Revisiting women empowerment through a cultural lens

Ethiopian landscape

An in-depth analysis of empowerment methodologies in horticulture in rural Ethiopia.

In this blog we present guidelines to design and implement participatory interventions to empower women in the future, drawing from the lessons of applying the Participatory Action Learning for Sustainability (PALS) methodology in the Gender and Youth Empowerment in Horticulture Markets (GYEM) project.

The GYEM project, funded by Comic Relief and implemented by SNV in Ethiopia, enhances women’s and youth’s social and economic empowerment through improved access to and control over assets and benefits in the horticulture value chain. By using the gender transformative household methodology PALS developed by Linda Mayoux (2001), the project aims to reach 15,000 households over the course of 3 years (2016-2019).

Gender equality and women empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. Empowerment implies a shift in power structures but, as disempowered groups internalise cultural subordination, existing power relations make it unrealistic for the disempowered to tackle inequality and disempowerment alone. Change then, can only occur with support from some external influence. For institutions facilitating this process, it is important to not impose their own cultural values or assumptions about empowerment. This implies not only a good understanding of the local culture and the structural constraints of that society but also clear insights in their own assumptions, reflected in the frames, methodologies and processes as well as success criteria used for such projects.

PALS positions itself as a participatory empowerment methodology aimed to create bottom-up change in society, and places responsibility on the individual actors, who get an active voice in the training process.

Women sitting around table
Woman showing crops

Our analysis of the methodology highlighted the importance of the cultural differences. It revealed the discrepancies in assumptions between the facilitator and the local community; and how these impacted training, monitoring and upscaling processes of the intervention:

The facilitator’s definition of empowerment as self-expression, an agency of thought, action and autonomy permeated the methodology and the assessment criteria. The individualistic and ‘western’ definition of gender equality might have taken over or missed what gender inequality meant for the communities. This was reflected by limitations in the success criteria of the intervention.

The collectivistic nature and high power distance in the communities meant that:

  • for women to be empowered, the methodology should be linked to a (new) structure in which they can exert agency based on a newly formed identity supported by the shared beliefs of that associative new structure;

  • those structures should offer the possibility to reach enough critical mass in one community (instead of spreading participants across several communities) since this new group is an important source of strength in facing challenges and peer pressure from the community;

  • tools should place the vision at group (family, community) and not at individual level as they not only serve as a legitimation to come together around a common vision but also to shape a new collective identity in which current power structures can be challenged;

  • the selection of participants should take into account possibilities they have to change and the power to influence their peers. Starting off with a majority of very poor people, as the methodology suggests, meant a higher risk to fail on creating a common agenda on gender since economic concerns would prevail, and a lower probability to influence peers;

  • having both men and women participate should be weighed. In an existing power structure where women are less likely to challenge the social relationships because they provide them with protection in exchange for adhering to the norms, raised questions whether it did not take away the opportunity for those women to define their own path of empowerment.

The content of this blog summarises the findings of the paper “Revisiting women empowerment through a cultural lens”, by Sarah de Smet (SNV) and Smaranda Boros (VBS), paper accepted to the Seeds of Change conference: Gender Equality Through Agricultural Research for Development, (to be) held in Canberra on 2-4 April 2019.

Learn more about the GYEM project:

The GYEM project works on increasing the productivity of horticulture farmers through Farmer Field Schools and the financial capacity of women through Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA), on opening market opportunities for farmers, on strengthening cooperatives governance and on youth employment. Also, read more about the PALS methodology.