Friday, February 13, 2015

Learning to Listen: How Voice and Agency Can Improve the Lives of Women Globally

In the first WAPPP seminar of 2015, Jeni Klugman, former director of Gender and Development at the World Bank and current WAPPP Fellow, spoke on the importance of women and girls having agency over their lives. The seminar, titled “Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity” touched on the findings of the World Bank’s recent publication of the same name.

Klugman started by defining voice and agency, both of which have become buzzwords in development work in recent years. The World Bank defines voice as being “able to speak up and be heard, and to shape and share in discussions, discourse and decisions,” while defining agency as the ability “to make decisions about one's own life and act upon them to achieve desired outcomes, free of violence, retribution, or fear.”

Women’s position globally has improved in recent decades, but not nearly enough. Since the 1979 passage of CEDAW, the 188 signing states have outlawed gender-based discrimination and violence. Still, more than 700 million experience violence by a husband or boyfriend over the course of their lifetimes, with rates at high as 40% of women experiencing this violence in regions such as the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. The well-documented costs of intimate partner violence make this problem an economic priority, as well as a moral one, for many of the world’s leading institutions.

Klugman highlighted the growing literature on measuring women’s agency. Early strands of such research, influenced by Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen, took a multidimensional approach and made sure to not equate agency with assets. This subjective survey data had its limitations, however, and the World Bank soon turned instead to objective demographic and health surveys, finding that the best indicators were related to what people said they did as opposed to more abstract concepts.

Many of the World Bank’s findings were unfortunately unsurprising. Agency indicators were worst in regions with low education levels and in rural areas. Marriage also predicted less agency, as being married reduced sexual autonomy, and this effect was even stronger for those who were married as a child. Risk factors of intimate partner violence included alcohol, women’s own attitudes towards violence, circumstances of marriage, such as marrying young or being in a polygamous marriage, previous child abuse and living in a conflict state. 

Education had a protective effect for women, but only for women who had received secondary education and above. Additionally, women who live in countries with domestic violence laws in place were 10% less likely to experience violence from an intimate partner.

Klugman closed by highlighting areas where changing norms and progressive laws and enforcement look promising. Broad-based participation in the change process that includes men, boys, community leaders and elders seems to hold the most potential, while there are more partial results if only women are involved in the intervention. The identification and agreement on core international indicators is a good step in the right direction, Klugman argued. She also pointed to databases such as WAPPP’s Gender Action Portal as important ways to translate research into policy and practice.

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