Friday, December 3, 2010

Dissertation on Women Empowerment

Dissertation on Women Empowerment

The aim of this discussion is to look first at the relevant definitions of work, gender relations and empowerment. Second, I will evaluate the empowering effect of obtaining a wage and how economic independence can lead to autonomy and self-determination for women. Third, I will look at the limitations of work in both the informal and formal sector and how it often results in a double burden for women. I will explain that this is all in the context of economic crisis and structural adjustment measures within Latin America.

By defining ‘work’ or paid labour in relation to women it becomes apparent that much work or daily tasks performed by women go unnoticed. Household reproduction because of its very nature and location has been concealed within the household and not fully appreciated as being of value. Western notions of work are perceived as being very separate from the home and can therefore be more easily set apart from reproductive tasks. This emphasis upon deriving income from outside sources has the effect of undermining the work that women do as it is seen as secondary to the contribution that is provided by the male breadwinner. Aside from domestic tasks within the household, it is becoming more apparent that women are becoming increasingly engaged in income generating activities that are based around the home and domestic responsibility. The effect of this is that distinctions between the public sphere and the private sphere are merging and becoming rather fuzzy (Craske 1999 Pg 91).

One effect of work or paid labour upon women is that it is said to be ‘empowering’. Empowerment itself is a highly ambiguous concept that is open to interpretation. Rowlands (1997) highlights that the action of empowerment ultimately involves the process of bringing people on the outside of the decision making process into it. It can also be seen as a process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic choices acquire the ability to do so. Other encompassing factors could include a shift to an emphasis of participation in political and formal decision-making. In the economic sphere empowerment would involve obtaining and sustaining an income and therefore ceasing dependency relationships where they occur, ultimately seeking to maximise these aspects of empowerment without constraint (Rowlands 1997 Pg 13).


These notions of work and the empowering effect is said to have for women has an impact upon gender relations. Gender relations refer to a cultural construction of gender interests, with emphasis placed on the complementary nature of men and women in society. In the context of Latin America the mothering role for women is overwhelming viewed as their primary role whereas fatherhood is not viewed in the same way for men. Gender relations are further enforced by the separation of men in the public sphere and women in the private (Craske 1999 Pg 10).

The 1980’s have been referred to as the lost decade in Latin America and indeed the South as a whole. The decade has been marked by increasing external debt, inflation, unemployment, migration and urbanisation (Pitkin & Bedoya 1997 Pg 34). The structural adjustment measures undertaken by governments have led to increasing pressures at the household level, particularly for working class households. The state is receding and is providing less and less in terms of basic necessities (such as health, welfare and education). The result of this is that households are required to figure their own survival strategies. Brodie (1994) points out that adjustment policies have had five major negative consequences for women. First, that poverty is becoming increasingly gendered especially among female-headed households and elderly women. Second, women tend to be more adversely effected by a reduction in social spending. Third, women have had to reduce household expenditure whilst prices continue to rise and thus have had to seek income generating activities to supplement the household income. Forth, the gains made in the 1970’s towards gender equity are being undermined through changes in the employment market and reductions in childcare facilities, education and retraining programmes. Lastly, the cutbacks in public expenditure have has a direct impact upon the women that worked within public sector occupations (Brodie 1994 pg 50). Thus, in terms of the rolling back of the state and its removal from social spending, it is most definitely women that are feeling the brunt of economic restructuring.

Economic restructuring has also had the effect of increasing the numbers of women entering into the formal sector of the labour force. The reasons given for this are that capital has become more fluid and transnational corporations are now dominating international trade. This has led to a growth of technology in a global sense and also to the growth in export processing industrialisation as a major development strategy (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 21). What is central to these notions of an international division of labour, are the employment of large numbers of women (they generally constitute 70% to 90% of the industrial labour force) in free trade zones. The reasons for the large number of women that have been employed in these sectors are related entirely to a belief that women are more capable of enduring monotonous and repetitive tasks on an assembly line. They are also perceived as being inherently passive and would therefore be reluctant to partake in any union activity. In terms of labour costs women are far cheaper than men (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 22). In the context of Latin America the provision of large-scale formal of this type of employment has been restricted to Mexico, the smaller countries of Central America and the Caribbean (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 23).

As well as creating more jobs for women, economic restructuring has also led to mounting unemployment for men. McClenaghan (1997) points out that there is a lack of data regarding male economic marginalisation and how this in itself will impact their own social identity as well as gender power relations (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 26).

The positive implications of paid labour reveals itself in terms of women’s empowerment and sense of pride in gaining an ability to obtain a wage. By attaining a sense of autonomy and independence women are more able to manipulate relationships to become more equal. The wage in effect enables women to engage in decision-making and to challenge male authority at the household level (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 25).
In Ver Beek’s (2001) study of maquiladoras workers in Honduras it is highlighted that employees are more likely to feel that their relationship with their parent or spouse had improved. Also, that the males in the household help out more with domestic tasks since the employee had begun work in the maquiladoras. Perhaps most significantly, Ver Beek points out that the role of head of the household is directly related to employment in the maquiladora, thus there is a definite positive link between this type of formal employment and relations in the household (Ver Beek 2001 Pg 1558).

This sense of wage labour and the effect of increasing decision-making power within the home are echoed in Roldan’s (1988) analysis of domestic outworkers in Mexico City. Domestic outwork in Mexico operates with minimum contractual requirements, unionisation is forbidden and the work itself is very unsteady. It is linked to subcontracting chains, which in turn are linked to enterprises and multinationals that produce the finished goods for the market. The general trend was that the wives in the study would contribute one hundred percent of their earnings into the household pool whereas men would contribute a percentage of their earnings i.e. they were allowed ‘pocket money’. Women very rarely spent money on their personal needs or desires. Roldan identifies two types of income distribution patterns, a pool group and a household allocation group . In both groups, women expressed a desire to work, not only because of the need to supplement the husband’s income but also to secure a minimum degree of autonomy or control of their lives. In fact, a large proportion of the pool group (87%) opt to work not only because of economic need but also as a way of abating the power held by the husband.

In some instances men apposed women’s decision to work as they felt that their domestic and family responsibilities would be neglected, particularly when the employment was located in a factory or as a domestic servant. Men also did not want to be seen to allow their wives to work as this would be contravening the normative, that the husband brings home a sufficient wage to support his family while the wife performs the household reproductive tasks. Also, men view that they will lose the respect of their wives once she undertakes employment. Domestic outwork is a popular solution to the growing economic need for women to work as it is considered invisible work in that it is carried out within the home generally as an extension of women’s domestic tasks. It is also low paid work, ensuring that men do not lose their position within the household as the main earner (Roldan 1988 Pg 240).

The general trend of women contributing to the household showed that the greater the contribution to the household income, the greater the participation of wives in decision making within the family. Where women are seen as being important economic providers they attain joint or sole decision-making. Although women continue to respect their husbands they also feel that they are able to question his authority and make their own views and opinions known. This is coupled with a sense of importance; women are beginning to realise the significance of their contribution (Roldan 1988 Pg 242). Furthermore, where men have ceased to contribute wives are reported to have lost respect for their husbands and would fight back if he were to strike them. Interestingly, when the women in the household allocation group were questioned if they would continue to work despite the increase of the house keeping allowance, the majority (95%) said that they would. They felt that their husbands would use an increased allowance as a means of control (Roldan 1988 Pg 245).

Wilson (1991) also highlights similar findings. The female workshop workers employed in Santiago, Mexico expressed that the main advantage to work was the cash wage and the power that this attributed to them. They no longer had to ask for money and felt a degree of pride at being a provider of cash within the household. Workers generally contributed up to half of their wages and consequently have a great sense of responsibility within the home. Conversely, male members of the household where not required to submit regular contributions. Despite gaining this sense of pride, Wilson argues that this is not an indication of emancipation as young, unmarried daughters will enter workshop employment in order to lessen the financial burden upon the family. As older daughters go out to work long hours in the workshops the burden of domestic responsibility falls on younger female members of the household. These young women that go out to work are still very much controlled by their parents and must work out of respect and duty to them. They are also restricted as to what they can spend their money on. Entertainment, alcohol and tobacco are forbidden (Wilson 1991 Pg 170).

That is not to say that these young women have not used their more adult status to renegotiate their position within the household. Significant changes have been noted in comparison to the mother’s generation with regards to dress, which is far less restricted for younger generations. They are less subject to comments and out right restrictions from male members of the family (Wilson 1991 Pg 170).

Changes in courtship and marriage have also arisen though this is more with respect to courtship conventions and practices than marriage itself. A certain degree of respect is derived from the community with the onset of marriage. As the young have greater command over money they now believe that they can make their own decisions concerning marriage. The average age of women marrying in 1960 was 18.3 years whereas in 1980 it was 20.8 years. Young women that have experienced their mother’s bad marriage and are wage earners themselves are more likely to marry late. Wilson points out that there are small groups of the most skilled and higher paid workers that find good reasons for delaying marriage. There have been changes in young wives perception of marriage, those that are determined to work after marriage generally conceive marriage to be a partnership and that responsibility for the household should be equally distributed between husband and wife. Despite this, most young men continue to heed traditional practices that effectively keep women within the domestic sphere. In no case have women been able to change the allocation of domestic labour; at the very most some men will partake in minimum child minding. For wives that work (in any sector) child minding is undertaken by young girls that are paid very low wages (Wilson 1991 Pg 187).

These greater rights over women’s own disposal of their income, changed status in the household and delayed marriage, have the effect of giving young women workers a longer period of youth in the parental home. Wilson also highlights that these factors are particularly visible because of limited employment opportunities for men locally in Santiago (Wilson 1991 Pg 187).

Despite winning some changes at the private level, McClenaghan (1997) argues that this gives only a partial indication of change since it separates the private sphere from the larger social and political context (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 25). Also, in the context of economic restructuring in Latin America there have been shifts in the characteristics of low-income households. For example, escalating migration has resulted in increases in female-headed households, in these situations the norms of patriarchal power relations will not be applicable.

By emphasising the private sphere as the area that women are challenging traditional gender roles and gaining power within the household, is effectively failing to appreciate the limitations of this private power. By definition, gaining private power is not collective and is irrelevant outside each individual case (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 27).

In McClenaghan’s study in the Dominican Republic there is little evidence to suggest that women have gained any sense of empowerment from their employment working in the zona franca region (a free trade zone), or indeed that patriarchal relations in the public and the private have been altered in any way. Women’s entry into the work force has occurred entirely as a result of economic necessity for the family, to counteract the fall in real wages and family income and also to provide materially for their children. It is this that is resulting in a double role for women: as economic providers for the family and as mother’s that care for the emotional needs of her children. It is precisely this that is creating a worker identity that is intertwined with the commitments and identity of being a mother. The result of this is that the worker identity is rendered weak (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 28).

Traditional gender roles are said to be far more resistant to change despite women gaining some form of a worker identity that is attempting to challenge these power systems. Even though women may recognise themselves as the primary worker in the household, they still regarded the male as the head, which will obviously prove hugely limiting to shifting emphasis away from traditional gender ideological norms (McClenaghan 1997 Pg 29).

These ideas of economic necessity bringing about challenges to traditional gender roles are further explored in Pikin & Bedoya’s (1997) fieldwork in a housing project called Solanda located in Ecuador. In the context of economic crisis growing numbers of women are entering employment. It is suggested that while women may achieve some forms of autonomy and resource control with the onset of employment, this can also lead to tensions within the family. Although they recognise the importance of their work and their contribution to the home they also recognise that society as a whole is yet to appreciate the value of this and thus they are powerless. It is also suggested that in times of economic crisis it is necessary for the whole household to become more unified in order to survive and it is this also that may provoke change within homes and within the community (Pitkin & Bedoya 1997 Pg 37).

There is strong societal disapproval of women that are unable to fulfil their primary role as mothers and housewives. Women are generally validated for their sacrifices on behalf of their children and husbands rather than for any personal gain of professional success. As a result women will always emphasise the former and thus any notions of worker identity that is separate from notions of motherhood are suppressed (Pitkin & Bedoya 1997 Pg 41)).

The informal sector work that the women in the area undertake allow them the flexibility to balance domestic responsibility with income generating activity such as establishing small businesses within the home. This type of work does offer some advantages in terms of its flexibility and in enabling balance, however production and reproduction overlap and as a result occupy the same space in women’s lives. This renders women even more vulnerable to outside structural constraints and institutional forces and this is particularly heightened during economic crisis. Informal sector work often receives little societal recognition and rarely provides women with more formalised ways of exercising collective power. Other negative aspects include the lack of benefits (sick pay, health, holidays etc.), less status and the need for an initial injection of resources. These constraints can limit the potential positive impact of women’s income generating role on their status within the family unit and beyond (Pitkin & Bedoya 1997 Pg 42).

Additionally, the work that women undertake is seen more as an extension of domestic duty and given that the work will generally constitute small returns, women are less able to employ others to take care of the home and the children. These long and laborious hours that women work result in a double burden, thus the potential for empowerment and a renegotiation of gender relations are severely constrained (Pitkin & Bedoya 1997 Pg 40).

Formal employment such as maquiladoras work, can reinforce these constraints. Although the workers may gain a greater sense of worker identity because of its separation from the home, by its nature maquiladoras work is characterised by long hours, low pay and grossly inadequate or non-existent union activity. The gender hierarchy within the labour force reveals that although majority of workers are women, they generally occupy the lowest levels of the hierarchy whilst men monopolise supervisory positions. There are some women that will aspire to become group heads or line heads though it is at this level that the differences between each sector become apparent. In the electronic sector line heads are always men and women are reluctant to undertake jobs of this type. This is mainly due to the perception that ‘technical’ work is outside the realm of women’s capability by both men and women themselves. Also, the workers themselves identify these positions with management status therefore the women that do occupy these positions often lose the companionship and solidarity of work mates. This is significant in that many women site the benefits of companionship within the factories as their main source of job satisfaction and as a result would be reluctant to forfeit this for very small financial incentives (Pearson 1991 Pg 153). Thus, it can be said that work of this type is reinforcing patriarchal relationships within the formal employment sector.

In conclusion, it appears that obtaining a wage can prove beneficial to women in renegotiating gender relations within private sphere, however this renegotiation is limited to each individual household and does not encourage any sense of collective action outside the household. Furthermore, sense of worker identity is suppressed in formal and in informal sector employment, the traditional domestic role of women as mothers is proving resilient to change.

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