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Organizing for women’s economic empowerment: Access to resources and principles for change

Posted in Access to and control of resources on March 11th, 2013 by

Contribution by Just Associates (JASS).


At the 12th International AWID Forum, JASS organized the in-depth session “Access to and Control over Resources: Organizing for Women’s EmPOWERment”. The following section presents some of the key ideas discussed in an attempt to broaden the understanding of access and control of resources from an analysis of power and rights. An example of these power dynamics is illustrated in a case from Guatemala where indigenous women and their communities’ struggle for recognition, rights, and resources threatened by mining industries. Finally, JASS shares a few principles for change in the struggle for women’s economic empowerment and to create alternatives that improve lives and promote reciprocity, justice and wellbeing for people and the planet.

An overview[1]

Empowerment… is the process by which those who’ve been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire that ability.” – Naila Kabeer

“…empowerment refers to a range of activities from individual self-assertion to collective resistance, protest and mobilization that challenge …power relations …Empowerment…is a process aimed at changing the nature and direction of systemic forces that marginalize women…” – Srilatha Batliwala

Access to and control over resources is about power. Today, the ferocious scramble to control and exploit resources—from land and forests to technology and human DNA—is a scramble for power. Women’s seemingly micro-struggles for access and control of resources are shaped by “macro” dynamics at the household, community, national and global levels. Organizing for women’s economic empowerment means understanding how power operates in all of these realms and transforming it to achieve more just and democratic ends. This includes broadening our understanding of access and control of resources from an analysis of power and rights; and identifying and learning from women’s strategies that tap into and build upon many kinds of resources to create alternatives that improve lives and promote reciprocity, justice and wellbeing for people and the planet.

What do we mean by resources?

“…not only material resources in the most conventional economic sense, but also the various human and social resources which serve to enhance the ability to exercise choice.” – Naila Kabeer

There’s a tendency to think resources are about money or economic goods. We understand resources to mean a full range of tangible and intangible assets that are essential for translating access into choices and change. These resources include concrete economic and political stuff: money, funding, credit, jobs, land, property, tools, equipment, fertilizer, healthcare, water and other natural resources, technology, education, information, food, housing, police protection, legal services, healthcare, political representation; and it includes intangible stuff like: time, safety, wellbeing, political networks and social capital, credibility, self-confidence, creativity, organization, friends, fun, love, etc.

What do we mean by access and control[2]?

Access: the opportunity to make use of something/resources for a larger gain. Access will reflect the rules and norms that govern distribution and exchange in different institutional arenas.

Control: the ability to choose or define how and for what purpose it will be used, and even to impose that definition on others—in other words, another word for “control” might be power, and power can be positive or negative depending on its purpose.

Common myths about access: many efforts and policies to improve women’s access to resources focus on making a resource available and improving so-called “equality of opportunity.” Such approaches usually fail to rectify discrimination because people are not in the same position to be able to take advantage of the opportunity due to historical disadvantages and social norms.

What do we mean by power? 

Behind questions of inequality, exploitation and oppression are the dynamics of power and privilege. We define power as the degree of control over material, human, intellectual, and financial resources exercised by different sections of society. Power is dynamic, exercised in the social, economic, and political relations between individuals and groups, and can be used for both positive and negative ends.

Most people associate power with “power over”—that is, the ability to control and make decisions for others, with or without their consent. Power over can take on oppressive and destructive forms, perpetuated by the threat or use of violence. But there are other positive forms of power too. Power within is one’s own sense of self and agency; power with is collective power, the power of numbers built through common cause and solidarity.

Many advocacy strategies focus on shaping visible forms of power over—for example, laws, policies, and elections. However, power over operates in less tangible ways that, if left unaddressed, make any policy victory tenuous. Hidden power operates in the unspoken rules, behind-the-scenes negotiations, and agendas of influential actors and institutions. Invisible power includes cultural and/or religious beliefs, norms, values, many of which are internalized through the process of socialization.

What do we mean by feminist movement-building? 

Movement building is a process of organizing and mobilizing a broad constituency around a particular social, economic or political change developed over time through joint analysis, education and building connections. It is important to distinguish between the ideas of building feminist movements and feminist movement building (adapted from Srilatha Batliwala).

Building feminist movements is a process that mobilizes women, women’s organizations (and their allies or supporters) for struggles whose goals are specific to gender equality outcomes—for instance, for eradicating practices like female genital mutilation, bride-burning and female foeticide, or violence against women, or for expanding equality of access to citizenship (e.g. franchise), land or inheritance rights, education, employment, health, or reproductive and sexual rights.

Feminist movement building, on the other hand, could be defined as the attempt to bring feminist analysis and gender-equality perspectives into other agendas and movements—classic examples are the efforts of many feminists to engender the analyses, goals and strategies of the environment, peace, human rights, and peasant and labour movements around the world. Feminist movement-building can also involve building movements among women from different movements or agendas.

Adapting the ideas of Naila Kabeer, Martha Nussbaum and others, resources are essential for realizing rights and equality. Women need power to translate access into real improvements in their lives and world. Challenging the institutional and social barriers that prevent women’s access to resources is political and risky, and demands individual and collective empowerment and organizing strategies as the case studies demonstrate. Put simply:


Guatemala: “The Rape of Mother Earth” – Marlin Gold Mine

 The closer one gets to the Marlin mine, the greater the evidence of deforestation and the scars of mega project development, which tears at the land.

The Marlin Mine is the largest gold mine in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and accounts for 95-percent of the country’s precious metals exports. It is 100-percent owned by Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Canadian mining group Goldcorp Inc., who have head offices in Vancouver.

At the Marlin mine cyanide is used to separate gold particles from rock in a process known as “leaching”. The process has been banned in several countries, but in Guatemala it continues. Opponents say this waste has polluted the local water and eco systems and is making people sick.

COPAE, the pastoral commission for peace and the environment, along with its adherents in the trade union movement in Guatemala and the democratic indigenous assemblies, believe the mining and hydro-electric mega projects herald the third great wave of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

First came the Conquest, then came the great post-colonial land grab by the new neo-liberal oligarchy, who created coffee estates by clearances that forced native people to the mountains. Now come unfettered globalization and the rush for gold.

Indigenous organizations have faced the full plethora of murder, assassination, harassment, threats, disinformation, hostility, bribery and corruption from the oligarch-controlled state and its cohorts.

Instead of mega projects, indigenous activists are calling for an integrated national development program that revitalizes and rescues the rural agricultural economy.

And in terms of mining, they want greater controls over the shipment and handling of toxic substances; more detailed environmental impact studies; an independent monitoring system; a disasters and emergencies fund; transparent auditing of materials being mined; free access to information and rigorous control over the discharge of residual waters used in the industrial mining process.

“Like anyone else, of course we want to live well,” says K’iche community leader Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic. “But we can still live well in Guatemala without gold, without mines. Of course we need food, water, land, clothing. You can have one vehicle; but you don’t need 10.”

“This is more than an environmental crisis; this is a crisis of civilization,” she warns. “We believe we can make a vital contribution to this debate: how to live in harmony. This is not a battle. There are no winners and losers. This is about life.

“Ours is a democratic and non-violent movement. We need the international community to know what is going on. We are not alone in this; 375,000 people have said ‘No’ to the Marlin mine. We have no confidence in these mining companies, based on their activities around the world.

“They have already cut a deal with the government. This is illegal, unjust, illegitimate. It is savage capitalism, economic gangsterism. They are cheating us once again, this time in the name of progress and development.

“Our concept of living well is living in harmony with nature: air, water, energy, earth. In our culture we do not talk about so-called progress and development.

“This is a new confrontation between the Mayan People and the state. We have a different way of looking at the cosmos and life and they are breaking the relationship between human beings and nature. Where is the reciprocation?

“We are not the owners of the earth. We have to live in harmony. They are raping our territory. They are violating Mother Earth, there is no consensus.

“They – the state, the army, trans-nationals, the big families – are not consulting us. They are taking the land, as if they were the private owners.”

* Adapted from the article by David Browne, ITUC newsletter #23, August 2011, pgs.2-5.

Seven Principles for Change in the Struggle towards Women’s Economic Empowerment[3]

1. Start with women’s solutions: As always, when states relinquish their responsibility to provide for the basic welfare of their citizens, women step in to fill the gaps. From savings cooperatives to home-based care networks to mothers demanding justice for family members, women are on the frontlines of all social justice struggles. Their leadership, strategies, and their demands for sustainable alternatives are different and important. While society depends on this work, it is largely invisible and unrecognized.

2. Bring power and politics to the forefront of our analysis and strategies: Efforts to translate economic and political concepts (including rights) often do little more than simplify arcane terminology without linking it to real life economic problems and political realities. In many cases, these programs have lacked a full appreciation of power or its implications for strategy.

3. Engaging hearts and minds: For lasting change, poverty reduction and empowerment strategies need to help people critically understand and question conventional economic wisdom and identify the institutions and interests who benefit from it. This is best approached as a process that enables people to understand their own circumstances within the context of prevailing norms and economic arrangements.

4. Building bridges between movements, NGOs, and constituencies: Social movements, as well as NGOs, must take the time to unpack assumptions and ensure clear communication as we may use a common language of change (from feminism to racial justice) but have diverse interpretations. We need honest conversation to address conflict and negotiate political differences as well as fresh thinking and diversified funding sources to address competition for resources. And we must honestly address the prickly questions of representation and legitimacy – on whose behalf are we speaking, and how are we ensuring that those voices are up front, visible, and influential?

5. Revisiting and refining our understanding of key economic problems and their solutions: While groups are concerned with dividing up the pieces of the economic pie, it is also important for them to be able to question the assumptions that define the size of the pie and the rules governing the people with access to the pie (e.g., investment policies, labor standards, public goods etc.). We need to examine the ideologies that underpin dominant economic agendas and their impact on our strategic choices and messages; begin to define the ideas and principles that shape a gender equality and justice worldview that might frame our messages and alternatives going forward.

6. Needs and rights: Organizing for political rights should not be separated from practical needs. In the context of poverty, if we want women to be involved politically, we have to support them to organize for access to economic resources -cash and property- and for the freedom that these provide.

7. Revisit traditional advocacy targets and entry points: With limited resources and capacity, the question has to be raised: ‘When is a political space worthwhile?’ Invited policy spaces (from the MDGs to the World Bank) with their pre-cooked and controlled agendas, need to be assessed and compared against the alternative of claiming policy spaces that advance women’s rights and economic justice interests in both the public and private sectors[4].



Further reading:

JASS page on economic resources:

Resources, Agency, Achievements – Reflections on Measurement of Women’s Empowerment (Naila Kabeer 1999) Reflects JASS’ broad definition of “resources” and the multiple dimensions that influence women’s  “access to” and “control over” resources

Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment: Definition, Framework and Indicators (ICRW 2011)




[1] Adapted from VeneKlasen, Lisa and Alia Khan (2012) “Women’s Movements and Economic Power: Connecting the local and the global” published in “Development”, 2012, 55(3), Society for International Development.

[2] Cornwall, Andrea and John Gaventa (2001), Power, Knowledge and Political Spaces in the Framing of Poverty Policy, IDS WP 143; and Gaventa, John (2006), ‘Finding the Spaces for Change: A power analysis’, in Exploring Power for Change, IDS Bulletin 37.6, Brighton, IDS.

[3] Adapted from the overview document of the session “Access to and Control over Resources: Organizing for Women’s EmPOWERment” at the 12th AWID Forum.

[4] Adapted from Making Change Happen 3: Revisioning Power for Justice, Just Associates, 2006


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