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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How Do You Measure "Empowerment"?

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October 31, 2013

India’s new Food Security Bill, passed in August this year, entitles an estimated 800 million people (75 percent of the rural and 50 percent of the urban population) to heavily subsidized wheat, rice and millet. This program hopes to tackle the alarming rates under-nutrition among children and women in India. India has seen strong economic growth in the last two decades, yet rates of child malnutrition continue to be among the highest in the world.

 The study collects new data to examine change over time on key gender-related health, nutrition and institutional metrics. The aim is to try to ultimately measure women’s empowerment.A holistic approach is essential if we want to ensure that women and children benefit from the food bill and other efforts to improve nutrition. The poor nutrition of women before and during pregnancy needs to be tackled as well as the care and feeding of children in order to give children a better start in life and support mothers as they nourish themselves and the next generation.

Along with improving the agriculture, social conditions, sanitation and health, we need to ensure the empowerment of women within the healthier ecosystems so that they and their children are better nourished in the long term.

In September, the ICRISAT Village Dynamics Studies in South Asia (VDSA), began collecting new data to examine change over time on key gender-related health, nutrition and institutional metrics. The aim is to try to ultimately measure women’s empowerment. This is funded by the foundation and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Markets and Institutions.

Data collection has started in eight villages of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra after rigorous training of the investigators, pretesting and validation. Overall there are 487 households and quantitative and qualitative data on gender and nutrition will be collected for each of them up to 4 times during an initial period of one year.

Nutrition status will be measured by:

  • Dietary diversity
  • Anthropometry
  •  24 hour dietary recall
  • Health and sanitation (including access to toilets and drinking water)

Women’s empowerment will be measured by:

  • Labor participation
  • Social networks
  • Time allocation
  • Assets
  • Gender attitudes and norms
  • Decision making

But what does "empowerment" mean and how can we measure it? Empowerment doesn’t necessarily come with wealth and education. There are many factors that influence women’s status and control over household decisions. An index launched last year to measure women’s empowerment in agriculture analyzes women’s engagement over five areas: production, resources, income, leadership and time allocation.

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) was developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative director Sabina Alkire and research officer Ana Vaz, with IFPRI and USAID. It aims to indicate women’s control over critical parts of their lives in the household, community and economy. A woman is empowered if “adequacy” is achieved in 80% or more of the indicators.

We asked Sabina if this index could be used to study the link between empowerment and nutrition in ICRISAT’s new data set. She said that the index had specifically been developed for the context of agriculture and could easily be adapted to capture overall empowerment. While she feels empowerment can be permeable, (i.e. women empowered in agriculture can also be empowered in the home) this is not always the case due to the influence of norms and values.

Sabina stressed the importance of asking questions about autonomy that capture the influence of social factors. Women’s childcare practices are determined by a range of factors and collecting information on how and why women do these is vital to study the link with nutrition. In her view, a nutritional empowerment index could also include questions to reveal women’s knowledge and practices on key areas like breastfeeding, giving the antibody-rich first milk, colostrum, and weaning (giving sufficient soft food).

Peer education is also powerful as seen in West Bengal where women in the village would follow the practices of other poor women who had healthy babies in order to gain praise. This is the basis of the approach being used by the NGO Digital Green in the SPRING nutrition program which is producing videos showcasing key behaviors, often celebrating early adopters of important nutrition practices. The videos feature local women and other community members and are disseminated by trained community agents through self-help groups.

 But what does "empowerment" mean and how can we measure it? Empowerment doesn’t necessarily come with wealth and education. There are many factors that influence women’s status and control over household decisions.

Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist at DFID and Professor of Development Economics at Oxford University, questions how and if empowerment can be measured and whether the index would demonstrate that empowerment was linked to nutrition. However, he does feel that ICRISAT’s new gender and nutrition data set will be a good way to test the index for potential links. He agrees that it is essential to gather information on norms and values as well as detailed data on health and sanitation practices due to the large role these issues have in nutrition.

Over the next year, valuable information will be collected to help study the role of women’s empowerment in food and nutrition security. In-depth discussions with families and mapping of social networks will add further detail to the data. We hope that by next September we can work with development specialists to identify the positive factors in improving nutrition in order to address the current constraints and build healthier communities. 

 
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