Why women’s empowerment is worth measuring

Highlights from recent interview with IFPRI’s Hazel Malapit on the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index
September 23, 2015
by Jeanne Penn

How can agriculture be a path to gender equality? The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) is a transformational tool that identifies ways to empower women working in agriculture. The project team recently announced the release of a new abbreviated version of the index. The original WEAI was launched in 2012 by IFPRI, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), and USAID's Feed the Future program, representing the first comprehensive and standardized measure to directly capture women’s empowerment and inclusion levels in the agricultural sector.

For the past three years, researchers and development practitioners have been using the WEAI to monitor the impact of Feed the Future’s interventions on inclusive agriculture goals in 19 target countries throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa south of the Sahara. I recently sat down with IFPRI’s Hazel Malapit, who coordinates gender research on behalf of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health as well as IFPRI’s WEAI team, to learn more about progress to date for the original WEAI as well as what to expect from the abbreviated WEAI (A-WEAI), released earlier today.

How is the abbreviated WEAI different from the original version?

The original version had 10 indicators—five domains that were measuring 10 indicators. However, some organizations mentioned that it was too long for their purposes and were interested in a shorter version. So how do we streamline it? We created a tool that was 30 percent shorter by cutting down on indicators, and we addressed some of the original problems, and improved or eliminated problematic questions. The abbreviated WEAI will have six indicators instead of 10.

What is the importance of measuring empowerment?

We often hear that development projects want to help empower women, but the real challenge i tracking whether or not they were making any real progress toward achieving this goal. We needed to come up with a way to measure empowerment in order to be able to track progress. So this is one way, we’re not saying it's the best way, but it's one way that people can use to measure progress. Because the index is in the public domain, anyone can use it, and many have adapted it to suit their needs. Other researchers and program implementers, unaffiliated with USAID or related programs, are using this tool in their surveys. They may change it a little bit or a lot, but using the index as a starting point helps them develop a [more personalized] tool that is useful for them. The fact is that it facilitates them measuring empowerment in a way that makes sense for them, I think that’s great.

What is the most important contribution of the index?

I think the most important contribution of the index is that women’s empowerment in agriculture is now on people’s radar. The fact that women’s empowerment is being measured systematically makes it one of a kind; no one had ever tried to do it at this scale. The mere fact that 19 countries are collecting data indicates that it is now a priority and there is now an indicator that people want to track and hopefully see improve over time.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “what gets measured, gets done.” So the fact that women’s empowerment is being measured makes it easier to think through more concretely what needs to be done to move the index. People are asking, “Well what are the key problems that are constraining women from achieving their potential? If we want to improve women’s control over income, what does that really mean in our ag program, and how do we address that?” Maybe that means women need to have formal ownership, or maybe they need access themselves so they don't need to ask someone else's permission to get their cash and they can get paid directly. Because you can look into the different indicators that contribute to disempowerment, you have a better chance of figuring out how to improve the situation.

In the original WEAI, a Guatemalan woman defines an empowered person as one “who has the power to decide about their things, their life, their actions.” Why the focus on agriculture to improve women’s empowerment?

The focus on agriculture was primarily because there is a huge population that still depends on agriculture for their livelihood, and a lot of the poor are still engaged in agriculture. So the question is, if women are not able to reach their potential in that sphere, what is our hope for them to advance later on?

How is success in agriculture correlated to success in other domains?

If someone is successful in agriculture, in theory, he or she would be able to move on to more valuable activities: they'd be able to put their kids through school, and have other types of life options that aren't available to someone who had less education or not as many resources. They can move on to higher value field crops or go up the value chain from producing a small crop that only they consume; they could go to the market and earn an income, and raise their standard of living that way. For this population that we are interested in, it is very important because it's a core part of where their livelihoods come from and it’s a means for them to transform their lives.

Are there any cultural differences that make implementing the WEAI difficult?

Yes, it can be hard to collect in some contexts. For women, speaking in public seems pretty normal if you’re from the States and maybe Latin American countries it’s not a big deal. But if you go to a country like Cambodia, for example, identifying yourself as someone who would speak up is a big taboo. Even in the baselines of Feed the Future, some of these things were impossible to collect in that form.

A woman from Bangladesh, quoted in the 2014 WEAI, asserts: “When I go to do work, then I am told, ‘You cannot do this work.’ People will talk bad about you…you cannot do any work except what your husband will tell you.” Has there been any work done to address the stigma some cultures hold around women who work?

Cultural norms are tricky. Remember, we’re not just trying to improve women's empowerment-- we’re trying to make sure that our programs don't do any harm. I’ve heard reports about projects where women get the loans and the men get upset and then violence increases. That’s not a good outcome. So we certainly do not want any of our projects to create more disempowerment for women. Maybe you're empowering them in agriculture, but disempowering them in other ways.

Some NGOs do actually aim to change norms; they may do trainings, theater plays, and other sorts of things to try to improve community views on gender roles. It depends on the context though; what works in one place might not work in the next.  Norms take a long time to change; so I think it’s happening, but slowly. And maybe we are changing norms for the next generation, not this one.

Have there been any significant events (severe weather conditions, climate change, wars, etc.) that have disrupted Feed the Future’s efforts to implement the WEAI in their work? If so, can you describe what happened and what’s being done to address these kinds of challenges moving forward?

Well, there was a big armed conflict in Mali, which is still ongoing. There was the earthquake in Nepal. For sure, it's interacting with our work, because now you're faced with a shock and there's a whole slew of issues that come with that, depending on what type of shock it is. So does it derail our work? I think it introduces new gender issues because you have an existing state of gender dynamics in play, and then something major happens to shake things up. And the fact that the genders are unequal, for example, affects the way they respond to that the shock. If you have women who have fewer assets or have nowhere to go, they are more susceptible to violence, which then, in turn, increases their vulnerability. All types of inequalities are exacerbated because the ones who can cope, do cope. The ones who basically bear the brunt of the shock are the ones who can't defend themselves, the ones that have no other options. It’s unfortunate that they're caught in that, but it actually makes the WEAI more important.

What are one or two key findings that have been gained by applying the WEAI in the field? How should people--whether it be policymakers, researchers, local governments--make the best use of the tool?

I think the first thing is that women’s empowerment is worth measuring. Regardless of how you’re measuring it--whether you’re using the WEAI or some other tool, I think we’ve demonstrated that it’s worth measuring and it tells you a lot of information that would help you be successful in your program. The other takeaway is that gender inequality is still a big problem. We kind of get a sense of scale of the gender gaps are in these different areas. Some people like to think that gender inequalities are a thing of the past and not a problem anymore. But it is a continuing problem and we have the data to prove it.

This is interview was conducted by Jeanne Penn, former intern at IFPRI's Communications and Knowledge Management Division.