Women’s Week | The power and limits of women’s collective agency in fragile contexts: from pastoralist communities to refugee environments by Holly A Ritchie

Women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s pathways of social and economic empowerment. Yet, with limits to collective agency, Holly Ritchie argues that the emergence of broader women’s movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.


The need for empowerment in fragile contexts

In rising above the #MeToo Movement and championing change, women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s ‘individual and collective journeys of empowerment’ (Cornwall 2016), and opening up critical space for cultural transformation and development. Such strategies may be particularly vital in fragile environments where strong patriarchal norms and attitudes persist.

For women in such contexts, ‘gender-transformative approaches’ are urged to appreciate both evolving gender norms, as well as power relations that underpin gender inequalities. Williams et al. (1994) indicated that understanding different types of power was crucial to unwrapping women’s empowerment. At an individual level, ‘power-to’ is the capacity to act, permitting agency and creativity. ‘Power-within’ relates to inner strength, referring to self-confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness. Meanwhile, ‘power-with’ involves collective power, such as through women’s groups and networks that may provide strength to their members through solidarity and support.

Collective action promoting pathways of empowerment

Beyond an activity or intervention that is carried out on women, or for women, traditional feminists and recent empowerment researchers highlight the importance of women’s recognition of their own power alongside women’s active collaboration in promoting pathways of empowerment (Cornwall 2016). In particular, women’s collective action and organisations is emphasised as a ‘force for positive change’, at both a local level, and through their influence on laws and policies that can promote gender equality (Htun and Weldon 2010).

At a grassroots level, women’s organisation through savings groups, such as Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs), are viewed as fundamental tools for stimulating women’s empowerment and market development. Beyond facilitating access to assets, they are described to be ‘gender-transformative’ in opening up opportunities to challenge discriminatory gender norms and barriers, for example domestic labour inequities, sexual violence, and unequal access to education and health services, reinforcing gender inequalities, and inhibiting inclusive growth, and development.

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Somali women attending a ’16 days of Activism’ event in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Holly A Ritchie

In marginalised rural communities in East Africa, NGOs such as CARE have established VSLAs, predominantly with women (20-25 per group). In my research in remote parts of Somaliland[1], pastoralist women’s social organisation in VSLAs was shown to boost women’s skills and financial literacy, as well as enhance women’s confidence to be household contributors. This has both encouraged petty trading activities and business initiatives, and triggered women’s greater involvement in household and community decision-making.

For pastoralist women that have often missed education, participation in such groups was described to be the ‘largest driver of change’ in women’s lives, influencing control over their livelihoods, changing perceptions of women, and even fostering new self-beliefs amongst women that they could be community leaders: “Before women’s roles were confined to the household but now we are outside of the house, in public, creating role models for other women…there is a big change in community attitudes”.

Women’s empowerment in fragile settings

In practice in fragile settings, women’s empowerment may often be more subtle and gradual however, and one dimension of empowerment (e.g. participation in decision-making) may have knock-on effects to other dimensions of women’s lives over time (e.g. access to resources and markets) (Mahmud 2003), particularly if there is contextual receptivity and space for individual and collective agency. Yet with instability and a lack of trust, there may also be structural setbacks to individual achievements and collaborative endeavours, and non-linear pathways of change.

Meanwhile, insights from my refugee research have illuminated tentative trends of women’s ‘forced’ empowerment in displacement contexts, and links to collective action (Ritchie 2018). Prompted by circumstance, refugee women elaborated various cultural challenges as they endeavoured to support their families through forging new social and economic norms. Yet such new practices – including women’s increased public mobility, and new work norms in enterprise – remained uncertain, without a process of negotiation and agreement with male family members, and with little environmental support.

My research looked at the precarious nature of changing gender roles and relations for refugee groups, particularly as men remain excluded with little access to acceptable work, and struggled for their own identity and authority (Kleist 2010). In protracted refugee environments however—such as Somali refugees in urban Kenya—the research highlighted women’s own cooperative strategies boosting solidarity and support for new practices through the development of organised groups, and even engagement in social activism.

The need for a ‘critical consciousness’

Yet with situational fluidity, my recent refugee research in Kenya indicates that women’s refugee groups may be vulnerable to a loss of leadership and momentum, as group heads are granted asylum in the US and elsewhere, curtailing the development of refugee groups, women’s cooperation and a broader movement for social change. Ultimately, for women’s own growth and development, Kabeer (2011) highlights the importance of a ‘critical consciousness’ amongst women that may unleash women’s greater struggles for ‘gender justice’. But arguably with limits to collective agency, the emergence of such movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.

[1] Ritchie (forthcoming)  ‘Trends in Gender and Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa’.Synthesis paper. CARE International.


References

Cornwall, A. (2016) ‘Women’s empowerment: what works?’ Journal of International Development 28 (3): 342–359.

Htun M, Weldon L. (2010) ‘When do governments promote women’s rights? A framework for the comparative analysis of sex equality policy’, Perspectives on Politics 8: 207–216.

Mahmud, S. (2003) ‘Actually How Empowering is Micro-credit?’, Development and Change, 34: (4): 577-‐605.

Kabeer, N. (2011) ‘Between Affiliation and Autonomy: Navigating Pathways of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice in Rural Bangladesh’, Development and Change 42(2): 499–528.

Kleist, N. (2010) ‘Negotiating respectable masculinity: gender and recognition in the Somali diaspora’, African Diaspora. 3(2): 185–206.

Ritchie (2018) ‘Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration?’, Disasters, 42(S1): S40−S60

Williams, S., Seed, J. & Mwau, A. (1994) Oxfam Gender Training Manual. Oxford: Oxfam.


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Holly A Ritchie is a (post doc) research fellow at the ISS, with a strong interest in gender, norms and social change in economic development in fragile environments. Her work has spanned Afghanistan, East Africa and the Middle East. Ritchie’s blog article titled  Hyper-masculinity: a threat to inclusive community development in fragile environments can also be viewed on the ISS Blog.

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