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Measuring Women's Empowerment

By Josh Halpren

Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index

Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index

Economics professor Caren Grown has spent her career working to understand the inherent connections between gender and economics. Currently on leave from AU as the senior gender advisor for the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Grown is integrating her research and experience on gender and economics with both general policy development and in specific areas. 

Over the past year, Grown worked tirelessly to update USAID’s Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, a policy that hadn’t been updated for nearly 30 years. The policy makes an evidence-based case that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential for better results in development. “Updating the policy institutionalizes the progress USAID has made over the years,” she says. “But it also brings USAID to the forefront of development institutions, focused as it is on high impact partnerships, harnessing the power of innovation, and developing meaningful monitoring and program evaluation to deliver results.”

Grown’s perspective on gender and economics has been useful to other aspects of her work at USAID. “One of the first things I explain to my students,” she says, “is that economic outcomes—income, wealth, access to education, etc.—differ systematically by gender; hierarchical gender systems influence the distribution of material resources and opportunities; and norms and stereotypes legitimate unequal access to the best jobs, wealth, and power.” Understanding these differences is important for programs designed to stimulate economic growth and productivity. She has worked to infuse gendered economic analysis—what she teaches students in Gender Perspectives on Economic Analysis: Microeconomics—in the tools that USAID uses to help countries design development programming.

But of all of her achievements at USAID, Grown is perhaps most proud of her contribution to the creation of a new Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index. This new monitoring and evaluation tool benefited from the lessons learned through Grown’s research, including most recently as co-principal investigator of the Gender Asset Gap Project, an ambitious project to collect information on the financial and physical assets owned by men and women and explore how asset ownership matters for empowerment and wellbeing.

With a grant from the Dutch government’s MDG3 fund in 2009, Grown and colleagues in Ghana, Ecuador, and India embarked on a series of household surveys in those countries in order to understand the gender asset gaps. “This field work was absolutely invaluable,” she says. “We worked to understand the differences between men and women when it came to ownership, access to, and control over land, housing, livestock, agriculture equipment, and financial assets.” With the information they collected, Grown and her coauthors calculated various measures of the gender asset and wealth gaps in the three countries and are now examining how these gaps influence other wellbeing outcomes.

Grown’s colleagues at USAID had been planning a new monitoring tool for measuring the impact of the Feed the Future Initiative, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative. When they learned that Grown had joined USAID, they engaged her as part of the team, and together with colleagues at USAID, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative, they created the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEIA), a unique, rigorous, yet practical method for tracking the empowerment and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector. 

The WEAI focuses on five areas: decisions over agricultural production, power over productive resources such as land and livestock, decisions over income, leadership in the community, and time use. Women are considered to be empowered when they meet the requirements in some combination amounting to four of the five areas. By asking women and men the same survey questions, the Index also shows the empowerment of women compared with men in the same household. 

Launched at the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women meetings in March 2012, it will be used to monitor Feed the Future investments in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and hopes are to scale it up elsewhere. The prospects are good:  the Index has attracted the interest of many other international institutions, including the FAO, the International Fund for Agriculture Development, and the World Bank.

“The surveys that we designed to collect the data for the index are pioneering in several ways,” says Grown. “First, we move away from the problematic notion of household headship and collect information from a principal male and a principal female within households. Second, the index attempts to measure empowerment directly, and not through proxies like education or income. And, third, the index can really be used as a monitoring tool in programs on the ground in different country contexts.”  Grown hopes the index will help USAID and other organizations understand how best to empower women through agriculture. “Fundamentally, what we want to know is whether or not our investments are enabling women to benefit from our investments and participate in the growth of the agriculture sector,” she explains.

Grown’s work promises to bring a true understanding of gender and economics to USAID and to the development community in general through her drive and passion for enabling those with the ability to make change to understand the situation as it is and how best to improve it. But Grown also mentions how thankful she is for the opportunity to engage AU students in this effort. Two of Grown’s economics PhD students, Marya Hillesland and Greg Seymour, aided in the development of the WEIA through research opportunities at IFPRI. “Our students’ contribution to the development of the index has been one of the most satisfying aspects of this project,” says Grown.

For more information on the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, go here.