Empowerment in the household

Ensuring that women have a greater voice in household and community decisions is critical to fulfilling their rights as well as the rights of children. While international agencies, governments, civil society organizations and women themselves have made significant progress in promoting a more egalitarian dynamic, much remains to be done. Some key areas that urgently require attention include:

Increasing women’s employment and income-earning opportunities

Ending the wage gap, opening higher-paying fields to women and allowing female workers more decision-making power will greatly benefit children. As women become economically productive, their spheres of influence increase. They become able to make choices not only for themselves, but also for their children. When a woman brings assets and income into the household, she is more likely to be included in decisions on how the resources will be distributed. Historically, when women hold decision-making power, they see to it that their children eat well, receive adequate medical care, finish school and have opportunities for recreation and play. Women who have access to meaningful, income-producing work are more likely to increase their families’ standards of living, leading children out of poverty.

Ownership or control of household assets and income is an important determinant of household bargaining power. Ensuring that women have opportunities to earn income or acquire land, a house and other property can help to strengthen women’s bargaining power and influence in household decisions.

Equal land and property rights would represent a significant step towards eliminating gender discrimination at the household level. For legal reform to change the lives of women and children, national laws based on human rights laws and principles must necessarily be upheld over male-biased customary laws and traditional practices. National legal reforms in property law and inheritance rights represent one of the most direct strategies for increasing women’s access to land and property. In the wake of land reform in Costa Rica, for example, women represented 45 per cent of land-titled beneficiaries between 1990 and 1992, compared with only 12 per cent before the reform. Similarly, in Colombia, after a ruling in 1996 on joint titling, land titled jointly to couples made up 60 per cent of land adjudications, compared to 18 per cent in 1995.

Involving men

Men can make a crucial contribution to ending gender discrimination. Globally, men continue to dominate decision-making processes in households, economies and governments. In addition, men’s participation in initiatives to promote gender mainstreaming and gender equality remains low. Such initiatives may be perceived as a threat to their status and power.

By making child-friendly choices and supporting women in their capacities as decision-makers, men can be powerful allies in the struggle for women’s equality. Evidence shows that men are more likely to be active, hands-on fathers when they feel positive about themselves and their relationship with the child’s mother, when they have support for active involvement in their children’s lives from family and friends, and when they are in employment.

Men are often the dominant household decision-makers, yet they tend to be overlooked by programmes that improve conditions for women and children. In one Indian state, for instance, researchers discovered that advocacy campaigns on nutrition were targeted to women, even though approximately 20 per cent of fathers made the decisions regarding children’s nutrition.

UNICEF’s experience shows that programmes that focus on males provide ways to promote positive gender socialization. Programmes that encourage the participation of both men and women can help to increase communication between the sexes and encourage a more even division of childcare responsibilities. In Viet Nam, for example, UNICEF has mobilized men to promote the use of oral rehydration salts to treat diarrhoea and to increase immunization coverage. Throughout Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, male and female activists are campaigning against gender-based violence. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, UNICEF programmes are attempting to foster the socialization of girls and boys as a means of stemming the spread of AIDS.

Another strategy for increasing men’s support for gender equality involves policies that aim to redistribute benefits to men and women more equitably. Evidence from the ‘Nordic experiment’ illustrates how this works. In Scandinavian countries, a combination of government and non-government initiatives contributed to a dramatic increase in the availability of paternity leave for men. In Sweden, for instance, fathers now assume responsibility for 45 per cent of childcare responsibilities, thanks in large part to the growing popularity of paternal leave.

Advocacy initiatives designed to educate men and women on the benefits of gender equality and joint decision-making can help nurture a more cooperative relationship between men and women. Evidence shows that fathers are more likely to stop abusive treatment towards mothers if they have been exposed to information on how gender-based violence adversely affects their children.

Supporting women’s organizations

One of the most important and effective avenues for women’s empowerment is the dynamic of cooperation among women. Informal women’s collectives organized around issues such as nutrition, food distribution, education and shelter help improve the standard of living for women, their families and communities. By standing up to discrimination and motivating other women, these groups begin the process of promoting the rights of girls and women for generations to come.

Grass-roots women’s movements have been the most vocal champions of women’s equality and empowerment at the local level. Evidence drawn from Demographic and Health Surveys suggests that in some developing countries much of the impact of women’s overall decision-making power is concentrated at the community level. Across the developing world, studies show that women’s participation in community initiatives can have long-lasting benefits for women.

Read more about how a group of adolescent girls are working to empower other girls in one of Bangladesh’s slums by fighting child marriage and dowry demands.