Type the words “sewing machine” and “empowerment” into a search engine and you’ll yield hundreds of thousands of results.
That’s because non-profit organisations and aid programs have led us to believe that small-scale business ventures — via sewing machines, microloans and even goats — empower women in developing nations, known collectively as the Global South.
In 2008, New York Times bestseller Half the Sky argued that women in the Global South can turn oppression into opportunity by entering the labour market and becoming “engines of economic growth”.
But American-based academic Serene J Khader, who is this year’s Alan Saunders lecturer, says such logic is deeply flawed.
“Calling policies like giving goats and sewing machines ’empowerment’ makes them seem not just like they reduce poverty, but like they reduce injustice,” she told audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference this week.
For more than a generation, New Zealand economist and feminist Marilyn Waring has argued that the definition of work, in most countries, excludes the responsibilities traditionally assigned to women — child rearing, cooking, cleaning and so on.
So, the notion that women in the Global South should start a business or enter the labour market — and therefore engage in “real work” — ignores the time-intensive, physically exhaustive reality of domestic duties, and impels women to do more.
According to Dr Khader, men have traditionally been enabled to work because their wives take care of children, the house and the garden.
“Many of the women would ostensibly be empowered through work are women who already get up at 4:00am to fetch 20 kilos of water from a well that is miles away; who spend hours cooking, shopping for food, and tending to fields, children in tow, and can only go to sleep after an evening meal is cleaned up after at 10:00 or 11:00pm,” Dr Khader said.
But rather than acknowledging the existing load women carry, numerous aid organisations are keen to burden them with an even larger responsibility.