How Can We Know If Women Are Being Economically Empowered?

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This blog post was originally written by Associate Professor Janet Hunt (ANU IDM Team) for the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Deliver 2030 series on Women, Work and Economic Empowerment. Read the original blog, and see the full series here.

Women’s economic empowerment depends on many factors. Among these are women’s levels of education, access to decent paid work or control of income-generating assets, access to family planning, a reduction in the time they spend on unpaid household and care work, whether husbands or fathers allow them out of the house and even whether they have adequate clothing to present themselves in public.

Existing poverty measures do not currently provide all this information, and especially not in a gender and age-disaggregated way.

This is why a team at the Australian National University (ANU), in partnership with the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA), with support from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), is developing a new measure of poverty.

The Individual Deprivation Measure (IDM) is gender-sensitive and multidimensional. This measure will help us understand what’s needed in specific locations for particular women to foster their economic empowerment.

The IDM encompasses 15 dimensions of poverty (see graphic). It assesses the poverty of adult women and men across these 15 dimensions and is explicitly feminist in its approach, seeking to conceptualise poverty through a gender lens and produce data that are sensitive to gender-differences.

The IDM was initially developed through a three-phase research process, beginning in 18 communities across six countries and involving over 1800 women and men. The research used participatory methods to understand what women and men experiencing poverty considered key indicators of poverty. The measure is now being refined and tested for wider use.

The IDM is able to identify the specific social groups that are experiencing deprivation in specific dimensions (such as access to income generating assets, employment, or excessive time burdens), as well as identifying how deprivations intersect to deepen the experience of poverty.

The IDM also addresses problematic assumptions that are often associated with uni-dimensional assessments of poverty. For example, the IDM overcomes the problem of measuring income but failing to recognise the exploitative nature of work or excessive time burdens associated with increasing income.

The IDM work dimension includes both paid and unpaid work. It assesses job security, underemployment or excessive hours of work, as well as whether work conditions are hazardous or undermine an individual’s dignity. It also explores unpaid work burdens, risks and the level of respect others have for work that is not remunerated.

If a person does not undertake paid work, the reasons are explored. Is it by choice? Is it due to caring or unpaid work responsibilities? Is it because that individual is not allowed to seek paid work? The answers matter for women’s economic empowerment – but often we don’t even ask the questions!

Measuring household assets is commonly used as a proxy for wealth. Where self-employment is involved access to transport or a phone may be very important. For women, a labour-saving device such as a grain-milling machine may also be highly valued. As part of the recent IDM study in Nepal, we asked about assets at both the household and the individual level.

When assets are measured at the household level, no gender differences in asset wealth were evident, because asset ownership was assumed to be equally shared. When assets were measured at the individual level, women were revealed to be significantly more deprived. Only 20% of women personally owned more than two assets, compared to 50% of men.

When land assets were considered (for agriculture or residence), the gender-gap widened further.

Other IDM dimensions may reveal important data about what is necessary for women’s economic empowerment. Having clothing and capacity to present oneself according to an acceptable community standard is important for anyone seeking paid work. Similarly, being able to work or study while menstruating due to availability of sanitary pads or cloths, as well as social norms which don’t confine women, may be crucial.

A woman’s feeling of safety walking alone in her neighbourhood in order to carry out her work may be another consideration. Her ability to control pregnancies may affect her ability to earn an income. All of these dimensions, as well as education levels, are factored into the IDM survey. We will be able to understand from IDM data what might be impeding women’s economic empowerment at different life stages.

Capturing all this in a short survey is not easy. The IDM is still being developed and tested in different settings, but the work to date demonstrates that this gender-sensitive, multidimensional measure can offer great insights into assessing levels of women’s economic empowerment.

The IDM is able to pin-point some of the serious barriers particular women (e.g. based on age, ethnicity and disability) face in specific locations. This matters for policies and services. Unless data are both gender-disaggregated and gender-sensitive, important aspects of women’s lives will go unmeasured. As a result, we will continue to lack the rich evidence policy-makers and others need to most effectively address women’s economic empowerment.