Women’s Agency and the Psychological Domain: Evidence from the Urban Fringe of Bamako, Mali Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Elise Klein

Most studies of the poor tend to focus on socioeconomic structures as proxies for agency and development. By examining the psychological domain of women’s agency in a neighborhood on the urban fringe of Bamako, Elise Klein argues that the psychological domain plays an important role in women’s agency and social change.

Based on fieldwork conducted in the study site in 2009 and 2011–12, Klein observed that every day, women acted to enhance either their personal and family well-being or that of the community. Women (and men) were purposeful in their actions because they were following their aspirations: to get a job, to have a house, to reap a good harvest, to have their children educated, to overcome poverty, and so on. For many of the women living in the study site, the aim was working toward what they call hèrè in Bambara, defined as “well-being” and the “good life.”

Purposeful agency: dusu and ka da I yèrè la. Klein’s inductive study explores mechanisms that were central to this purposeful agency. In interviews and focus groups, two important concepts emerged as being central: dusu (internal motivation) and ka da I yèrè la (self-belief). While seeming perhaps a little extraordinary at first, these concepts emerged time and time again when Klein asked about what was necessary for men and women to overcome hardship in their lives. To quantify these concepts, Klein then carried out a household survey. Whilst ka da I yèrè la and dusu were important to both men and women, this paper examines only women’s ka da I yèrè la and dusu.

Intrinsic and instrumental value of psychological concepts. The concepts of ka da I yèrè la and dusu were important for women from both poor and non-poor households and across education levels. They were also conceptualized differently from decision-making ability and resources, suggesting that while these are very important for women’s agency, so is the psychological dimension. Dusu and ka da I yèrè la had both an instrumental and intrinsic value, where acting with them helped propel women to initiate improvements to personal or community well-being and also brought an intrinsic level of satisfaction.

While socioeconomic characteristics such as gender, age, education, and household deprivation (in terms of the multidimensional poverty index [MPI]) condition dusu and ka da I yèrè la, they do not determine them. Despite difficult livelihood circumstances, women could still feel high levels of dusu and ka da I yèrè la, which should not be written off as adaptation. Still, this agency operated within gendered structures and institutions and reproduced gendered norms that may not be emancipatory to women.

The psychological domain of agency should be taken into account in development literature not just because of its instrumental value, but because of the intrinsic value concepts such as dusu and ka da I yèrè la bring to the project of “development.” The risk of just focusing on the instrumental element of purposeful agency is that actions are then considered valuable and promoted only as a means to development ends, which are generally captured to mean economic growth and modernization; in this way very little consideration is given to how “development” is defined and valued by women.

Nonetheless, while dusu and ka da I yèrè la underpinned purposeful agency in the neighborhood, they are not enough to ensure women’s social and economic development in the neighborhood. As women are subjected to a range of limiting roles and processes in the study site, women’s empowerment also requires critical awareness, decision-making ability, and the redistribution of power and resources.

View the article in full.