Friday, December 19, 2014

Feminist Friday: Ensuring women have voice and agency makes good economic sense

For the next few Fridays I am going to try and review a book that discusses feminism or discuss some of the issues facing women.

Recently I heard a segment on the radio about a World Bank report called ‘Voice and Agency: Empowering Women for Shared Prosperity and as I listening I was reminded of how important it was for women to have an equal voice and valued place in society as well as control over their bodies, income and lifestyle.

This report looks into how important it is that women and girls are able to have control over their body, livelihood and lifestyle choices without fear of retribution, fear or violence. It focuses on four aspects: freedom from violence; control over sexual and reproductive health; control over land and housing and; women’s voices or role in the political sphere. 

Voice and Agency argues that gender equality is not a zero sum game; increasing the agency of women and girls does not decrease the ability of men to control over their lives. The authors state that men and boys also benefit from the social and economic empowerment of women and they provide many examples and interviews that back this up.
It also looks at how cultural norms can impact on increasing the voice and agency of women.

The influence of cultural norms

Technically, women have always had the same ability as men to do great things. However, cultural norms have often limited their scope to pursue the same opportunities as men.

Authors of Voice and Agency acknowledge the improvement in gender equality over the past few decades but argue that ‘yet even where gender gaps are narrowed, systematic differences often persist, including widespread gender-based violence and lack of voice’ (page 2). But these are an important start but true change will not happen unless there is cultural change.   

This argument is echoed elsewhere. Anne Summer author of ‘The Misogyny Factor’ argued that while there has great improvements with sex discrimination legislation, Affirmative Action and women getting the vote but is the wider culture that prevents women from getting truly respected and included.

While cultural norms are often the cause of female disempowerment, this report shows how these norms can change to improve both the lives of women but also the wider community.

Why is having Voice and Agency so important?

This report is based on the World Development Report 2012 that showed gender equality and economic development are linked but can’t happen independently of each other.  

Human life is complicated and every decision that humans make have consequences. So when people make decisions, for example about family planning, who to send to school (or not) and divisions of labour, it affects not only that family but also the wider community.    

Voice and Agency not only shows the negative monetary cost of violence but the positive impact that better educated women have on the wider society. It also shows how women who have a strong voice develop policies that are more family focused. Property ownership is also a big issue in this report as it enhances women’s standing in the community which intensifies their voice and bargaining power.   
The damaging influence of violence

This report argues that violence is worse in poorer and disempowered communities all around the world. Violence against women is a breach of Human Rights and diminishes their agency as individuals. 

There are many types of violence but sort of violence that is looked at in Voice and Agency is gender-based violence (GBV) which is scarily common, according to a 2013 WHO which states that over 35% of women world-wide have experienced physical or sexual violence.
Authors of Voice and Agency indentify the economic effects as being time off work, lower productivity and earnings. They also cite studies that have found that violence against women impact children. The flow on effects for these children are lower academic achievement and job performance (which translates into lower job stability and life time earning) but also they are  more likely to grow up to either be the perpetuators of violence or the victims of it. They also cite other studies that link GBV with lower infant mortality, infant birth weight and limited access to vaccinations.

According to the Voice and Agency report, the economy wide affects of GBV include service provision to support the victims, a decrease in earnings and productivity and a ‘negative effect on human capital formation’ (2014).         

Reproductive rights

As a right, it seems so basic. To be able to enter into a marriage at an age that you are physically, emotionally and mentally ready seems such common sense. But the ability to choose whom to marry, start a family and decide on the number of children you want to have should be human right but for so many, this right has been denied.

This report states that getting married later is associated with greater educational achievements and lower fertility, and which in turn is linked to better maternal and child health.

It also cites research that highlights the dangers of pregnancy among those who are under 18. This reports states that ‘each year, almost one in five women in the developing world get pregnant before the age of18 and 7.3 million girls under the age of 18 (2 million are under 15) give birth’ (page 106). The dangers of being pregnant at such young age often results in obstetric fistula and incontinence, which leads to social exclusion. 

This issue is complex and difficult to address. Voice and Agency argue that marriage choices and having family should be based on educated decisions and the life goals of women and girls should be fully supported.

Also, it  motherhood and marriage shouldn’t be seen as the only path for social mobility and societal recognition.

A room of one’s own

Even at the turn of last century, it was known the importance of women having an independent income and a room of their own. While Virginia Wolf wrote her seminal feminist text was a long time ago and maybe shouldn’t be taken literally, but the idea is important.

The Voice and Agency argues that money equals power and the more money women can call their own the more power they have and control where they live, thus reaping the benefits of land and home ownership. Owning land increases self-esteem, economic opportunities, mobility outside the home and decision making power (2014).

It also acts as insurance policy if women find themselves widowed or without a male provider. With better land ownership provisions, they are able to have access housing for themselves and their children.

The Voice and Agency report highlight many challenges to women accessing home and land ownership. They are as follows;

  • Social norms, customary practices, inaccessible and weak institutions as well as poor understanding among women of their rights are the barriers to land ownership;
  • Family law, inheritance law, and land law all affect a women’s ability to buy land, including poor gender sensitive administration of these laws.    

Strong women, loud voices 

To fully participate in society, the voices of women and their views must be fully respected. As the Voice and Agency report points out ‘to have voice means having the capacity to speak up and be heard and being present to shape and share in discussions, discourse and decisions…participation in decision making enables women to voice their needs and challenge gender norms in their community – individually and collectively’ (page 175).

It makes sense that if women make up 50% of the population that they should have more say about the things that influence themselves and their families. Developing the voice of women also increases the accountability of decision makers.

Women who actively participate in society have greater respect than their male counterparts as well as are good role models for many women and girls in their community.        

Why read this book?

This report how important it is for women to be educated and live lives free from violence as doing so benefits the wider community. It is an interesting report with a lot of great examples of positive change.   

List of references

Klugman, Jeni., Hanmer, Lucia., Twigg, Sarah., Hasan, Tazeen., McCleary – Slls and Santamaria, Judith. Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity (World Bank, Washington: 2014)

Summers, Anne. The Misogyny Factor (New South Publishing, Sydney: 2013)

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