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«Topic 2: Empowerment of women as a transformative strategy for poverty eradication “Poverty, Empowerment and Gendered life cycles: Latin American ...»

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19 November 2001


United Nations

Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)

Expert Group Meeting on

“Empowerment of women throughout the life cycle

as a transformative strategy for poverty eradication”

26 – 29 November 2001

New Delhi, India

Topic 2: Empowerment of women as a transformative strategy for poverty eradication

“Poverty, Empowerment and Gendered life cycles:

Latin American perspectives” Prepared by* Jeanine Anderson Ross * The views expressed in this paper, which has been reproduced as received, are those of the author and do not necessary represent those of the United Nations.

Introduction It is becoming increasingly clear that the models of poverty that have dominated our thinking and action over many years are far too static and unidimensional. This meeting, called to discuss women’s empowerment, poverty and gender inequality, and paths towards solutions in a dynamic framework focused on life-cycles, is welcome and far overdue. This is not to say that we are close to producing the changes needed in research paradigms and alternatives for action by governments and other actors concerned with world development.

But asking the right questions and putting a sufficient number of concepts on the table are positive steps.

This paper will examine some of the evidence from Latin America that helps to throw light on the relationships among women’s empowerment, life cycle processes, and poverty eradication. I begin with a brief discussion of what seem to be the more relevant constructions of “power” and “empowerment” for our present purposes. Thereafter, I will focus on three main questions. The first concerns the particularities of gendered life cycles in the Latin American region as they intersect with cycles of poverty and as each interacts with forms and processes of “empowerment”. The second raises issues of intergenerational transfers and the sustainability of change. The third concerns the dynamic nature of gender systems, both in their material and symbolic dimensions. A final section of the paper consists of extrapolations and some recommendations that emerge from the discussion.

1. Power: to have and not to have The meanings of “power” and “empowerment” are hotly debated, both within and outside of women’s studies and feminist theory (Wartenberg 1992; Dirks et al. 1994).

Conceptualizations of power distribute themselves along a continuum from “power over” (the capacity to coerce, to dominate, to impose one’s will, to get one’s way with others) to “power to” (to act, to decide, to create, to transform, to nurture others). A second axis has to do with the concentration or diffuseness of power; its “containability” or capacity to spread inadvertently over social space. In the first case, power is a capability possessed and exercised by an individual actor vis-à-vis others, manifesting itself in relatively discreet actions of domination and oppression. In the second case, it is a diffuse element that permeates social relations and institutions and, under specified conditions, comes to be “embodied” in actors, actions, signs, words and symbols.

To one degree or another, all of these possible senses and definitions of power are relevant in discussions of poverty and gender. Male violence against women –for example, a husband’s beating his wife or daughter for taking a job he does not approve of—falls at the domination/discreet action pole. Gender schema (Valian 1999), that cause women to be perceived as weak and indecisive despite the similarity of their actions to those of male peers, lie near the diffuse and permeating pole. Here, it is difficult to say where the source of power lies and who or what is responsible for its effects on women, curtailing their agency, self-assurance and objective possibilities.

Anthropology, the discipline I know best, has produced two particularly promising lines of inquiry into gender and power.

a. Symbolic versus “real” power It is perplexingly common, in human societies, that women possess and use power of various types, yet they are constructed, symbolically or ideologically, as subordinate to and less powerful than men. They may even be viewed as unreliable users of power: bad managers, abusive, defenders of the particularistic interests of their families rather than the general interest of the republic. This strain is prominent in Western political thought, as Carole Pateman (1989) has so ably demonstrated. Although her study relies on a crude methodology, as the author herself has recognized, Sanday (1981) gathers a wide range of cross-cultural evidence that shows the frequency with which women wield power in domestic, economic, and even behind-the-scenes political realms, yet men are construed as being those in control. Women’s power cannot be recognized; it is therefore in some sense “illegitimate”; and, in consequence, it may be disputed and reversible.

It is interesting to note that the early literature on poverty in Latin America that inaugurated the dynamic, multidimensional view predominant today, seemed to reveal a situation of female power hidden beneath a camouflage of male dominance. This is the literature on “survival strategies” (Lomnitz 1975; Raczynski and Serrano 1985; Anderson 1991). It emerged from second-wave feminism, the experience of women’s NGOs in poor urban neighborhoods, and the focus this brought to bear on women’s “agency” (not the term that was used at the time). Women were found to be making decisions over their own lives and immediate families, as they accessed resources, played their social networks, and pursued goals that entailed a progressive empowerment of some sort.

The point is that, even in professional research circles, the “powerful” analyses of poverty produced by women from the standpoint of poor women were not “empowered” officially, such that they were incorporated into the mainstream of research and policymaking. Even now, Latin American poverty analysis is dominated by debates about poverty lines, indicators and maps continuously refined to the point where villages, neighborhoods and housing blocks can be labeled as poor. Lines of social, economic, and political exclusion are imagined to be rigid and permanent rather than fluid and contested. Actors and agency are largely absent.

b. Accruals of power over the life cycle as a “spontaneous” process

A broad and well-established anthropological literature documents a general trend toward women’s increasing status as they age, passing from a status of “unmarried girl” to “young wife” to “woman with growing children” to “woman with adult children”, “grandmother”, and “head of household” (Brown 1982). This can be verified in many Latin American societies. In Peru, this life-cycle effect gives older women heightened authority, increased access to resources, greater decision-making power, increased personal mobility and a reduced workload. The unfolding of the process depends in part on personal qualities of the women themselves, on their capacity to claim the rewards of maturing and aging, and on the circumstances of the social network they have built up over the years. Crossculturally, older women, well advanced in personal and household life-cycles, reap the rewards of their high investments in “social assets”. This literature directs our attention to the world of social relationships and social exchanges as being an important arena in which to examine the nexus between poverty (or its absence), life cycle, and women’s empowerment.

2. Gendered life cycles, poverty cycles, and dynamic distributions of power

Our mandate here is to link power to the concept and to the lived reality of poverty. We must locate “empowerment” within a framework of development and of expanding economic opportunities. This privileges definitions of power that bring to the fore the capacity to act, resolve problems, create and transform. Moving out of poverty involves better management of a wide range of resources in new (and old; e.g. family) groups and combinations. Becoming empowered implies gaining control over the factors that influence livelihood strategies and thus reducing vulnerability.

A thought experiment:

One way of entering into the complex issues we have before us is through a thought experiment. What might be some of the components of “power to” that are relevant to avoiding or overcoming poverty, from the perspective of the individual woman actor?

· Smoothing out shocks and crises · Managing relations in groups whose cooperation is necessary for successful livelihood strategies · Developing one’s own capabilities and functionings as these are relevant to livelihood success · Raising one’s bargaining capacity (including self-esteem and self-confidence);

obtaining better terms of trade · Heightening the degree of control over “fields” of actors and events (information, prediction, technology, control of resources in demand by others) · Eliminating violence and coercion from exchange relationships · Facilitating transfer of knowledge and skills to children, associates, and assistants and to expand the scope, effectiveness, and productivity of one’s livelihood activities What might be relevant dimensions of power and empowerment, from a societal perspective? What would be an empowering environment for women?

· Institutions and rule regimes shaped to serve and encourage women’s livelihood activities · Broad dissemination of information, knowledge and understanding of the circumstances of one’s life and the real-world social and economic forces that constrain and enable one’s activities · Public goods that facilitate livelihood activities and personal development of women (as well as men)

A case study (Andean Latin America):

How do these imagined factors map onto real life, at least in one setting? Looking in detail at the social context, including family and kinship organization, custom and norms, we can flesh out a picture of opportunities and limitations on women’s “power to” in the case of Andean Latin America (rural villages and towns, migrants to poor neighborhoods on the urban periphery).

· Women are increasingly active economic agents as they become older and can delegate the heavy responsibilities of baby tending. The traditional Andean pattern involves long reproductive periods (often beginning before 20 and ending past 40 years of age) with 3 or 4 years’ spacing between children. Thus older siblings and cousins eventually become available to care for younger children. Women do not expect, nor do others expect, that they will stop working entirely at any period: they simply adjust their work involvement upward or downward according to family circumstances and the availability of assistants.

· Poor women (and men) display flexible sequences for crossing hurdles and making various transitions as they move through the life cycle (Anderson et al. 2001). The major transitions are completing formal education, initiating worklife, a period of exploration and wandering, marriage, child-bearing, retirement. Adult women, for example, despite their heavy loads as working wives and mothers, may continue actively to seek information and skills through participation in development projects, night school, organizations, and community leadership roles. By superimposing what would be for middle-class women two or three successive life stages (education/marriage/child-bearing), some manage to cancel out their initial disadvantages in terms of formal and non-formal education.

· The strength and “comprensión (mutual understanding)” of the conjugal pair is an important ingredient for avoiding poverty and for recovering rapidly from economic shocks. Marriage partnerships should function as “yuntas (oxen yoked to the plow)”, and there is abundant folklore about the connection between economic prosperity and peaceful, positive conjugal relations. One factor is the obligation of spouses to help maintain the viability of each other’s livelihood strategy. A wife might lend her husband fresh working capital after a robbery, for example; a husband might work several nights after hours to help his dressmaker wife fill a rush order.

· Men’s portfolio of assets is greater than women’s, and some categories of assets may be extremely difficult for women to obtain in their own right: for example, formal credit; titles to property; social security rights. Single mothers, widows and never-married women risk poverty because of lack of access to male portfolios.

Other categories of women, as they move through the life-cycle, fortify and diversify their relationships to male relatives, in-laws, employers, employees, and patrons. These become particularly important in their livelihood strategies.

· Building and maintaining a far-flung social network is an important social insurance mechanism for individuals and households, and it is explicitly recognized as such by the poor. Where women are restricted in their movements and cannot get their husbands’ “permission” to participate in local organizations, they lose opportunities for “bridging ties” (as used in the “social capital” literature) to wealthy and wellplaced potential helpers, and they have less access to circuits of information. Such restrictions are relaxed or disappear in the case of older married women who have proved their trustworthiness (from a jealous husband’s point of view). These women become increasingly involved with local organizations and projects, and they effectively cultivate ties to outsiders.

· Growing children are important contributors to the household economy, both in the form of labor and earnings. Mothers tend to have greater power of decision over their children’s labor than fathers (teen-aged sons, however, operate increasingly as autonomous economic agents).

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