Exploring Women’s Agency and Empowerment in Developing Countries: Where Do We Stand? Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Lucia Hanmer and Jeni Klugman

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the international community in September 2015 confirms the global community’s commitment to women’s empowerment. Goal 5 pledges to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. A critical dimension of gender equality and empowerment is the expansion of agency and choice. Lucia Hanmer and Jeni Klugman contribute to our understanding of existing patterns of agency and empowerment around the world and explore how to measure progress using readily accessible data.

Investigating women’s agency and empowerment around the world. Hanmer and Klugman add value to the existing literature in three important ways. First, they review the major strands of work conceptualizing and measuring women’s agency and empowerment, highlighting the commonalities as well as important nuances. Second, they undertake analysis of the extent, patterns, and correlates of empowerment for a much larger set of countries than has ever been done using micro-data. They utilize the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) for up to fifty-eight developing countries to investigate different domains of women’s lives. The sample represents almost 80 percent of the female population of developing countries. It is the first such empirical investigation of this scale. Their methodology includes simple cross tabulations and exploration of correlations using econometric analysis. They examine various measures – such as being able to refuse sex, household decision making, freedom of movement, and being subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) – and they explore patterns across countries and correlations at the individual and household level, including education, place of residence, and household wealth. Among the practical advantages of their approach is the relatively wide availability and frequency of the DHS data. Third, they present new results about the most significant factors associated with women’s empowerment.

Key findings. Hanmer and Klugman quantify some important correlations and add some useful nuances and caveats. The results suggest that completing secondary education and beyond has consistently large positive associations with measures of agency, underlining the importance of going beyond the traditional focus on primary schooling and suggesting there may be important threshold effects for education. There appear to be positive links of agency indicators with the poverty reduction and economic growth agenda, but clearly this alone is not enough, given the multiple dimensions of agency and empowerment. Women living in richer households are more likely to be able to exercise agency, but the impact is not as large as that of education. Women’s own economic opportunities and earned income can have positive effects, but again, not as large as expected.

Consistent with the emphasis in the new Sustainable Development Goals, Hanmer and Klugman focus on violence and show how the risk of suffering violence at home is systematically related to the husband’s use of alcohol, as well as to the woman’s own attitudes to IPV. Education has a protective effect against IPV, but again, interestingly, this is evident only at secondary and higher levels of education for both women and men. Finally, and not surprisingly, child marriage is associated with increased probability of agency deprivations, which supports the increased global attention to this pervasive phenomenon.

Hanmer and Klugman’s findings underpin and inform renewed global efforts to achieve gender equality, with the focus on eliminating discrimination, ending violence, and addressing harmful practices. The results buttress the importance of strengthening policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels, as the international community moves ahead on the Sustainable Development Goals.

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