Feminist Approach to Economic Empowerment


By: Lisa Kelly, Unifor, Canadian Trade Union Delegation

The theme of this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women is Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work.  This attracts a lot of talk of individualized solutions that fit neatly into the existing systems. I was excited to land in a session that examined women’s empowerment initiatives through a critical feminist lens. The workshop was called Non-traditional Livelihoods in India: Women Ride the Wheels of Change.

The workshop opened with an acknowledgement that there is a feminist critique of social entrepreneurship. If your approach accepts the principles of capitalism, can you really get to women’s true equality? The workshop moderator recognized that we can’t just add women to traditionally male jobs without recognizing that these jobs are becoming precarious.  We need to really examine what is becoming of the world of work and to push for decent work for all. We must also keep patriarchy in our focus. Patriarchy busts options so we must bust patriarchy.  

The workshop highlighted the Azad Foundation’s training program for women to become cab drivers in India.  The training involves 1st aid, self-defence, mechanics and English lessons.  More than the technical skills, women transform through an understanding that they should be free to go anywhere. By contributing financially to the family, there is less pressure to marry early. Female cab drivers have more freedom and become proud of themselves.  One of the drivers is shown in a film by Elizabeth Daube called On the Road – Kushi’s Story. Khushi’s Prajapati’s family was in debt and forced to move from their small village to Delhi. Khushi’s driving instructor highlights the sexist streaming that happens in Indian society.  Boys have many options for their future but girls must stay home and plan a domestic life. After Khushi’s training, she is no longer quiet and shy. She contributes financially to the family and feels that she can make decisions in her own life. There are now more than 500 women drivers in large cities in India.

Through this program, women change their views of themselves and about gender roles. If they can take on work outside of the house, men can take on more work inside of the house. Having female cab drivers available also support women who want to take cabs in safety.

Bipasha Baruah, Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues from the University of Western Ontario, reviewed how entrepreneurship has been pushed on women over the last 30 years. Liberalizing the economy and embracing globalisation only benefits some. It is often not a success strategy for resource-poor women. The precarious nature of entrepreneurship and the risk associated with debt, means many of the programs aimed at economic empowerment are not helpful to women in the long run.  Refocussing on jobs with good wages and benefits is a better strategy. Wider policy intervention is needed to raise status, security, decency and dignity of work – particularly work where women dominate – and challenge gender norms.

I loved that this workshop went beyond the glossy ideas of empowering women and highlighted the structural systems needing attention.


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