Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Measuring women's empowerment

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Rina Begum, who participated in one of the SHOUHARDO women's empowerment programs in Bangladesh. Once prohibited from leaving her home without a male escort, Rina blossomed into a member of three school committees and the leader of an EKATA group that, among other things, stopped four child marriages.  EKATA groups are women's self-help groups formed as part of the SHOUHARDO project/ Credit: Akram Ali/CARE)

 I’ve read many inspiring stories about mothers’ achievements around Mother’s Day (celebrated last Sunday in the UK), but one particularly caught my attention. It is a story about the measurable impact of empowering women.

Many NGOs have shown the transformative ripple effects of women’s empowerment, but a recent report by the Institute of Development Studies actually measured it. 

In the poorest villages of Bangladesh, economists and nutrition experts were shocked at the results of a program designed to fight malnutrition and poverty among more than 2 million of the country’s poorest people.

Funded by USAID and implemented by CARE, the $126 million SHOUHARDO ("friendship" in Bangla) project included a wide array of interventions, from child feeding and sustainable agriculture to sanitation and climate change adaptation. But researchers discovered that another force had actually produced the greatest independent impact. The game-changer? Women’s empowerment.

Efforts to combat deeply entrenched disparities between women and men had reduced stunting (a measure of child malnutrition) even more than giving women and their children regular rations of wheat, vegetable oil and yellow split peas. 

These gender-equality efforts included promoting female entrepreneurship and supporting self-help groups where women could address taboo topics like early marriage, dowry and violence against women. Once reluctant to leave their homes, the women of SHOUHARDO started travelling to markets to buy and sell goods. Detailed surveys revealed that their influence over household decisions — from the use of savings to what foods to buy — increased too. At the same time, their children were growing healthier — and taller. This was empowerment you could measure with a yard stick.

This is a poster hanging in the room where Rina's EKATA group meets. It describes key elements of an empowered woman. The phrases, translated roughly from Bangla, include "able to speak anywhere with courage" and "participates in the general election process."/Credit: Akram Ali/CARE

“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,” says Lisa Smith, a senior economist at TANGO International, the firm hired to evaluate the project.

The report’s results underscore why CARE and other NGOs believe that “greater gender equality is the key to fighting poverty, hunger and injustice around the world,” says Dr. Helene Gayle, CARE president and CEO.

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