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Home > Activities > Committees >Gender and Population (1996-99) > Seminar Report

Seminar on Female Empowerment and Demographic Processes: Moving Beyond Cairo

Lund, Sweden, 21-24 April 1997
Organised by the IUSSP Committee on Gender and Population in Collaboration with PROP and the Department of Sociology of the Lund university


Far from the hustle-bustle of Cairo, a seminar on 'Female Empowerment and Demographic Processes: Moving Beyond Cairo' took place in the quiet city of Lund. Sponsored by the IUSSP Committee on Gender and Population and co-organized by Harriet Presser, Gita Sen and Brigida Garcia, in collaboration with PROP, Programme on Population and Development, Lund university, the seminar was comprised of a multidisciplinary group representing the population research community, human rights activists, and the PUBLIC policy perspective. The main theme of the seminar was that female empowerment is an important concept for demography that can enrich both analysis and policy. The major topics covered were: conceptualizing and measuring female empowerment, intersections between female empowerment and demographic processes, case studies from developing countries, sources of change to empower women and PUBLIC policy implications. What is 'female empowerment' ? Conceptualization and measurement issues

Conceptualization of female empowerment proved to be an overriding issue throughout the seminar. No single definition of female empowerment emerged. Instead, the seminar revealed the complexity of defining empowerment and the need to view it as incorporating many dimensions and facets. There was general agreement that empowerment is about the transformation of power relations; that it includes both control over material resources, and a change in self-perception and confidence in one's self; that it can be viewed both as an outcome and a process; and that women's empowerment involves the transformation of power relations at four different levels: the household/family, the community, the markets and the state.

Paula England (Conceptualizing Women's Empowerment) and Gita Sen and Srilatha Batliwala (Empowering Women for Reproductive Rights) in this session, presented empowerment in different contexts of power. England focused on access to resources (i.e. economic resources, favourable laws and institutional rules, favourable social norms) as the key to power. Sen and Batliwala both emphasized the extrinsic control over resources of women's rights.

Various papers focused on empowerment as an outcome - both social and individual. Others contemplated empowerment as a means to an end, i.e. to obtain certain demographic outcomes such as fertility and birth rate declines. Recently, other outcomes have been incorporated such as health measures - abortion, maternal mortality, the problem of infections - and migration. The same two ideas could be put forward regarding rights. Some argued that what ICPD did in terms of outcome was to include rights of women. However, others argued that rights are actually a means to an end enabling citizens, for example, to hold governments accountable for the violation or neglect of women's rights.

Another dimension, mediating between the context of power and outcome, is individual behaviour, specifically the making of decisions. However, some argued that it is not behaviour but rather social, political and institutional processes which mediate between context and outcome.

Empowerment was also discussed as a relational concept. In particular, the discussion focused on the relation between the empowerment of women and its impact on men. Questions were asked whether women's empowerment would also require a transformation of men and whether it is a zero-sum game leading to disempowering of men. Placed in the context of power, however, women's empowerment also needs to be analyzed relative to the influence of the family, community, market and the state.

It was also emphasized that empowerment is context specific. What is empowering for women in one context is not necessarily empowering in another. For example, life cycle differences should be taken into account in defining and measuring empowerment. In certain cultures the same behaviour, e.g. using contraceptives, may have different implications for women at different stages of their lives. The measurement of empowerment is, therefore, not universal and would change depending on the situation and context.

Female empowerment can have some negative aspects. England mentioned that women's increasing access to earnings may actually be correlated with the rise of the 'feminization' of poverty. Or, the greater tendency of women to be single mothers in many cultures may make it socially easier for men to abandon their wives or partners. Moreover, female empowerment may have negative impacts on others such as children. Or, the process of empowerment may itself be crisis-led. Finally, it was suggested that partial empowerment may do more harm than good, since power relations operate, for women, at least at four different levels - change at one level does not guarantee change at others, and may even lead to backlash or backsliding at other levels.

The multi-dimensional aspects of empowerment raised concerns about the measurement of empowerment and, in particular, the use of proxies, for or as means, to female empowerment such as education and female labour force participation. It was argued that simply looking at school enrolment is not sufficient; the content of education, which often reinforces gender ideologies, must be incorporated. Similarly, women's participation in the labour force does not automatically translate into women having control over their income; it is important to know who actually has access to and control over that income. The intersection of female empowerment and demographic processes

Sonia Correa (Reproductive Rights and Demographic Processes from an Empowerment Perspective) presented the notion of empowerment from a feminist perspective, derived in turn from Foucaultian post-structuralism. According to this view, power is not contained in 'big black boxes' such as the state, the church or the husband but rather it is spread unevenly across the social tissue. In other words, neither men always monopolize power nor women are always disempowered. This approach has generated new ideas with possibilities for improving sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). These are: male and female identities are social constructions which can be deconstructed and reconstructed; the notion of sexuality is not a naturally driven force; and a better articulation of the differences between the objective and subjective dimensions of domination is possible.

Ivonne Szasz and Juan Figueroa (Sexuality, Gender Relations, and Female Empowerment) emphasized the demographic importance of sexual norms, identities and practices in the context of Mexico. By focusing on sexuality or the social construction of femininity and masculinity, inequalities and power relations implicit in gender systems, it is possible to get deeper insights into classic demographic variables such as exposure to intercourse, conception and pregnancy. Moreover, there are implications of sexual norms, identities and practices for health or ill health, especially for the spread of STDs.

Ruth Dixon-Mueller and Adrienne Germain (Reproductive Health and the Demographic Imagination) situated the issue of SRHR in the context of several important dimensions of female empowerment. They argued, first, that the locus of decision-making power or influence vis-à-vis the individual or behaviour in question is important. Second, the opportunities for distribution of resources that facilitate or inhibit certain life options influence SRHR. Third, the nature or content of ideologies and norms may have serious implications for sex, gender, rights, obligations of individuals and families. Further, the authors argued that the ICPD plan of action directs us to reorganize, improve and link existing family planning (FP) and health services within the context of women's health and rights. In this context, the following research issues were emphasized: unwanted and unsafe sex and sexual relationships; problematic contraceptive use or non-use; unwanted or untimed pregnancies; unsafe abortion; infections of the reproductive tract; and unsafe pregnancy and childbirth. The authors describe how these issues broaden and deepen the scope of demographic research, as well as provide new ways to approach traditional questions.

Anrudh Jain's paper (Family Planning Programmes and Demographic Outcomes) focused on knowledge, proxied by education, and information, gained through FP programmes, as measures of empowerment and how these variables affect fertility. He gave attention to macro level effects, to the broad relationship of the timing of the fertility transition and its linkage with levels of schooling, and hypothesized that information distribution through FP programmes can empower clients to regulate their fertility.

Barbara Bergmann (Gender Discrimination in the Workplace) discussed the possible linkages of market discrimination and marital fertility. She suggested that women's labour market success, which is in part determined by the extent of discrimination against women, may influence the number of births to a married couple, by affecting the desires of the male and female partners for preferred number of children and by affecting the status of women within the family. Bergmann also suggested that women's labour market position influences the education a woman gets (and vice versa), which may again affect her status, the number of children she wants as well as her earning and her use of contraceptives.

John Hobcraft (The Consequences of Female Empowerment for Child Well-Being) reviewed the links between female empowerment and child well-being. Among the most important gains for children from female empowerment, he argued, are those for the girl child; better survival of the mothers and the consequences for orphanhood; and improved infant and child health. In general, the often presumed negative consequences of female employment for child development do not hold. However, there do seem to be some negative consequences for children from partnership breakdown and from extra-partnership childbearing. In the context of this paper, the group discussion raised doubts whether divorce is necessarily a sign of empowerment.

Anastasia Gage (Female Empowerment and Adolescent Demographic Behaviour) indicated the importance of studying the association between female empowerment and adolescent demographic behaviour. She argued that a critical step in conducting demographic studies of female adolescent empowerment is an understanding of how power operates in adolescent relationships. In order to do so, however, demographic approaches must be broadened. They need to go beyond issues such as access to material resources and include the psychological aspects of empowerment and the process by which women are socialized into traditional gender roles. Moreover, it is important to consider women's sphere of influence in negotiating reproductive outcomes and the costs and benefits to women of making choices that are consistent with empowering behaviour. With the rising proportion of teenagers who are engaged in premarital sexual relations, there is a need to develop an empowerment framework that is specific to this group. Very importantly, in the context of the rise in HIV infections and STDs, it is important to view empowerment not only as an individual phenomenon but also as a collective process to provide adolescent girls with the social support necessary for the adoption of safe and responsible sexual behaviour.

Noriko Tsuya (Low Fertility, Marriage Perceptions, and Gender Relations in Japan) talked about Japan's below-replacement TFR by providing an intergenerational perspective of why young Japanese women and men delay or avoid marriage. She suggested that intergenerational coresidence provides the unmarried with securities that marriage would otherwise offer. Also, intergenerational coresidence allows unmarried women to witness the traditional gender relations and gender segregation of marital roles, thus providing a disincentive to get married. The paper implicitly suggested that marriage may lead to a relative loss of power for women in Japan. Case studies: developing countries

Sajeda Amin and Cynthia Lloyd (The Gender Dynamics of Recent Rapid Transitions) analysed trends in fertility and contraceptive use in Egypt and Bangladesh from 1975 to 1995. In terms of the gender dimension, their indicators focused on status and autonomy of women. Amin and Lloyd concluded that a low level of female autonomy is not a barrier to changes in fertility levels and in contraceptive use. However, there are differing trends within the two countries. In Bangladesh, there is lower fertility relative to Egypt despite lower levels of income and urbanization, and higher levels of mortality and lower levels of mobility for women and little change in female labour force participation or education. This result is attributed to the differences in the philosophy of service provision in FP and also in other sectors of the economy. They hypothesized that in Bangladesh service provision systems, especially in FP, may have been more cognizant of the realities of women's lives and may have been, therefore, more empowering for women.

Abdullahel Hadi, Samir Nath and AMR Chowdhury (Women's Empowerment and Contraception) focused on the impact of female empowerment on contraceptive use in Bangladesh among married women. Three dimensions of empowerment were included: buying capacity, participation in household decision-making, and gender equity within the household. The impact of access to credit on female empowerment and contraceptive use is analyzed. The authors concluded, first, that the empowerment indices are positively linked to contraceptive use. Second, a duration of at least five years of credit programme involvement indicates a positive credit-contraceptive link. Third, the role of credit programmes are far greater in regions where contraceptive use is in the take-off or transitional stage.

Sunita Kishor (Empowerment of Women in Egypt and Links to the Survival and Health of their Infants) suggested that women's empowerment is an important explanatory variable in child survival and health in Egypt net of all regional, biodemographic and socioeconomic influences. The study indicated that different dimensions of empowerment are important for different outcomes. An important contribution of the paper is in the different ways empowerment is defined and measured: as an end product (using indicators that measure directly women's control over their lives and environment) and as a process (using measures that document the existence or lack of an appropriate setting for women's empowerment and of women's access to different sources of empowerment). using DHS data, 32 indicators of empowerment were identified from which 10 factors were extracted using factor analysis. The resulting composite indicators were used as explanatory variables for survival and health of children.

Shireen Jejeebhoy's study (Operationalizing Women's Empowerment) explored various dimensions of female autonomy at the household level, their link to traditional proxies of female autonomy, and the extent to which these are influenced by regional and community differentials. The study, based on data from two culturally distinct rural sites in India, one in uttar Pradesh and the other in Tamil Nadu, measured rural women's status across regions and across Hindu and Muslim communities. The findings suggested that several distinct dimensions of autonomy can be operationalized and measured including women's decision making authority, mobility, power relations with husband, and access to, and control over, economic resources. These are closely related in all settings, irrespective of regional and religious divides. She also confirmed that the extent to which women enjoy autonomy is shaped by social institutions of gender within each community, defined here by region. There is a clear regional divide, net of individual and household level characteristics, in almost every index of autonomy, with Tamilian women experiencing far greater autonomy than their North Indian counterparts. This analysis found little support for the argument that Muslim women in India are at a disadvantage in terms of women's autonomy compared to Hindu women.

Stan Becker (Incorporating Women's Empowerment in Studies of Reproductive Health) examined the relationship between women's role in household decision-making and the extent of prenatal care and contraceptive use in Zimbabwe. Of the two variables the stronger associations were found with prenatal care. Possible explanations could be that women accept their husbands' decision to use or not to use contraceptives. Also Zimbabwe has relatively high contraceptive prevalence as a result of government's high priority to FP and outreach through community based distribution of contraceptives.

Mary Kritz, Paulina Makinwa and Douglas Gurak (Wife's Empowerment and Recent Fertility in Nigeria) focused on the linkages between gender dynamics at both macro and micro levels and reproductive outcomes. The outcome variables were: demand for no more children, current use of modern contraception and pro-contraception. The analysis was confined to nonpregnant married women aged 15-40 in five Nigerian ethnic groups. While the study showed several linkages between socio-economic variables of women and reproductive outcomes, what was unique about the study is the analysis of female empowerment in the context of the residence of the women surveyed. The analysis confirmed that zone empowerment accounts for a significant share of the differences in demand for children and pro-contraception between the ethnic groups.

Cheryl Doss (Women's Influence on Decision-Making Within Households) presented a framework in which she utilizes models of intrahousehold decision-making behaviour to look at demographic outcomes in Ghana. She included measures of bargaining power, proxied by the percentage of assets owned by women, as a determinant of household decisions about child health and education. Although the analysis did not distinguish between measures of empowerment from measures of women's bargaining power, Doss pointed out that conceptually they are related but distinct. The study concluded that women's bargaining power does affect the outcomes of household decisions. Children who live in households where women own a large share of the assets are more likely to have been vaccinated. The effects on children's education are more ambiguous possibly because of women's conflicting desires for increasing their children's education and for taking full advantage of the labour that the children can provide.

summary: The papers discussed in the previous two sections show the richness of the analytical and empirical work undertaken linking demographic outcomes with conditions facing women. The studies offer important avenues for future empirical work. The authors, however, conceptualized and measured empowerment in different ways, suggesting that a common analytical framework for defining and measuring female empowerment was lacking. Having such a framework would not only facilitate research but bridge the gulf between activists and researchers. However, a common analytical framework to define and measure empowerment may not be possible nor desirable. Instead, given its multidimensional aspects, researchers and activists need to clearly describe how empowerment is being defined and the context in which it is being applied. Sources of change to empower women

Brigida Garcia (Economic Restructuring, Women's Survival and Transformation in Mexico) looked at transformations of the labour market, survival strategies and urban collective struggles as sources of change to empower women. This case supported the argument that recent economic reforms have adversely affected the labour force as a whole, and female workers in particular. There has been a rise in female labour force participation mostly in marginalized, informal and non-salaried jobs and some in professional and technical jobs. The question raised is whether the seeds for transforming gender relations lie in the crisis itself. Evidence goes in favour of empowerment of middle class women with greater educational attainment. However, the case of poor working women with low educational attainment is more complex, with evidence showing that their empowerment can proceed at an unequal pace depending on which aspects are taken into account. The evidence on urban collective struggles show that although they can be helpful for the poor women's empowerment, this process is slow, ambivalent and sometimes contradictory.

Drawing on his experience in South East Asia, Graeme Hugo (Migration and Female Empowerment) talked about migration both as a cause and consequence of female empowerment. Migration may enhance female empowerment by breaking down the isolation and seclusion that women face in traditional societies, by weakening patriarchal authority or through the formation of new groups like unions and sisterhood. However, migration may also serve to entrench the status quo. For example, in China patrilocal marriage maintains the subordination of women and binds male groups together. Migration can also be disempowering. The growing practice of trafficking in women migrants is one such example. The impact of migration is not restricted to the migrant only. It is important to assess the status of women who are left behind by male family members. In concluding, Hugo argued that migration policies and programmes have the scope to prevent disempowerment of women migrants.

Wanda Novicka (The Position of Women and Demographic Processes in the Countries in Transition) focused on the transition of centrally planned economies to democratic and market regimes and its impact on women. The report drew on evidence from Poland and Russia. The impact of the political and economic changes on women have in general been adverse, particularly in areas such as education, political participation, the economy and health, including reproductive health. The author pointed out that under communism, men and women were never equal in spite of the claims of gender equality by the communist regime. After the collapse of communism, the unequal gender relations clearly manifested and widened. However, although the scenario is generally negative for women, the economic and political transition nevertheless offers a window of opportunity for women to become more organized and improve their position in society.

Barbara Klugman (Mobilizing and Networking) used two case studies from South Africa to show the role of mobilizing and networking in influencing policies towards women's empowerment and gender equity. She, however, pointed out that mobilizing and networking are strategies that happen in a context as part of a policy process. The context and nature of the process will determine whether or not mobilization and networking can be successful in achieving the intended goals. Therefore Klugman emphasized that mobilization and networking are strategies rather than principles.

Katarina Lindahl (The Growth of Women's Empowerment in Sweden) discussed the dramatic changes that women's empowerment has gone through over the last 100-150 years in Sweden. A holistic perspective was used in describing changes favouring women that occurred in the economic, political and SRHR arenas. Individuals also played a critical role in this process. All of these factors together contributed to the shift in women's position from being close to powerless to being relatively more empowered.

Summary: The papers suggest that economic restructuring, migration and societies in transition may catalyze changes in women's lives. But, research is far from concluding the direction of the change and its welfare impact on women. In addition, as in the case of migration, demographic phenomena could be a result of or a source of empowerment. Moving beyond Cairo : PUBLIC policy

Women's empowerment has emerged as a central theme in international development and policy agenda. Carmen Barroso and Jodi Jacobson (The Policy Agenda for Women's Empowerment in the Next Decade) provided an historical perspective of how women's issues have evolved from being ignored in the policy realm, to being confined narrowly to FP policies to its current focus on empowerment. Barroso/Jacobson and Rebecca Cook (Making Governments Accountable for Female Empowerment), see the future policy focus as one of deepening the empowerment agenda and scope of PUBLIC intervention beyond just health and rights and within the overall context of the family, community and the state. Cook, for example, talked of moving beyond Cairo by setting up of explicit standards by which governments can be held accountable on women's rights issues.

Many actors are playing a critical role in this evolving policy agenda. They are the population scientific community, the human rights activists, the policy makers, donor agencies, the state, the private sector and the NGOs. In defining the objectives and roles of activists and demographers, Harriet Presser identified a policy and science nexus: a gender-focused research agenda consistent with the agenda of ICPD. Although the plan of action is a political, and not a research document, the work of activists and researchers can be complementary. Cook emphasized that demographers can be instrumental in using scientific data to expose the violation of women's rights while activists could use this information to engage policy makers. To play their parts better, however, demographers must address the constraints of limited data and sound methodology; as Germain pointed out, there can be methodological problems with using data collected for one purpose to address a different set of research questions. In the same vein, Presser emphasized that activists need to look beyond health issues and rights to the broader social context of empowerment.

To reach the policy makers, effective strategies should include tailoring existing data to show how the legal, social, and political systems are operating unjustly for women; presenting female empowerment as a means to ends that are important in the policy arena; and showing cost-effectiveness of empowering women. An effective partnership between activist and researchers would assist in achieving these goals.

Donor institutions have specific roles to foster women's empowerment through, for example, the provision of strategic tools and resources and by ensuring that development interventions are being carried out in a way that addresses gender and sexuality. Sen, however, suggested that donor bureaucracy, their diversity and the challenge of creating effective projects in the context of weak policy capacity in countries raise concerns about whether donors can easily respond to the issue of female empowerment. The State is undergoing rapid changes worldwide with devolution of powers to the local level and to the private sector. A redefinition of the central state may ensure that these processes do not undermine empowerment. In this context, the role of the Swedish government in enhancing a broader focus on women's issues domestically and internationally, as presented by Malin Kaerre, was acknowledged as being exemplary. Finally, for NGOs, activism in implementation was highlighted as an important role. To achieve this role NGOs would need to address issues of their accountability, their relationship to donor institutions or bureaucracies, and the need to invest in capacity building.

Samia Mahbub Ahmad

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