(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Today, livelihood projects often form the backbone of women’s empowerment and economic development programs spearheaded by local and international NGOs alike. Many organizations have theorized that empowering women with opportunities for income generation – through training in skills and investment in microfinance, in particular – ultimately reduces violence against women. Microfinance, for instance, is primarily given to women – with the hope that as women begin bringing more income into the home, they gain bargaining power which shifts family relationships, thus reducing domestic violence and increasing the ability of women to make decisions regarding the allocation of household resources – such as investing in their children’s health and education.
Indeed, as Mendy Marsh, GBV Specialist at UNICEF, discusses in a webinar “Peril or Protection: Making Work Safe” as part of the Women Refugee Commission’s campaign, practitioners make a number of assumptions about the positive effects of economic opportunities for women. We assume that access to income makes women and adolescent girls safer, and that when households have income, children are more likely to be in school, more likely to access health care, and are better fed.
However, as Marsh rightly emphasizes, we need to dig deeper into these assumptions and ensure that livelihood programs are indeed having the intended effects. And unfortunately, a key assumption – that women and girls are safer as a result of economic opportunities – is sometimes untrue.
Working outside the home can have myriad negative effects that are often overlooked during implementation of GBV and livelihood programs. First of all, findings of the Women Refugee Commission – published in a report called “Peril or Protection: The Link Between Livelihoods and Gender-Based ...” – show that many women face continued or even increased domestic violence as spouses begin suspecting them of sexual infidelity as they began to earn money and move freely outside the home. Others have experienced abuse and violence while working or commuting to work; for instance, one woman who owned a shop in Dadaab camp, Kenya, was attacked after trying to protect goods displayed outside her shop. In conflict zones and refugee camps, the risk of experiencing violence increases as women travel alone outside the home – especially at night. In Haiti, for example, frequent instances of rape and violence against women in IDP camps have been well documented. Women who obtain jobs working illegally may also have to deal with violence or harassment from law enforcement officials.
Ultimately, these are just a few examples of ways that insecurity and violence (physical, psychological, sexual, or emotional) can actually be exacerbated as women work outside the home, especially while running their own small businesses or working alone without a strong support system. Thankfully, however, there are solutions: recognizing the problem is the first step. To attempt to mitigate and anticipate unintended consequences, the Women’s Refugee Commission recommends that a safety mapping exercise be conducted before implementing livelihood programs. The tool encourages working with communities to determine when and where displaced populations feel safe and unsafe; what forms of violence they are exposed to; which situations involve greater risks; how those risks can be reduced; what type of relationships women have with other market actors, employers, and co-workers; and whether women and girls have a safety net in times of need.
By working closely with the community, women’s empowerment and development organizations can help women and girls understand and identify the risks that might result when attempting to pursue a specific type of economic activity. Organizations should work with beneficiaries to help them pursue the type of work they want, while mitigating potential risks. Innovative solutions can be implemented: for instance, groups of women can be brought together to walk to and from work daily (especially at night or before sunrise). A group of students, for example, have begun developing Makmende, which provides women in Nairobi’s slums with coordinated walking groups that escort them safely to and from home. With creativity, incredible and simple solutions can be found to ensure women can productively continue to work.
Ultimately, access to safe employment and income generation opportunities can be extremely empowering and beneficial for women – for their health, their security, their treatment at home, and the well-being of their children. Acknowledging potential dangers of employment opportunities does not mean abandoning livelihood programs, but simply understanding the risks involved and ensuring that programs take action to address and reduce those risks as much as possible. So next time you or your organization begin designing a livelihoods program for women – particularly in the context of GBV or conflict situations – take some time to conduct a safety mapping exercise and work with beneficiaries of your program to address these unintended consequences, thus ensuring the best outcomes for women and girls!