Empowering Women

DiA writer Emily Wight reflects on the impact women empowerment initiatives – focused on increasing participation in the workplace – can have on developing not only the economic structure, but also the social dynamics of communities across South Asia. Emily has firsthand experience of working on women empowerment projects, as a five month DiA volunteer based in Pondicherry.

Every day at 9am and 4pm, Gerrard weaves through the grid-like streets of Pondicherry on his motorbike to get to Volontariat, a local NGO. But this is not the commute of a regular employee: Gerrard is escorting his wife, Aruljodi, to her work as a crèche teacher before returning home or attending church.

In what could be viewed as a subversion of the patriarchal structure of Indian society, Aruljodi is the breadwinner in their household, whilst her husband doesn’t have the qualifications or experience that would allow him to work. Going to work every day has allowed Aruljodi to develop her self-esteem challenged by a life-long disability, form friendships with other women, and observe the customs of families from a variety of castes and religions. When I volunteered in the crèche with her she took pride in its diversity: “Here we have many children – Christians, Hindus, Muslims. All are welcome.”

Aruljodi is lucky enough to contribute to the 10% of the world’s income that is earned by women. According to an Industrial Relations group in India, women constituted just 19% of the national workforce in 2004. This has nothing to do with laziness or lack of capability: the United Nations Millennium Campaign claims that women work two thirds of the world’s working hours – many of which are filled by unpaid, domestic tasks that go undocumented in mainstream data.

Just as women own 1% of the world’s property; just as they make up two thirds of the estimated 876 million illiterate adults worldwide; just as they represent 80% of the estimated 800,000 people illegally trafficked across international borders every year, women the world over are vulnerable to the most extreme hardship because they are victims of the human-made systems rooted against them. Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, was not wrong when she said, “Development cannot be achieved if fifty percent of the population is excluded from the opportunities it brings.”

No-one can deny the advantages that employment brings for this fifty percent, but many don’t see beyond the immediate economic benefits for the individual. The reality is that employing women results in a domino effect for both them and the surrounding community. The example of Aruljodi demonstrates employment in a traditional female role which allows her to sustain a family and develop independence; however, women in non-gender-related positions can in turn challenge the context of their poverty.

Such positions have been created by Pathways of Empowerment, an international research and communications programme who have engaged women from all over Pakistan as Lady Health Workers. The Lady Health Worker scheme has trained almost 100,000 women as Primary Health and Family Planning Service Providers, visiting Pakistani households door to door. In a country where only 16% of women are economically active and almost 50% of girls drop out of school before completing their studies, this is a huge step.

Increased participation in society allows women to establish female friendships and provides them with a platform upon which they can engage with topics from politics to parenting to their own health and wellbeing. Feedback has shown that the Lady Health Workers have enjoyed the social interaction, not only with their patients but also with their peers during the training process; many of them will not have mixed with women their own age since they were at school. This has in turn boosted their confidence and independence: reports have emerged from small towns of employees coming together to protest against sexual harassment and late payment of their salaries.

Simeen Mahmud, Project Co-Ordinator of Women Health Workers, the equivalent programme in Bangladesh, said, “Women community health workers were pioneers in breaking conservative norms and females’ seclusion”. Both schemes have not only improved the lives of the women themselves, but have in turn influenced the societal view of women: many more fathers, having watched their wives succeed in responsible roles, encourage their daughters to attend school. Albeit more gradually, women are feeling economically independent enough to start influencing and partaking in household decisions themselves.

Muhammad Yunus is founder of the Grameen Bank, a community bank which started in Bangladesh and 98% of whose borrowers are women. Yunus advocates lending to women not only because they are, he says, the poorest of the poor, but also due to the incredible influence they have over the lives of others. In his book Banker To The Poor, which documents the formation of the bank, he says, “The more I got involved, the more I realised that credit given to women brought about changes faster than when given to men.”

Speaking of the traditionally Muslim culture of Bangladesh, Yunus claims, “If one of the family members has to starve, it is an unwritten law that it has to be the mother… A poor woman in her husband’s house is insecure because he can throw her out any time he wishes… Poor women had the vision to see further and were willing to work harder to get out of poverty because they suffered the most.”

Woman’s status as a provider is not for nothing; the journey of every human being starts with a woman. The United Nations Population Fund reports that educated women have healthier children than their uneducated counterparts and are far more likely to send them to school to allow them the same opportunities. Indeed, Aruljodi has high hopes for her son Godley, urging him to learn English so that he can attend a good university.

Just as with every aspect of the eradication of global poverty, women’s empowerment will take place one step at a time. However, the key to their empowerment lies in women’s increased participation in the workplace, and the benefits for society that this will bring.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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