Global Development Institute Blog

 A reflection on women empowerment in slum upgrading projects

by Esther Ndacyayisenga

‘’In some families women are still oppressed and can’t come up. In others, women have managed to cooperate with their husbands and still reap the benefits of the federation. And for other families, it ended in breakup and family destruction’’ – Female-participant A, personal communication, March 27, 2018.

It is widely accepted that empowering poor urban communities and involving them in political and economic decision making has the potential to contribute to poverty reduction and improved household livelihoods (UNDP, 2016), especially when empowering women, who are widely thought to use monetary gains  in a way that benefits the household (spending money on food, rather than booze and leisure). But what is the impact on household dynamics when more power is gained by the female household member? While focusing on economic empowerment, this blog discusses this issue, combining a reflection on the literature and the recent fieldwork experience in Jinja, Uganda, where the urban poor women in slums are the primary beneficiaries of Slum Dwellers International (SDI) development programmes.

savings register

Savings register (left) and federation members with students from the University of Manchester (right). (Source: Photographs taken by a fellow student and used with their consent, 2018)

Globally, the progressive empowerment of women is one of the standout elements of the past century. The improvements in the lives of women have been largely through adoption of international instruments and programmes of action aimed at committing governments to empower their female citizens, according to ActionAid (2001). Currently, gender equality has become an integral part of almost all policies, and the transformation in terms of access to justice and education, to employment, health and political representation is evident.

Women’s empowerment and the adoption of gender-sensitive policies are crucial because of the contribution both can make to shifts in gender roles. For instance, a fifth pledge by the heads of state and government contained in the 2015 SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) summit outcome document is to “achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Which will require more vigorous efforts, including legal frameworks, to counter deeply rooted gender-based discrimination that often results from patriarchal attitudes and related social norms” (UN, 2015:20). However, despite the popularity of gender justice, the transformative potential of current strategies/practices to change the unequal gender power relations has been widely critiqued (Moser, 2015; Moser, 2016)

In Uganda, there are emerging best practices in the gender area and at almost all levels. Improved representation of women in national parliaments and executives is as significant as such improvements at the local level (UNDP, 2012). In 2012 the number of women in parliament increased from 30% to 35% and to a minimum of one third in all local governments (UNDP, 2012). Also in urban slum communities of Uganda, through the national federation of slum dwellers of Uganda (NSDFU) or SDI Uganda, majority women have been appreciably empowered in different ways. In cities where NSDFU operates (Kampala, Jinja, Mbarara, Mbale, Kabale, Arua), it is claimed that women participation in local decision making has contributed to challenging dominant representations concerning power and voice (Cities Alliance, 2017).

The focus on women’s leadership and women’s voice is a core part of Slum Dwellers International or SDI’s work around the world. SDI is pushing for stronger representation in political and economic decision-making for urban poor women in cities, and more sustainable urban settlements which are inclusive of the most vulnerable (Cities Alliance, 2017). The SDI annual report (2017) showed that SDI has successfully supported livelihood-building through organising women-led savings groups and providing the low incomes with access to economic livelihoods opportunities that resulted to enhanced livelihoods and wellbeing of the urban poor.

savings group

Savings group in a meeting (Source: Photograph taken by a fellow student and used with their consent, 2018)

While the hype around SDI women empowerment is generally positive, the discourse can also be perceived as quite limited on the impact on intra-family gender relations.

During a 10-day field-visit to Jinja, the second largest region in Uganda, some highlights from the interviewed members of NSDFU-Jinja affirmed there were many positive benefits to women members of the savings groups (who currently hold more than 60% of membership according to NSDFU-Jinja estimates) and to their families, communities and even to the country. This Include financial independence, leadership, increased self-esteem and confidence to handle money as well as an acceptance in the wider society.

“In 2008-2009, when I was joining the federation I could not speak. The exposure from the federation has transformed me.”  – A female member of NSDFU who is now among the federation’s senior leaders.

‘There is some degree of empowerment for all women in the federation. Some are empowered more in financial management and business, others in leadership, public speaking and participation’ – Female-participant A, personal communication, March 27, 2018.

“Before women were waiting for their husband to provide everything for the family. But now they are able to contribute financially to meet basic household needs such as paying school fees for children, health emergency and food. The exposure from savings groups and regional meetings greatly empowered women in financial management’ – Male-participant B, personal communication, March 23, 2018.

On the whole, households’ livelihoods improved as a result of the NSDFU empowerment programs targeting women and there were indications that some of these improvements may lead to further enhancing the recognition of women’s potential as agents of change for their households and communities. However, the dilemma between women economic empowerment and household relations was apparent in Jinja. Intra-household relations did not necessarily improve, and in some cases worsened, as a result of the programmes. Family separation/divorce and increased domestic violence were noted in some areas.

In some instances, women not only contribute economically to the household but also they are maintaining their traditional roles doing the household chores such as cooking, cleaning, water collection, childcare. Which increases women’s overall work burden relative to that of their husbands. Another important case to highlight is that of women who choose to cope by not revealing their savings amount to their husbands, which further raises suspicion over household finance management. This shows how women can be empowered in some spaces but not necessarily in others.

Another really interesting, and worrying finding from Jinja was that the majority slum households were headed by single mothers, and in some cases, this was also due to changes in gender roles. In jinja many instances were mentioned of men who had left their families (and the community) because they were either unable to contribute adequately to the family income, or simply because they feel their pride as providers and heads of families was being swallowed by their empowered wives who took over the responsibility to feed the family while devoting less time to domestic work. In most cases, this has led to anger and frustration for employed/underemployed men. And in order to regain the confidence in their economic role as providers, some men moved to households headed by ‘welcoming’ lone mothers.

Well, if one gender feels threatened by another becoming more powerful, that gives the impression that power has gone from one side to the other. So does this suggest power is a zero sum game?

women and men SCALESWomen and Men- Equal power (Source: meaningfullife, 2018)

To reflect on this question let’s look at the meaning of power, as the basis of all interpretations of empowerment. There are various definitions of power, but this paper adapts Jo Rowlands’ definition (1995), distinguishing between four types of power: power over, power to, power with and power within. “Power over” represents a zero sum game, as described above. It is power of hierarchy and domination. In contrast, the other three forms of power -power to (capability to make decisions and carry them out), power with (collective power through communal activities), power within (self-esteem and the sense of rights) – are all positive and augmentative. An increase in one’s power boosts the power of all (Rowlands, 1995).

Some aspects of these forms of power may be indeed zero sum but others may not. So, it may be partial to argue that women in Jinja getting more power necessarily disempowers men, because there were also few instances where men appreciated improvements in their own quality of life from cooperating with women and respecting their rights in the home. According to some, it added to intimacy in the family. On this end, as argued by Rowlands (1997), the evident multifaceted nature of power suggests that the initiatives towards empowering women could bring about better outcomes if approached more thoughtfully.

Does this mean SDI’s approach to empower women forgot to look at what could be the consequences inside the household?

The debate around current gender-sensitive interventions underline that most projects and programs are implemented according to the logic of economic empowerment; focusing actions at boosting the economy of the most vulnerable (in this case women) (FAO and ILO, 2009). However, it seems the question goes beyond women’s access to income. The conditions under which individual woman tries to work out the opportunity handed to them are crucial. On one hand, these conditions may foster the wellbeing but on the other hand, the healthy development of the family may be constrained (FAO and ILO, 2009). There are still some contextual limiting factors including legal frameworks, culture and traditions, educational and welfare systems that are generally gender biased and often perpetuate gender inequalities and the associated injustices (FAO, 2017).

In the end, in Uganda there is still something to be done about exploring further as to how female empowerment initiatives would overcome the sociocultural limiting factors, if transformation of unequal gender power relations is to be attained.

Esther Ndacyayisenga is studying a Msc. in Global Urban Development and Planning and wrote this blog as part of field work focussing on ‘participation and empowerment’ of urban poor communities in slum upgrading projects.


Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole