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Empowerment is expansion of freedom of choice

D. MURALI

This week's reading list, recommended by D. MURALI, comprises books that examine initiatives by women to empower themselves, the scourge of female genital mutilation, and the struggles of mothers to be reunited with their children.

Money is not the most important resource in the fight against poverty. The poor are the vital resource because "they have imagination, guts, knowledge, experience, and deep motivation to move out of poverty," writes James D. Wolfensohn, former World Bank president, in his foreword to Measuring Empowerment, edited by Deepa Narayan, from Oxford University Press (www.oup.com).

Nobody has more at stake in reducing poverty than poor people themselves, writes Narayan. She defines empowerment as `the expansion of freedom of choice and action to shape one's life,' with `control over resources and decisions.' A more formal definition reads thus: "Empowerment is the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives."

But empowerment is a latent phenomenon, which is why there can be many a challenge to its measurement. The first issue is whether empowerment is a means, an end, or both. For instance, participation in decision-making can be viewed as a measure of intrinsic value of empowerment. "Then the number of meetings held or attendance at meetings can be an appropriate measure," explains Narayan. Disappointingly, though, "research indicates that in some contexts, poor people's attendance at meetings may be a poor indicator of their influence on decisions and hence outcomes."

Another challenge is cultural interpretation of empowerment. "In a Muslim society such as Bangladesh, for instance, a woman's movement beyond her home may be an indicator of increasing freedom, whereas in Jamaica, where women's movements are not culturally restricted, it has little relevance." At the time of writing, www.gulfnews.com reports about `Muslim feminists from around the world' vowing to create `the first women's council to interpret the Quran.' The report cites WISE, the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, for the view that `strict Sharia law was created by men and should be changed to incorporate women's rights.'

A chapter by Karen Oppenheim Mason is on `measuring women's empowerment.' People are not empowered or dis-empowered in a vacuum, but `relative to other people or groups whose lives intersect with theirs,' writes Mason. Her essay mentions many examples from `cross-national research.' Such as, about Akan women in the city of Kumasi in northern Ghana. They are powerful economically — "they work as traders, control a large market, and hire men to do their book-keeping and hauling."

Yet, "they are sexually and socially submissive to their husbands in the domestic arena and peripheral to the political process," as one study found. "A woman's paid work is unrelated to whether her husband beats or hits her in two of the four countries that asked about domestic violence (the Philippines and Thailand), and is positively related to being beaten or hit in the remaining two (India and Pakistan)." Wonder if the recent legislation would change the domestic violence scene closer home.

Yet another challenge in measurement is whether we are talking about individual or collective empowerment. "Only if we go together to the politicians, are we powerful. If we were to go alone, nothing would have happened. Our collective strength is our power," reads a quote of `a poor woman, Tigri slum, New Delhi.' Individual efforts at empowerment may be costly or futile, especially when there is group-based poverty and exclusion, says Narayan. "Collective action, using processes and rituals that have cultural resonance, is often critical in building confidence and new identity."

An example she gives is of how in the villages of Andhra Pradesh, `poor Dalit women, as their first collective act, chose to walk through the high-caste areas of the village with their shoes on (rather than taking them off in deference) and with their heads held high.' What happened then? "Their success in doing so without retribution from the high-caste villagers electrified the Dalit women's movement, which then went on to address livelihood issues."

Recommended power read.

Violence against women

The most shameful human rights violation is violence against women, declares Kofi Annan in a quote that heads a `fact sheet' on www.un.org/womenwatch. "Violence against women takes various forms," such as what the site lists: `Domestic violence, rape, trafficking in women and girls, forced prostitution, and violence in armed conflict (such as murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy),' and `honour killings, dowry-related violence, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection in favour of male babies, female genital mutilation (FGM), and other harmful practices and traditions.' To protect women against violence, there is a 1993 declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

About one of the forms of violence, viz. FGM, is this book by Waris Dirie, Desert Children, from Virago (www.virago.co.uk). The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that between 85 to 114 million women and girls, `most of whom live in Africa, the Middle East and Asia,' have undergone female genital mutilation, as the UN site informs. But Dirie's book is about FGM in Europe, which is said to affect about half a million women and girls.

"In my own country of Somalia women are still often regarded as their husband's `property' because they can be bought and sold like cattle," recounts the author, who was a face of Revlon skin-care products, and UN's `special ambassador for women's rights in Africa.' No different is the situation in Sudan, Congo, or Tanzania, she adds. "Even in peacetime there is a hidden war, a war against women: They are beaten and oppressed. And mutilated."

Warns Dirie, in the epilogue, that a time bomb is ticking away in Europe. For example, "In Germany alone the number of women affected by genital mutilation will double in ten years." She calls for regulations from governments to protect girls from the vice. Also European countries should regard genital mutilation as equal to political persecution, as ground for asylum, urges Dirie. "At the moment, France is the only country in which offenders are convicted and no European country officially recognises the threat of genital mutilation as a reason for asylum," says the book.

Too disturbing for the faint-hearted.

Mothers vs fathers

Children torn away from their mothers and then reunited. This is the story that Donya Al-Nahi narrates in Heroine of the Desert, from Anthem (www.manjulindia.com). "A nail-biting adventure since it often means breaking international laws at the same time as taking on fathers who are willing to fight tooth and nail to keep the mothers away from their children."

There is a common misconception in the West that Muslim men don't respect their women, writes Nahi. "In Islamic law the woman is revered, even more than the man because of her childbearing abilities... The men almost worship their mothers and grandmothers and the older women have enormous status within their families, something you seldom see in the West where the old are seen more as a nuisance and a liability."

Why should fathers take children away from mothers? Nahi traces the motivation for abduction to the fathers' wish to take their children back to their own countries. "When young men from good Arab backgrounds travel abroad to study or work they're overawed by the women they meet... They lose their heads."

It is only when differences between the man and the woman begin to show, while rearing the children resulting from the union, that `most abductions from the West by fathers take place.'

The book takes you on the trail of the author, staking out and snatching children back, for the sake of their mothers, even as all the fathers' men come on hot chase. Well, Nahi is no longer planning to go on such missions, ever since her cover got blown off.

"But I can still act as a trouble-shooter and go-between when families of different nationalities go to war over children," she offers. Kidnap dramas that can keep you off catnaps.

Reads that can sensitise one to the way women look at issues.

http://BookPeek.blogspot.com

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