Here’s the logic of girls’ empowerment programs: educate girls and economic benefits will follow.
The data tells us that educated girls stay in school longer, marry and reproduce later, and enter the workforce as higher wage earners. Compared to men, they are more likely to reinvest their wages into their families. This, in turn, allows for intergenerational benefits to accrue and overtime communities will lift themselves from poverty.
That’s all very nice.
But what kind of empowerment is that which makes you a gendered instrument of another’s agenda?
“Women in development” programs started in the 1970s and have since rapidly proliferated. And today it’s hard not to support “gender mainstreaming” without sounding like a complete misogynist.
Supporting girls’ empowerment is one thing (great). But supporting its logic is something entirely different (maybe less great).
In the dominant logic described above, the end goal is economic growth for development. The end goal is not the betterment of women’s choices—what I would argue makes for real empowerment—even if improved choices happens as a side consequence.
The dominant logic has been prescribed by “experts”, people in the Global North. These “experts” determine the narrative; they call the shots. And the narrative they choose (and not the girls/women themselves) is one of lifting people out of poverty, not empowering women for the sake of it.
They flatten the complex experiences of women into a single
“generic gendered female body—the poor woman with an expertly understood set of needs and rights…..who needed to be managed, educated, trained for work and local decision making and controlled reproductively and sexually through a series of development processes designed for ‘women’s empowerment.” (Mukhopadhyay, 2014)
So as we flail our arms and yell “Feedback!” and “Empowerment!” it behooves us to be careful what we mean.
If sometimes feedback doesn’t turn out to be the smart thing to do—that is positively correlated with the outcomes of interest—it doesn’t mean that all was in vain.
It could be that the very act of collecting feedback is empowering. It could be that collecting feedback, in itself, is enough.