Empowerment is an intangible, multidimensional and culturally defined concept. This presents major challenges for researchers, development practitioners, and donors seeking to measure women’s empowerment. How do we know if women are empowered through a particular intervention or initiative? And how can we measure women’s empowerment in an effective, robust, and practical manner?
To try and gain a better understanding of the global landscape of women’s empowerment in agriculture, our research team—comprised of researchers from the National University of Singapore and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)—combined elements of one of the most common tools used to measure empowerment, the quantitative Women Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), with the qualitative approach of Focus Group Discussions (FGDs). In addition to expanding upon the tool, we expanded the geographical scope of the study of empowerment in agriculture, which has typically focused on Sub Saharan Africa. We collected qualitative cross-country data from four Southeast Asian countries (Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and explored overall regional trends as well as intra-regional variation in women’s empowerment in Southeast Asian agriculture.
Our research demonstrates that focus group discussions offer a valuable complement to traditional quantitative instruments, but also bring some challenges.
What the WEAI does (and does not do!)
The WEAI, one of the most commonly used theoretical frameworks to quantitatively measure women’s empowerment in agriculture, developed by Alkire and colleagues in 2013, is a survey-based index that generates individual-level data collected through interviews with men and women within the same households. It measures the roles and extent of women’s engagement in the agriculture sector in five domains: decisions about agricultural production, access to and decision-making power over productive resources, control over use of income, leadership in the community, and time use. But because the WEAI index is purely quantitative in nature, it may not adequately capture a concept as intangible and unquantifiable as empowerment, as explored by Kabeer.
To address these limitations, we built on the WEAI to develop a qualitative research instrument for measuring women’s empowerment in agriculture; namely, a standardized focus group discussion (FGD) protocol that contained specific questions pertaining to each of the five WEAI domains of empowerment. To gather a wider understanding of empowerment, we included two additional domains in our study: health problems due to drudgery and access to extension services that provide advice, training, information and other support for farmers to improve productivity.
What a qualitative approach to WEAI domains did (and did not do !)
The qualitative tool we developed uses village level data obtained through focus group discussions to understand community norms on gender roles and women’s decision making power across the domains, rather than individual experiences. Focus group participants, who were mainly women, discussed the domains of empowerment with a facilitator, reminding them to relate issues to the whole village as the intent was to reflect what was commonly happening in the village. After thorough discussion, participants reached a consensus to describe their levels of empowerment for each WEAI domain.
Although the consensus yields a binary response for each domain (empowered or not empowered), the process of reaching that consensus offers rich insight into the local norms and traditions that define gender roles in the society and helps to identify the context-specific barriers and opportunities for women empowerment. For example, we found that women in all four countries do not formally own agricultural land. Most FGD participants did not even know whether their name appears on the land title. While this might be considered a strong indication of disempowerment by the quantitative WEIA, where asset ownership is a vital component of empowerment, our in-depth discussion with the participants revealed that, as per community norms, all household assets are jointly owned by both husband and wife; there is no need for formal ownership to assert women’s rights and access over land and other household properties.
We also observed important differences within the region in terms of time and drudgery. Labor-saving technologies such as combine harvesters, drum seeders and mechanical transplanters have alleviated women’s drudgery and workload in Thailand and South Sumatra (Sumatra, Indonesia). But in the Philippines, farming practices are still highly non-mechanized, and women are overwhelmed by the heavy peak season workload and suffer from numerous health problems. Another noteworthy intra-regional difference is in the degree of women’s access to agricultural extension services. Women play an active role in agricultural extension in Thailand and in the Philippines, but this is predominantly men’s territory in Indonesia and Myanmar. The differences stem from varying in socio-political values, culture, religion or family systems. Thailand and the Philippines are matrilineal societies, while Indonesia has a large Muslim population where religious restrictions discourage women’s interaction with extension officials (who are predominantly men). One way to overcome this barrier in Indonesia—and allow women more access to the valuable extension services—might be to increase the proportion of female agricultural extension officials.
The qualitative approach allowed us to dig deeper into the quantitative WEAI findings, but it also had limits, notably its lack of generalizability. Since qualitative studies are in-depth, they can accommodate only a small number of individuals, making generalization difficult. For example, in three of our case study sites, the sample sizes were 50 people and the geographical scope was limited to one to two districts in each country studied. Therefore, our findings cannot be generalized for an entire country or region. Qualitative methods are also prone to subjective interpretation and, as a result, are difficult to replicate. To ensure objectivity and replicability, researchers should ensure that data are coded carefully and adhere closely to an analytical paradigm, like the one we followed.
To wrap up
Despite these drawbacks, our qualitative instrument offers a quicker and cheaper addition to large-scale quantitative studies, if resources and time for such a larger-scale study are lacking. Indeed, FGDs can be used to validate the results of a quantitative study, or as a complementary measure to address questions on empowerment that a fully quantitative study is unable to accommodate.
Akter, S., Rutsaert, P., Luis, J., Htwe, N. M., San, S. S., Raharjo, B., & Pustika, A. (2017). Women’s empowerment and gender equity in agriculture: A different perspective from Southeast Asia. Food Policy, 69, 270-279.
Alkire, S., Meinzen-Dick, R., Peterman, A., Quisumbing, A., Seymour, G., & Vaz, A. (2013). The women’s empowerment in agriculture index. World Development, 52, 71-91.