Measurement of Women’s Empowerment in Rural Bangladesh

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Measurement of Women’s Empowerment in Rural Bangladesh

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  Measurement of Women’s Empowerment in Rural Bangladesh Simeen Mahmud ,BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh, House 57, Road 6A, Dhanmondi R A, Dhaka 1209,Bangladesh, Phone: 880 2 8824051-4, ext 4121 Fax: 880 2 8810383 Nirali M. Shah, PhD , andPopulation Services International, 1120 19 th  St. NW, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202-572-4550,Fax: 202-785-0120 Stan Becker, PhD Johns Hopkins University, Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health. 615 N.Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205 Simeen Mahmud: simeen@bracuniversity.ac.bd; Nir ali M. Shah: niralishah@psi.org; Stan Becker: sbecker@jhsph.edu SUMMARY Women’s empowerment is a dynamic process that has been quantified, measured and described ina variety of ways. We measure empowerment in a sample of 3500 rural women in 128 villages of Bangladesh with five indicators. A conceptual framework is presented, together with descriptivedata on the indicators. Linear regressions to examine effects of covariates show that a woman’sexposure to television is a significant predictor of three of the five indicators. A woman’s years of schooling is significantly associated with one of two self-esteem indicators and with freedom of mobility. Household wealth has a significant and positive association with a woman’s resourcecontrol but a significant negative association with her total decision-making score. Keywords Empowerment; measurement; choice; self-esteem; South Asia; Bangladesh 1. INTRODUCTION With declining population growth rates in many developing countries, the attention of thepopulation and development community has shifted away from fertility reduction andtowards maternal and child health (MCH) goals. However, what has not shifted is the belief that women’s empowerment is key for attaining both health and population goals. Thus,understanding the relationship between women’s empowerment and maternal and childhealth (MCH) outcomes is an increasing focus of demographic and public health research(Basu and Koolwal. 2005; Bloom, Wypij and Das Gupta, 2001; Gupta and Yesudian 2006;Mullany et al., 2005; Portela and Santarelli, 2003). © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.Corresponding Author: Stan Becker, PhD. sbecker@jhsph.edu Phone: 1-410-955-4485 (office); 1-410-366-6923 (residence); Fax:1-410-502-5831. Publisher's Disclaimer: This is a PDF file of an unedited manuscript that has been accepted for publication. As a service to ourcustomers we are providing this early version of the manuscript. The manuscript will undergo copyediting, typesetting, and review of the resulting proof before it is published in its final citable form. Please note that during the production process errors may bediscovered which could affect the content, and all legal disclaimers that apply to the journal pertain. NIH Public Access Author Manuscript World Dev  . Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 29. Published in final edited form as: World Dev  . 2012 March 1; 40(3): 610–619. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2011.08.003. NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t    The fact that many women in the developing world are now better able to control fertilitydoes not necessarily mean that they have become more empowered. Despite nearly twodecades of empirical research on assessing women’s empowerment and measuringempowerment indicators, the process of women’s empowerment is still poorly understood.Furthermore, the causal relationship, if any, between women’s empowerment and MCHoutcomes could be quite different from the relationship between women’s empowermentand fertility outcomes. Hence, there is renewed interest in measuring empowermentindicators in a more systematic manner (Narayan-Parker 2005a).In this paper, we attempt to measure empowerment of rural women in Bangladesh using anumber of selected indicators with data from 128 villages where an NGO health andmicrocredit experimental study was conducted. Our objective is to gain a betterunderstanding of the relationships between empowerment indicators and the context or background factors that affect them. 2. BACKGROUND Although empowerment has now become a familiar and much used term, an adequate andcomprehensive definition remains elusive. One problem is that empowerment is a ‘latentphenomenon’ that is not directly observable: its aggregate results or effects may be visiblebut the internal dynamism is difficult to examine. Empowerment is also often seen onlypartially, as women’s increased autonomy and freedom. However, empowerment alsoimplies additional responsibility; responsibility which may not always lead to be welfare-enhancing outcomes. For example, women’s greater mobility and visibility often leads toincreased exposure to violence; women’s increased role in decision-making may cause mento take less responsibility and even withdraw support for critical decisions like health careseeking. Thus, empowerment brings with it both rights and responsibilities, and may lead tosome freedoms being curtailed (see Basu and Koolwal, 2005). It is because the process of empowerment is not without a price that assessing the relationship between empowermentand development outcomes is difficult.One definition of women’s empowerment is “an expansion in the range of potential choicesavailable to women so that actual outcomes reflect the particular set of choices which thewomen value.” (Kabeer, 2001:81). Empowerment is also seen as the process by which thepowerless gain greater control over their lives, gaining power not over others but to achievegoals and ends (Kishor and Gupta 2004: 694). Thus, exercising choice is seen as gainingpower. While the process of empowerment is applicable to both sexes, it is more relevant forwomen since women’s disempowerment is more pervasive as it cuts across class and othersocial distinctions, and is made more complicated by the fact that household and intra-familial relationships are a major source of women’s powerlessness (Malhotra and Schuler,2005). Drawing upon the above, and bearing the complexities in mind, empowermentbroadly means having increased life options and choices, gaining greater control over one’slife, and generally attaining the capability to live the life one wishes to live.The above definitions imply that empowerment is a dynamic  process   of change whereby“those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such an ability” (Kabeer1999: 437). It is also a process that is more relevant for those who are ‘powerless’ since itentails going from a ‘disempowered’ state to a more ‘empowered’ one. There are severaldefining elements that are common to the frameworks used to conceptualize theempowerment process (Kabeer 1999; Kishor and Gupta 2004). The first defining feature isthat of agency,  which is the “ability to define one’s goals and act upon them” (Kabeer 1999:438) or the ability to gain control over various aspects of one’s life (Kishor and Gupta 2004:694). The other critical element is access to and control over resources (material, human and Mahmud et al.Page 2 World Dev  . Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 29. NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t    social) that a woman acquires from the multitude of relationships in the various domains of the family, market and community. By providing the ‘building blocks’ and defining theinitial conditions which either support or hinder women’s agency, resources determine thetrajectory of the empowerment process. Finally, the broader setting that characterizes thecircumstances of a woman’s life (such as marriage, living arrangements, household wealth,and characteristics of influential family members) shapes the opportunities and choicesavailable to her. All these features are important in any framework for measuringempowerment.There are a number of measurement issues to consider. First, the empowerment process isnot directly observable: it can only be approximated using proxies or indicators. Forexample, the initial resources that women can draw upon and are considered theprerequisites to exercise of choice, are generally indicated by paid employment, education,and media exposure, but there is no guarantee that these will necessarily translate intoagency. Similarly, the ability to exercise choice can only be observed up to a point, since themotivations and purposes behind that choice are not evident. Indicators that have beencommonly identified to measure agency have included observable actions like participationin decision-making, financial independence, and freedom of movement. However, as Kabeer(1999) points out, agency can also take forms that incorporate motivations and intentionsthat are less amenable to measurement, like bargaining and negotiation, cognitive processesof reflection and analysis, and attitudes to or rejection of gender- based subordination of women (Kishor and Gupta 2004).Second, empowerment is a multi-dimensional process. Gender inequality exists acrossdifferent dimensions (social, economic, political and psychological) and in various domainsof women’s lives. The causal pathways through which resources are translated into agencycan also be varied: material, perceptual, relational and cognitive (Chen and Mahmud 1995).If the hypothesis is that increased agency enhances women’s well-being by reducing genderinequality in health status, educational status, personal security, and so on, then the causalpathways of influence from agency to favorable outcomes also need to be identified. In otherwords, indicators need to be specified and measured across various dimensions and alongdifferent pathways. There may be independence in the experience of empowerment acrossvarious domains. For example, women may gain greater agency and control within thefamily sphere without complementary changes in the community or public spheres. On theother hand, empowerment in one dimension can sometimes lead to empowerment inanother. For example, women’s agency in terms of gaining control over material resourcescan lead to greater participation in household decision- making.Third, context is crucial. The particular pathways of change vary from context to context,and even within the same context all women may not experience empowerment within thesame dimensions. This is particularly evident in the different ways household wealth andage can shape the empowerment process. Indicators can also be either context specific oruniversal. An indicator of freedom of mobility, for example, is much more relevant in apatriarchal context, where women are traditionally confined to the home, than in a westerncontext.Women’s empowerment in rural Bangladesh has been empirically examined, primarily withrespect to its relationship with access to financial services (Goetz and Sen Gupta 1994; Pittand Khandker 1995: Hashemi et al 1996; Steele et al 1998; Kabeer 2001; Mahmud 2003).The indicators of empowerment used have been varied: they range from managerial controlover loans, accounting knowledge, active use of loans, women’s role in household decision-making, magnitude of women’s economic contribution, mobility in the public domain,ability to make large and small purchases, ownership of productive assets, freedom from Mahmud et al.Page 3 World Dev  . Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 29. NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t    family domination, political awareness, access to household income and male income, andparticipation in ‘male’ household decisions like purchase of land or productive assets or incrop production decisions. The resources that constitute the determinants (covariates) of women’s empowerment identified by these studies were first and foremost participation in amicrocredit programme and the nature of that participation (type of investment made withthe loan, size of loan, years of membership), but other determinants were also identified,such as education, paid employment, mobility in the male-dominated public domain (seen inone study as an initial condition rather than an indicator of the process), and a favorablehousehold attitude. These studies used different conceptual frameworks to examine whetherwomen’s access to microcredit led to positive changes in their lives in terms of greateragency, but the ‘verdict’ has not always been clear cut. (For a comprehensive review up to adecade ago, see Kabeer 2001). In some of the above studies empowerment indicators havealso been used to predict outcomes at the household level, such as consumption levels, valueof women’s non-land assets, total hours spent by women and men in economic activities inthe home, hours spent by women in household work, whether women received treatmentwhen ill, whether children were immunized, the gender gap in education of children,contraceptive use, and exposure to violence.Missing from these evaluations of the effect of participation in microcredit programs onwomen’s agency and household outcomes is its effect on women’s perceptions and attitudes,which constitutes an important dimension of the empowerment process in the conceptualmodels discussed above. Perception changes are indicated by the extent to which womenexperience an increase in self- worth and the extent to which there is a decline in acceptanceof their lower status relative to men both in the home and in society. Moreover, anindependent source of information is an important resource for women in rural Bangladeshwith potential for empowerment in terms of action and in terms of new attitudes and alteredperceptions. But the empirical evidence on the empowerment of women in Bangladesh hasnot included media exposure as a covariate of empowerment. In this paper we attempt toaddress these gaps and to document the relationship between empowerment indicators andseveral background socioeconomic variables.. 3. METHODS In this section we describe the conceptual framework used, the data collection process, theoperational indicators of empowerment and covariates, and the analytic methods. (a) Conceptual framework The conceptual framework we use for measuring women’s empowerment in ruralBangladesh is given in Figure 1. According to this framework, the process of a woman’sempowerment is shaped by several factors representing both the setting and resources: awoman’s demographic status indicated by age; the household economic situation indicatedby household wealth; a woman’s social status as indicated by formal schooling; and herexposure to media. The process of empowerment is exhibited in four dimensions: self-esteem, participation in household decision-making, freedom of mobility, and control of material resources. The self-esteem dimension of empowerment is the least observable andhas not featured commonly in the research on empowerment reviewed above (Basu andKoolwal 2005).Generally, a woman’s freedom of mobility, control of resources and participation indecision-making change over the life cycle and rise with age. The effect of household wealthon women’s empowerment within the different dimensions is less straightforward, and canexert a negative influence on certain dimensions like role in household decision-making andfreedom of mobility but a positive influence on control over material resources. Formal Mahmud et al.Page 4 World Dev  . Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 29. NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t    education and exposure to media can help to empower women in all the dimensions. Byequipping women with information and new ideas, schooling can lead to an increase inwomen’s role in household decision-making and freedom of mobility, and has the potentialof enhancing self-esteem as well by promoting reflection and analysis and by demonstratingalternative ways of thinking and doing. (b) Data collection Our investigation is among currently married women in Bangladeshi villages using anumber of conventional indicators of empowerment with some modifications (described indetail below). The survey upon which these analyses are based was part of a largerexperimental study of the effects of microcredit and health services interventions in ruralBangladesh. Specifically, in a collaborative study with Grameen Bank, we selected 16 ruralareas from among 23 such areas where Grameen Bank had health centres in 2006. Thesixteen selected areas were those with the lowest levels of microcredit participation in theThana, the administrative area within which they are located (Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation, 2004). Eight villages with the lowest microcredit participation rates beyond thecatchment area of each health centre (defined by a circle of approximately four kilometers inradius) were sampled purposively from 24 such villages enumerated in a census. A baselinesurvey was then conducted in the 128 villages (8 villages for each of 16 health centers)between July and September 2006. Using the census data, a stratified random sample of households was chosen: twelve households with members currently enrolled in microcredit,fifteen households with women eligible for microcredit but not currently enrolled and fourhouseholds that did not meet the Grameen Bank eligibility criteria for microcredit, as theyowned more than 0.5 acres of land. The questionnaire to all ever-married women includedsections on: respondent’s background; reproduction; contraception; pregnancy, prenatal careand breast-feeding; child immunization and health; fertility preferences; husband’sbackground and women’s work; decision-making; women’s participation in microcredit; andtreatment of women in the household. The household response rate was 91.3% and thewomen’s response rate was 98.7%. Further details of the study are given elsewhere (Amin,Shah and Becker 2010). For these analyses we selected only currently married women.Appropriate sample weights were derived using the census data and these are employed inthe analyses below. (c.) Indicators of empowerment and covariates The questionnaire items used to derive measurements or scores on the indicators within eachdimension are shown in Table 1 and are now described according to the dimensions shownin Figure 1. In particular, the two self-esteem indicators can be considered universal whilerole in decision-making, freedom of mobility and control of material resources are specificto the socioeconomic context of rural Bangladesh. (i) Self-esteem— The questionnaire asked each woman if she believed beating of a wifewas justified for each of six scenarios shown in Table 1. In addition, in ten householddecisions (listed in Table 1 under decision-making) we assessed self-esteem based onwhether the woman reported that she thought she should be involved in the decision. Thustwo scores of self-esteem were derived by the number of scenarios in which the womanbelieves that beating is not justified and the number of household decisions in which thewoman reports she should be involved. The internal consistency of the two self-esteemscores, and the overall construct of self-esteem were assessed using Cronbach’s alphacoefficient (Bland and Altman, 1997). For women’s beliefs that she should be involved inhousehold decisions, internal consistency ( α ) was 0.74 and for her beliefs that beating was justified over the six indicators, it was 0.63. Mahmud et al.Page 5 World Dev  . Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 29. NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  NI  H-P A A  u t  h  or M an u s  c r i   p t  
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