surprise these children were growing taller in the poorest parts of bangladesh where child malnutrition rates are among the world s highest and have remained stubbornly static over the past decade shouhardo staff record a boy s height in 2007 what caused such a dramatic drop in child stunting they wondered and how could malnutrition have fallen so much during a period when a crop-crushing cyclone and global grain shortages had caused food prices in bangladesh to soar i was concerned that something was wrong with the data said lisa smith a senior economist at a consulting firm called technical assistance for non-governmental organizations tango international the magnitude of the drop off was just so big in less than 4 years the stunting rate among children 6 to 24 months old in the target population had fallen from 56.1 percent to 40.4 percent that s an annual stunting reduction of 4.5 percentage points dwarfing the 0.1 percentage point decline in bangladesh as a whole and easily besting the 2.4 percentage point annual decline seen in the average usaid food security program.1 2 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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after a careful check of the data smith whose firm had been charged with evaluating the project for usaid called a colleague and without revealing what she had found asked him to crunch the numbers he got the same thing i did smith said i thought `ok wow we need to look into how this is happening certainly part of the explanation was in the comprehensive nature of shouhardo a $126 million usaid program implemented by the poverty-fighting group care in partnership with the government of bangladesh the wide array of interventions under shouhardo which stands for strengthening household ability to respond to development opportunities and means friendship in bangla included maternal and child health and nutrition sanitation homestead food production income generation village savings and loans groups institutional strengthening and climate change adaptation but because detailed data were collected as part of shouhardo the program s evaluators were able to determine that another force had actually produced the greatest independent impact the game-changer women s empowerment the empowerment strategies ranged from promotion of female entrepreneurship to self-help groups where women and girls could take on taboo subjects such as early marriage dowry and violence against women once reluctant to leave their homes because of harassment in the streets the women and girls of shouhardo started travelling to markets to buy and sell goods the data showed they began challenging men who harassed women and girls in the streets and they played a larger role in traditional village courts driving decisions like never before researchers found annual decrease in the prevalence of stunting among children the shouhardo project resulted in unusually large reductions in stunting a measure of malnutrition in children between february 2006 and november 2009 shouhardo s annual stunting reduction of 4.5 percentage points dwarfed the national average during that period 0.1 percentage points and was nearly double the average usaid project of its kind 2.4 percentage points 0.1 ppts 2.4 ppts 4.5 ppts national average 6-24 months old bangladesh usaid projects global average under 5 years old shouhardo 6-24 months old 2001-2010 3


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before the project you could not get women out of the house said faheem khan who managed shouhardo for care now i m struck by how many women and girls are talking to each other and to me outside their homes these villages have completely changed the voice that these women have now well it s astounding average incomes more than doubled as many of the women began pooling their money forming village savings and loan associations vslas and converting their collective funds into loans for group members to start small businesses with their increased financial contributions more women began participating in household purchasing decisions the researchers surveys revealed at the beginning of the project less than a quarter of women had a say in decisions about buying or selling household assets such as land livestock and crops by the end nearly half of the women did there also was a 46 percent increase in the portion of women who participated in decisions about the use of loans and savings.2 their priorities which often included nutritious foods and school supplies for their children were no longer being brushed aside the ripple effects from these changes upon closer inspection look more like tidal waves the data show that shouhardo s women s empowerment component was the single biggest contributor to the reduction in stunting when compared to the project s other interventions even those that include the direct provision of food to mothers what we saw was a clear pattern said tango international s smith lead author of a paper about the project published in october 2011 by the institute of development studies.3 women who participated in the empowerment interventions were getting better antenatal care eating more nutritious food and getting more rest during pregnancy they and their children also had better diets in terms of the variety of foods this idea that women s empowerment can have a transformative effect on families and communities is not new every day the people who work on the front lines of the fight against poverty see what happens when you remove economic political and social barriers that women and girls face what shouhardo did was take a concept that is too often expressed in abstract or anecdotal terms and measured it scientifically the evidence was in thousands of children who grew healthier and taller this was women s empowerment you could measure with a yardstick 4 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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the ngo word what does empowerment mean anyway generally speaking women s empowerment is any effort that helps women and girls navigate and influence their worlds in this way empowerment is both a means and an end we want a woman to be empowered because it is her fundamental right as a human being that secondary benefits often flow to them their families and their communities is really a bonus but what exactly does empowerment mean and how do we know when it is happening before we can measure specific types of empowerment we first have to define it in specific terms and that s difficult for a complex concept that varies across cultures and communities some cultures have no equivalent word in fact in parts of bangladesh people refer to it as the ngo word other cultures have a word but the meaning is almost opposite from what a westerner would expect for instance when asked what female empowerment looks like some women in ethiopia generally recognize it as obedience to a husband other states of empowerment might seem more recognizable anita rani a mother of two who struggled to feed her children before shouhardo is no longer confined to her home in northern bangladesh she has a job in a rugmaking factory greater respect from her husband and more leisure time the family recently bought their first tv and i she says hold the remote control care seeks to influence three key dimensions of empowerment individual the skills knowledge confidence and aspirations of women and hierarchies based on social class caste ethnicity and gender structural the societal structures where women live such as laws culture traditions faith relationships the relationships in a woman s life including those with spouses children siblings parents and neighbors as well as institutions and authorities such as governments and religions before learning rug-making skills as part of shouhardo anita rani never went outside her home without her husband today she freely visits friends goes to the pharmacy and shops at the market independently earlier my husband cared for me she says but now he cares more and he respects me care defines empowerment as the sum total of changes needed for a woman to realize her full human rights the combined effect of changes in her own aspirations and capabilities the environment that influences or dictates her choices and the interactions she engages in each day 5


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why measure women s empowerment when it comes to work women and girls often have fewer choices than men and boys giving them less opportunity to earn an income and participate fully in their communities their work including valuable housework and childcare often goes unpaid and their workload tends to be disproportionately larger than that of their male peers.4 women systematically earn lower wages and in poor and marginalized communities have fewer opportunities for formal education.5 an uneducated girl faces a tough road she is more likely to become a child bride lose her life or her baby during childbirth or suffer discrimination abuse and exploitation.6 sizing up these sobering realities is important but we should not put the measuring tape away as we work to reverse these trends how will we know what investments best protect a girl from hardship and benefit her entire community or what interventions help an educated woman earn a higher income make more informed familyplanning decisions be healthier and pass along her knowledge and values to her children saying women and girls are the best investment in the world has a louder ring of truth when you re holding the bottom-line analysis to prove it imagine how many more people will buy into this idea with their hearts their time and their support when we have the answers to these questions building that evidence base requires a sound foundation however including statistical information and survey results broken down by sex unfortunately this sex-disaggregated data is often hard to find that makes it more difficult to answer basic questions about education what are the causes of gender gaps in completion of primary and secondary schools entrepreneurship what factors improve the productivity of businesses owned by men vs those owned by women and access to land what policies can increase women s ownership of productive agricultural lands u.s secretary of state hillary clinton called on the world to fill that gaping hole in november 2011 at the fourth high level forum on aid effectiveness in busan south korea.7 there s an old saying `what gets measured gets noticed clinton said so that means we must collect data so we are constantly focused on how better to integrate women into our economies and using this evidence build gender-inclusive development policies that work during the forum clinton announced the evidence for data on gender equality initiative or edge which is led by the united nations and will attempt to harmonize gender data kept across nations and surveys so far the united states and south korea have pledged support for edge but filling this massive void in evidence and data will require many more of the world s donor governments to follow suit there s an old saying `what gets measured gets noticed hillary clinton 6 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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how many women who apply for small business loans actually get them what are those loans worth compared to loans granted to men clinton asked with reliable answers to questions such as these we can begin reforming credit policies asset ownership and inheritance laws that still disadvantage women when we measure these same indicators consistently over time then we will notice whether or not we are making progress those taking a tape measure to the complex forces that help achieve greater gender equality are asking important questions about girls too we know that girls who stay in school earn more money are healthier start families later and have healthier families than their peers who drop out but how do you keep them in the classroom making sure schools are nearby adequately staffed with teachers and supplied with books encourage families to enroll girls but girl-friendly learning environments are critical too researchers have found that means assuring safety from harassment and violence providing private toilet facilities with good sanitation promoting attitudes and behaviors of mutual respect among students and supporting mentors and teachers who challenge girls and boys equally community and home support also encourages girls to stay in school care s own research on leadership among young adolescent girls in eight countries underscores the importance of parents female mentors coaches and peers who provide support for staying in school and excelling.8 other interventions have produced quick gains a 2011 study tracking 2,064 secondary school-aged children in ghana revealed that enrollment for academically qualified girls shot up from 12 percent to 75 percent when they were offered scholarships.9 of course resources aren t always available to pay tuition so researchers in madagascar set out to document what happens when families are given formal explanations about the full economic and social benefits of educating their children including the difference in wages between those who do and those who don t finish primary school they found a 3.5 percentage point increase in enrollment making it a particularly cost-effective intervention.10 because the researchers were collecting sex-disaggregated data they could call it a win for boys and girls 7


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shouhardo together we can change our lives the boundaries of rina begum s independence were clearly defined she could go anywhere inside the four thatched walls of her home like millions of other poor bangladeshi women rina was not allowed to walk the streets of her village without a male escort few people in shahjahan located in northwest bangladesh ever got to experience the warmth of her smile the glow of her cherub face or the quiet intensity that burns in her eyes even inside her home rina was rarely in control she was prohibited from taking a leisurely stroll or even going to buy food at the market rina begum in january 2012 for many in bangladesh this isolation starts early in life under local interpretations of purdah a tradition that forbids a woman from making basic decisions on how to spend her own time parents restrict the movements of adolescent girls they fear will be subject to public sexual harassment they confine them to the house and marry them off as early as possible often before the age of 18 without being able to move freely these girls grow into bangladeshi women less likely to earn an income access health services or obtain an education many end up divorced or widowed and thus will find themselves among the poorest and most marginalized groups in bangladesh but 5 years ago rina and other women in shahjahan discovered they already had something that could break the cycle of seclusion each other through shouhardo she joined a so-called ekata group ekata stands for empowerment knowledge and transformative action and translates as unity these groups of 20 women and 10 teenage girls get together regularly analyzing their own circumstances and generating solutions to the problems they face girls learn from the women s life experience and the women commit to protect the girls from violence and abuse their slogan i am not alone together we can achieve something together we can change our lives the groups drew graphs and maps to outline their status and their power relations within their family and their village they discussed barriers holding them back such as the lack of decision-making power violence against women early marriage and the lack of education they received literacy and numeracy training and learned the basics of bangladeshi law many were surprised to learn it s actually illegal for girls to marry before 18 8 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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a poster hanging in the room where rina begum s ekata group meets describes key elements of an empowered woman the phrases translated roughly from bangla include able to speak anywhere with courage is a hard worker participates in the general election process and is accepted in society and the community


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but the groups didn t just learn they took action in some villages ekata members formed support networks to confront young men who sexually harassed women and girls in the streets.11 the result the cat-calling stopped and teenage girls began walking freely the women s groups also sought legal action when men beat their wives sending a strong signal in the community that the violence had to stop they were even able to reduce the number of child brides in their villages rina beams with pride over one of her group s greatest successes they blocked four child marriages by bringing them to the attention of police perhaps the most important changes were the ones that started taking hold inside of women such as rina she grew into a leader this room was not the only destination in my life she said motioning at corrugated metal walls covered with empowerment flowcharts inspirational diagrams and other blueprints for carving out a better life i had to explore beyond it today rina heads her ekata group she serves on three school management committees and is a member of the executive committee of the people s organization convention an annual meeting that brings together more than 400 community organizations she has travelled across bangladesh representing both women and men in their struggle against poverty but rina is more than a story she s a statistic in a good way the data tell us her experience of greater empowerment higher income and a family that eats three healthy meals a day is a story of thousands not one shouhardo which stands for strengthening household ability to respond to development opportunities reached more than 2 million people in three of the poorest parts of bangladesh the north and mid char the haor region and the coastal region rangpur · north and mid char chars are land masses that form along river banks and sandbars from sediment carried in the water they are inherently unstable and susceptible to erosion because of their very nature existing in floodplains · rajshahi mymensingh · sylhet · haor this low-lying land includes communities that live on elevated earthen mounds the areas are submerged in water for half the year and the extreme climate is a challenge to the women and men who live there during the dry season residents can farm however during monsoon season they retreat to small mounds of land that sit above temporary inland oceans tungi · dhaka · · narayanganj comilla · · jessore · khulna mongla · barisat · · chittagong cox s bazar· coastal this region experiences regular storms cyclones and tidal waves infertile soil further limits agriculture though fertile areas exist they are owned by wealthy individuals productive land is only available to impoverished people through the practice of sharecropping where farm labor is paid with a share of the crop yield 10 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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documenting women s empowerment rina was among the more than 2 million women men boys and girls who participated in shouhardo which from october 2004 to may 2010 identified the poorest families in three regions of bangladesh the upper and mid char the haor and the coast see map on page 10 many of these families have no land titles they live on land masses that form along river banks on temporary islands called chars that can submerge during flooding or on man-made islands in the tectonically depressed hoar areas that are waterlogged for several months of the year and can be even more difficult to reach in the dry season due to lack of roads and communication systems the coastal belt comes with its own set of challenges as communities here face the ever-present danger of cyclones that hit with devastating force many a fishing or farming family has seen their livelihood washed away with one tidal wave one cyclone or one bad rainy season shouhardo used what is called a rights-based livelihoods approach to reducing malnutrition that means instead of solely handing out food and livestock or explaining how to better grow agricultural produce shouhardo drilled deeper to strike at the roots of poverty in 2,342 villages and urban slums interventions reflected a comprehensive understanding of how households in bangladesh survive with limited income livelihoods approach they also address the notion that families no matter how poor or discriminated against need their rights protected in order to navigate their way out of poverty rights-based approach in other words shouhardo is about giving poor women and men the tools to sow the seeds of change in their lives this meant tackling structural causes such as poor sanitation recurrent natural disasters and most notably deeply entrenched inequalities between women and men women with a low status tend to have weaker control over household resources tighter time constraints less access to information and health services poorer mental health and lower self-esteem tango international s smith wrote in a 2000 paper on women and child nutrition these factors are thought to be closely tied to women s own nutritional status and the quality of care they receive and in turn to children s birth weights and the quality of care they receive 12


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shouhardo s promise was twofold given the tools women will elevate their own status in society and their children as a consequence will grow healthier and taller the ekata groups that helped transform rina s life were just one of the three major women s empowerment interventions within shouhardo another developed special child care centers with school preparation traditionally denied to girls and indeed when those students entered formal schools data showed they received higher grades than those who did not attend the centers the third intervention promoted women s participation in parent-teacher associations thereby elevating the role of mothers in their daughters formal education together these efforts had a broad range of goals including increasing women s decision-making power reducing gender-based violence raising awareness of education entitlements for women and girls building women s advocacy leadership and literacy skills and developing a collective consciousness around important social issues such as dowry early marriage divorce and violence against women data collected through surveys conducted at the beginning and toward the end of the project showed impressive results a score measuring women s overall decision-making power within the household increased by 23 percent the women of shouhardo experienced an increase in their say over the use of loans or savings buying or selling major household assets and expenditures for clothing and personal items for themselves and their children see figure on page 10 also noteworthy was the jump in women s contribution to decision making about expenses for family planning women grew more active in local village courts too.13 12 reaching new heights the case for measuring women s empowerment


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today rina begum far right and every other member of her ekata group earn a steady income many by raising livestock selling food products or running small tailor shops among their proudest achievements stopping four child marriages the ekata groups in particular appear to have had a strong influence the data showed of the 2,342 villages and slums in the shouhardo program only 408 had ekata groups that allowed researchers to track how effective they were on their own in fact the researchers found a direct correlation between participation in an ekata group and indicators of women s empowerment including women s decision-making power freedom of movement freedom from patriarchal beliefs and women s likelihood of earning cash income.14 the score for women s decision-making power increased by far the most 41 percent in rina s north char region where ekata meeting attendance was highest shouhardo helped support ekata members and men establish new markets in their villages each with a well a latrine and most critically spaces just for women to buy and sell their products markets are expensive to build but they are critical to promote women s economic participation in remote areas of bangladesh markets are sometimes a full day of travel away and in a country where few people possess refrigerators food loses its nutritional value quickly many men were much more comfortable with their wives trading in the markets when seeing them work side by side with other women and as a market gains female vendors other women will gain their husband s approval to travel and purchase their own goods although the fact that many women needed such approval indicates that gender inequalities still exist their increased ability to sell goods in a public space represented a critical step forward inside many of the women confidence was rising their opinions and skills were reshaping their homes the streets outside and community institutions such as schools and village councils these are tremendous achievements on their own of course but one of shouhardo s overarching goals was to ensure that more than 400,000 households in bangladesh have sufficient and sustained food sources so that their children grow up healthy and that could be measured with precision centimeter by centimeter 13



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