Ana Vaz, Pierre Pratley, and Sabina Alkire
Increasing women’s voice and agency is widely recognized as a key strategy to reduce gender inequalities and improve health outcomes, especially in developing countries. Although recent studies have found associations between women’s autonomy and a number of development and health outcomes, questions regarding proper measurement of women’s autonomy remain. Key issues are whether direct or proxy measurements of women’s autonomy are used and whether selected direct measures capture all the different dimensions of autonomy. Ana Vaz, Pierre Pratley, and Sabina Alkire explore the methodological challenges of measuring women’s empowerment using definitions of autonomy in the context of The Republic of Chad. The authors also aim to contribute to the collection of empirical data on women’s agency in Chad, a landlocked country with some of the largest gendered economic and health inequalities in the world yet with surprisingly little data on the status of women’s agency and empowerment.
The Relative Autonomy Index. Based on data for 2012, Vaz, Pratley, and Alkire examine women’s autonomy using an indicator called the Relative Autonomy Index (RAI). The RAI provides a direct measure of motivational autonomy for both men and women. It expresses the extent to which a person faces coercive or internalized social pressure to undertake actions in specific domains. By employing the RAI, Vaz, Pratley, and Alkire address a key critique of current measures of autonomy, which mostly focus on decision making and may ignore a woman’s own values. The authors examine the measurement properties and added value of a number of domain-specific Relative Autonomy Indices using new nationally representative data from Chad.
Key findings. One of Vaz, Pratley, and Alkire’s key findings is that women in Chad on average have less autonomous motivation in all eight domains compared to their male counterparts. Another interesting finding in terms of conceptual validation of the measures is that analysis of the dimensional structure of the data suggests that in Chad, two (rather than the usual three or four) dimensions distinguish the larger categories of motivation. These are controlled and autonomous motivations, and as such, the authors find their results in Chad reflect these two larger categories of motivations put forward by self-determination theory, as the autonomy of people in Chad can be assessed with reference to these two broad categories of motivation.
Research implications. Vaz, Pratley, and Alkire’s study has important implications for the measurement of women’s autonomy. They find that relative autonomy in some domains, such as household activities and participation in groups, is negatively correlated with happiness, suggesting that the RAI yields new information that is not proxied by indicators of well-being. Vaz, Pratley, and Alkire also conclude that neither education nor income are reasonable proxies for women’s motivational autonomy. The authors demonstrate that the RAI is a useful tool with considerable policy relevance for feminist researchers and policymakers who want to go beyond conventional measures of autonomy and capture the extent to which women and men may personally value the activities they engage or have to engage in.