Has Empowerment Become Gendered – The Role Of Men?
The word empowerment is usually associated with women. Men have vital information to share on women’s empowerment and play a vital role in women’s sense of empowerment. A husband can make a big difference in encouraging or limiting women’s empowerment (Schuler, Islam & Rottach 2010: 12). Yet, men are rarely interviewed in women’s empowerment studies (O’Hara & Clement 2018). A better understanding of the role men play in empowering women and transforming gender relations is needed.
At present, information collected from women aged 15-49 predominates in the women’s empowerment literature, while information on the role men play in women’s empowerment is limited (Hanmer & Klugman 2016: 248). This is a serious gap in planning and research – “focusing on the needs of women independent of their families, communities, and institutions” is likely to produce gender-blind data (Doss, Meinzen-Dick, Quisumbing & Theis 2018: 73). Moreover, it neglects the existence (at times even the prevalence) of cohabitation and negotiation, and instead emphasises conflict and disagreement within a household (Doss, Meinzen-Dick, Quisumbing & Theis 2018: 73).
The experiences of women vary widely between and within their female reference networks, as well as in relation to the experiences of men. An ethnographic study conducted in Bangladesh used cross-reference interviews to track changing norms. This involved asking “about each woman’s own life and experiences, as well as asking her to compare herself with others in the community.” They “also asked men to talk about their wives, and young married women to describe their mothers and mothers-in-law, and whether they emulated either of these women” (Schuler, Islam & Rottach 2010: 4). Recognizing and measuring this degree of variation is vital for understanding women’s empowerment (Doss, Meinzen-Dick, Quisumbing & Theis 2018: 73).
Another source points to the strength of family bonds, and especially to the marital bond, in determining women’s ability to make decisions in the family. The marital bond, it is argued, can lead to domestic violence and abuse; but it can also take the less explored form of love and affection, and can positively impact the self-confidence and self-efficacy of women – key to empowerment. The work of Basu on emotions and reproductive health comments that “South Asian mother’s biggest nightmare is that her son will fall in love with his wife. The fictional mother-in-law knows that this is the surest way of dismantling her control over household affairs” (cit. in Allendorf 2012: 3-4). The current ways of measuring women’s empowerment seem to miss certain crucial ‘endogenous’ components such as love and the value placed on the mother’s in law control/opinion.
Engaging both men and women in critical reflections on gender roles and inequalities would provide a more articulate portrait of household life. In our recent literature review, only one of the sourced references makes an explicit, paragraph-long detour into collecting information from men that expands the horizons of the possible for both genders (Richardson 2017). This source mainly refers to men’s power over women and the impact that men’s attitudes and behaviours may have at the household level as either barriers or facilitators of the empowerment process. Other cases reveal the way women empowered in one field or another may make men feel that they have lost their status identity. This could lead to blaming women for breaking cultural rules and causing men to be more violent and angry as women defy them (Batliwala & Dhanraj 2004: 15). Care must be taken to ensure that women’s empowerment initiatives do not lead to an increase in gender-based violence. At the same time, just because men may react violently to women’s empowerment does not mean that women’s empowerment initiatives should cease.
The point is that there are multiple relationships within a household, and many will have an influencing role on women’s empowerment. But only interviewing household heads misses this nuance. A more detailed analysis of the household composition would require the integration of information about how women view other women, and the significance of mothers-in-law and co-wives, especially in extended family situations (Hanmer & Klugman 2016: 255). Certain literature highlights the potential of partnering collaboratively with men for women’s empowerment (Porter 2013).
Men and women are connected through various structures, roles and responsibilities. These include gender norms that prescribe certain behaviour as normal and acceptable, and other forms of behaviour as inappropriate and non-desired. Men can feel entrapped in the same structural influences that define (and confine) femininity (Porter 2013). Men/boys in low-income countries may have many needs and face potential discrimination because of age/race/disability etc., but they do not face the same historical and deep-rooted discrimination women do. Nevertheless, men’s involvement in women’s empowerment is implied but under researched, and can have a positive or negative impact on women’s empowerment.
The focus should be on gender, not on women in isolation. A variety of ages should be represented with interviews conducted both with younger and older men and women. This cross-gender and cross-age information is needed due to the existence of actual and potential forms of cooperation and complementarity between men and women in terms of their knowledge and skills, resource management, production, and decision-making. In some countries, “independent decision-making was not necessarily desired […] because women do not necessarily want to be included in every decision, and therefore should not be counted as disempowered if they have the option to participate, but do not, out of their own choice” (Malapit et al. 2019: 680). To understand women’s empowerment requires understanding their familial, social and cultural setting. It is not only that men influence women’s empowerment, but women influence men’s sense of empowerment too.
In methodological terms, recommendations are made to devise instruments which can capture the views of other people surrounding women respondents—both men and women living in the same household (Lombardini, Bowman & Garwood 2017: 15). While the recommendation of conducting interviews separately and privately for the male and female respondents, which is typically endorsed in measurements of empowerment including the Women’s empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), maintains its validity (Malapit et al. 2015; Malapit, Sproule & Kovarik 2017), sometimes mixed sex meetings or focus group discussions are needed. These can be powerful if they include men listening to women and valuing their words (Goldman & Little 2015: 772). Uncertainty remains as to whether or not focusing separately on gender-related forms of inequality will generate higher quality data in every context.
Due to the complexity of extended households, there are settings in which it may be deceptive to selectively focus on the (in)equality of one male-female pair. This seems to be the case with the WEAI survey, where sampling is usually done by isolating the male-female pair or the single-female household. There are other areas of social life whereby women’s empowerment should be measured, including “formal producers’ organizations and savings and loan associations, funeral societies and other self-help groups, labour exchange groups, or civic and religious groups” (Malapit et al. 2019: 682). Researchers and planners are urged to fine-tune their methodological toolkit and make it capable of capturing nuances of the woman’s life not in isolation, not even within the restricted conjugal bond, but in the wider plot of her significant relationships with different household and community members.
There is a clear imbalance in the literature. The role of men in women’s empowerment is overlooked and to understand this, there should be more literature on men’s empowerment and masculinity construction. Women’s empowerment studies need to reflect the nuances of women’s life and this varies by context and includes studying men’s empowerment and perspectives. This will at least provide a comparison and it will ensure that men are not emasculated in the pursuit of women’s empowerment, and will therefore help to create space for women’s empowerment. Engaging men in transforming gender relations is more often done in practical application and research should follow this trend.