For Us, With Us: Women’s Economic Empowerment Programs & Women’s Safety

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By Bailey Reid, Women’s Rights Campaigner, Oxfam Canada

Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) programs are popular among development interventions.

They enhance the economic security of women and households by developing skills and confidence, and providing access to needed capital, assets, and markets. These programs can have positive effects on other aspects of women’s rights and well-being.  For instance, it is widely perceived that more economically empowered women can more easily avoid or escape domestic violence because their household status and respect increases, and economic dependence on men decreases.

But what if women starting a new small business or getting a new job increases the risk of domestic violence from their male partners?  Poverty can exacerbate violence against women, but do poverty alleviation measures targeting women necessarily lessen the risk?

Oxfam Canada’s Christine Hughes, co-author of Women’s economic inequality and domestic violence: exploring the links and empowering women, investigates these very questions. Given that Oxfam works to both empower women economically and eliminate violence against women, it is critical to think about whether or not we are supporting women’s rights and security in mutually reinforcing ways.

By looking at a sampling of WEE programs worldwide, the research found mixed outcomes – both increases and decreases in the risk of domestic violence among participants.  It is crucial to understand why programs, in some cases, may increase the risk.

If we look at the root causes of domestic violence and how power operates at the household level, this unfortunately makes sense.  Men may feel that they should be the primary “breadwinners” and may derive their sense of power from this. As WEE programs enhance women’s economic security, men may feel that their masculinity, authority, and control are threatened.

If men do respond in “backlash” ways, women are not only directly harmed by the violence that may ensue, but may also feel compelled to give up on their economic plans.  This locks them into dependence and causes negative ripple effects for children and communities that would benefit from their income and skills.

What can women’s economic empowerment programs do to lessen the risk of domestic violence?  Hughes and her co-authors emphasize the strengthening of women’s soft skills:  “Programs should foster women’s leadership, negotiation power, self-confidence, and communication skills…to negotiate conflict and avoid violent situations.” Furthermore, traditional notions of masculinity and gender roles need to be discussed and challenged.  This takes time, but involving men from the start – both partners of participants, and engaged leaders from community, educational, and religious circles – plays an important part in generating ‘buy-in’ and preventing backlash.

This research has important insights for the work of Oxfam and others in the development community.  It helps us better understand why building women’s economic power can either threaten or reinforce their right to be free of violence, and that economic empowerment and violence prevention must be addressed more holistically. After all, as one of the researchers so rightly says: “Freedom from violence is a necessary condition to allow a woman to pursue her dreams.” Oxfam is working to strengthen its women’s economic empowerment programs in order to better account for and address gender-based violence in the communities where we work.

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