By Felicia Wartiainen

One of the central themes of the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, hosted by the Swedish Government in April, was how to economically empower women all over the world. In a panel discussion, Carin Jämtin, Director General at The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), stated that “the most important strategy to achieve a better economic situation in individual countries is to include women in the labor force.” The argument that it is not only women, but also society, that gains from having women participate in labor market is not newfangled; in 2007 The Economist claimed women were “the most wasted resource in the world”.

Today there is almost unanimous support among development practitioners in favor of strategies that propagate female inclusion in the labor force. Yet few have examined the empirical reality of women in developing countries subject to policies that promote female labor participation. As the conference attendees contemplate over strategies on how to most effectively make women participate in labor markets, one could question whether labor market inclusion really is the panacea to poverty and gender inequality that Ms Jämtin depicts it to be.

While gender equality has been a long standing goal for many international institutions, this argument has for the past 30 years been coupled with the claim that differences in labor participation between men and women means less growth and productivity than otherwise would have been possible. It therefore does not come as a surprise when the World Bank asserts that greater gender equality is equivalent to ‘smart economics’; a practice where you particularly address women because of their potential to enhance productivity and improve other developmental outcomes. It is often assumed that women, through labor market participation, will become empowered as they gain control over their own financial situation while at the same time contributing to family income. Several development organizations have helped to popularize this particular Bank mantra, such as UN Women, the Norweigan Agency for Development Cooperation, Plan International, and UNICEF among others.

The ‘smart economics’ approach to ‘empower’ women through labor participation has not been without critique, however. While it is claimed that everybody nominally stands to gain in the smart economics ‘win-win’ scenario, one could ask whether the goal of female investment is primarily to promote gender equality or to facilitate the cheapest development intervention while promoting economic liberalization. With the initial aim to ‘make markets work for women,’ one could, through emphasizing investment in women to reduce poverty, believe that it is much more about ‘making women work for markets.’ In 2012, Sylvia Chant, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) critiqued ‘smart economics’ and questioned whether it was particularly smart for poor women and girls at all. She emphasized that the instrumentalization of gender is problematic, as evidenced by the failure to successfully use conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs and microfinance initiatives to both reduce poverty and ‘empower women’. Rather than helping these women, ‘smart economics’ initiatives have relied on gender stereotypes and expectations from particular kinds of contributions from mothers, which often have led to increased labor burdens on the same women the initiatives aimed to support.

In various assessments of several initiatives inspired by the ‘smart economic’ rhetoric, the approach seems to have failed. Another example is the ‘Regional Development in the Copán Valley’ (RDCP) project that aimed to integrate indigenous women into tourism development to reduce poverty and provide agency to vulnerable groups. RDCP was described by the World Bank as a success.  However, as written by Dr. Lucy Fergusson, a researcher and consultant in gender equality, the project failed to accomplish what it was meant to achieve – poverty reduction and empowerment of vulnerable groups such as indigenous women. Indeed, it led to overall economic development in the region, but the initiative did not help the indigenous women it initially was set out to empower. ‘Smart economics’ may empower some, but will certainly leave many behind.

None of this is to say that women shouldn’t work at all. Historically, women have been able to gain agency through working formal jobs, especially in Sweden. Yet we need to take into account that countries might differ from each other. Instead of falling victim to reaffirming truisms that work to obscure the complex situations often at hand, we should perhaps ask if female labor force participation in development countries really could cut it. Gender must be understood as inseparable from structures of culture, class and community and encouraging women sell toys on the streets of Bangladesh does not necessarily mean that these women will become ‘empowered’. What is more likely is that, ceteris paribus, these women will experience an increase in labor burden and social pressure.

Without an understanding of the locally specific, gender-differentiated relationships we are unable to form the foundation upon which we can better contribute to more equitable development outcomes. Perhaps the self-proclaimed feminist Swedish Government could make use of the traditional feminist method and critically assess its own strategies and rhetoric while encouraging others actors to do the same. Maybe then, we can find the local strategies we need that can lead to true female empowerment.

By Felicia Wartiainen

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