Women empowerment has long been a popular concept in the discourse on development. These days, scholastic presentations on the role of NGOs in empowering women are in discourses on rural development. One of the most visible aspects of the recent changes in rural livelihoods canters on substantial increase in women's access to credit. Although women predominate in membership of NGOs through informal group mobilisation, the major thrust has been on the broader macroeconomic imperatives of self-employment generation and poverty alleviation, rather than women's empowerment. S. Mahmud succinctly summarises the debates hovering around empowerment issue shedding light on some of the controversial dimensions along with theoretical and empirical validities.
An influential framework for women's empowerment that has dominated the rationale for development programmes in general and, micro-finance since the 1990s in particular, presents the process of empowerment as a set of mutually-reinforcing 'virtuous spirals' of (a) increasing economic empowerment; (b) improved well-being and (c) social/political and legal empowerment for women. This dominant view among practitioners has developed as the 'confluence of three rather distinct paradigms" of micro credit programmes and are believed to lead to similar 'virtuous spirals' of empowerment. These paradigms are: the financial self-sustainability paradigm, the poverty alleviation paradigm and the feminist empowerment paradigm.
Financial self-sustainability paradigm encompasses the notion of economists and assumes that financial services at the disposal of poor women for micro-enterprise development is likely to result in increased income, reduced poverty and increased well-being (literacy level, health status, changes in consumption pattern, housing status etc.) for women and children . In the poverty alleviation paradigm, access to financial and other services are supposed to meet women's practical needs for income and employment and thus enable them to minimise the inequality and empowerment problem. S. Mahmud observes that, "Poverty alleviation benefits women particularly because of higher levels of poverty of women and women's greater responsibility for family welfare. The feminist paradigm postulates women's empowerment as an end in itself that calls for process of internal change at individual level and organisation at the macro level."
The assumption that financial services alone enables women to overcome poverty has been severely contested on the ground that in rural Bangladesh various barriers bedevil women's access to participation in economic activity, the impact on women's incremental income is small, their control over income is not always determined and evident, there are variations in norms over intra-household responsibilities and rights and the increase in women's access to other more formal networks and services is not well established.
The feminist framework holds a quite contrast view. It argues that access to micro credit reinforces patriarchal norms of women's subordination by imposing a burden on women as debt collectors for micro finance organisations and increasing tensions within the family. There is also the hypothesis that there could be more cost-effective ways of empowering women but micro credit diverts attention from other more effective strategies for empowerment. This school of thought believes that the intense pressure of timely repayment produces new forms of social and institutional dominance over women by families and organisations.
Naila Kabeer's concept of empowerment rests on the notion of power as determining choice and ability to choose, and how the lack of power and choice is "disempowering". She refers to empowerment as a "process by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such ability". In her framework, Kabeer suggests tracing women's "ability to make choices" through three dimensions: the pre-conditions of choices or resources; the process of choosing or agency; and the consequence of choice or achievements that reflect increased welfare and increased capacity to transform the structure of women's subordination.
Martin Chen and S. Mahmud postulate women's empowerment as a process purporting positive changes in women's lives that improve women's fallback position and bargaining power within a patriarchal structure. The authors examined different dimensions, material, cognitive, perceptual and relational at which empowerment is manifested. "Empowerment at some or all of these dimensions may be triggered by specific events in women's lives like schooling, labor force participation and participation in micro credit and other development programs. Women's empowerment is also influenced by secular life cycle events like marriage, birth of children, setting up of separate household, marriage of children and divorce or widowed". The process evolves in three dimensions: "the condition for empowerment - the set of choices and options initially available to women; the route to empowerment - means of translating choice enhancing resources into greater welfare of women and reduced subordination to men and finally, the achievement of empowerment- the overall outcomes in terms of well-being. "In each dimension, there may be one or more pathways of change through which the process of empowerment unfolds".
By and large, the concept of empowerment involves a wide array of interpretations. In Bangladesh, a lot of studies have seen empowerment only in terms of mobility in and outside village. Some scholars also attempted to view empowerment as ownership of assets although ownership may not imply empowerment as the woman in question could be a silent owner where the use of the asset is done by her husband. The whole game of empowerment, however, rests on the political commitment of the state regarding the status of women in the society. Much has been done in Bangladesh for improving the state of women empowerment but unfortunately, it is one of the countries where women are exploited most. Roughly, three-fourths of rural women tend to face domestic violence this war or the other.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at
Jahangirnagar University .email@example.com
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