In 2014, economist Sarah Janzen sat in on a rural women’s group discussion in Nepal about their experience with a Heifer International program. She was planning an impact evaluation of an intervention taking the same approach and wanted to know more about how the program worked. The women were more chatty and social than Janzen expected. But an odd thing happened when Janzen asked a simple question. What had been the biggest change in their lives as a result of the program?
“When I got to that question they got quiet,” said Janzen. “One of the women said, ‘Prior to the program we weren’t able to introduce ourselves in public.’”
Women’s empowerment is important. Research has shown that women play a key role in household decisions that affect the whole family. The Heifer International program in Nepal provided women with goats and training to facilitate sustainable escapes from poverty. Janzen’s evaluation of the program with University of Georgia economist Nick Magnan showed that providing assets, training, and building a strong community through self-help groups had a significant impact on women’s empowerment, especially over the goat enterprises that were the cornerstone of the program.
Productive Asset Transfers in Developing Economies
Productive asset transfer programs have long been used by NGOs and development organizations to address poverty in developing countries. These programs provide families with cash, livestock or training to earn a better living. They also tend to focus on various holistic development outcomes, of them being women’s empowerment.
In 2002, BRAC pioneered its Ultra-Poor Graduation Program, that included productive asset transfers, grants and interest free loans, training and other services. Since then similar programs have proliferated worldwide, from “Targeting the Hard-Core Poor” in West Bengal to Pigs for Peace in a conflict-affected area in Democratic Republic of Congo.
These types of programs have been widely studied. In the most commonly cited study, a research team that included Nobel Prize-winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo evaluated the impacts of a multifaceted poverty graduation program in six countries. They found positive welfare improvements across all countries. In fact, in most of the countries the benefits were greater than the cost.
“Passing on the gift is one of the strongest turning points,” said Neena Joshi, director of programs at Heifer International Nepal. “It is not about being the beneficiary all the time, it’s about being a donor after a point.”
Empowering Women with Productive Assets
Heifer International’s Smallholders in Livestock Value Chain (SLVC) program provided goats as a productive asset, technical training on animal care and management and support to form self-help groups that would then pay forward what they had received to other women in the community.
Goats are a profitable and important asset in many developing countries due to their small size and overall manageability. The Heifer International program’s training in animal management gave women the tools and expertise to raise healthier, larger goats that fetch a better price.
From 2014-2018 Janzen and her co-principal investigator Nicholas Magnan conducted their study with 2,369 women across 50 communities. They evaluated the program’s impact on livestock raising and productivity, income and women’s empowerment.
“An important reason why development organizations think about targeting women is to think about impacts that go beyond income and poverty,” said Janzen, “but also to think about these more general well-being indicators which are important. They’re harder to quantify, but they’re really important.”
The SLVC program was designed to pay special attention to women in the households and issues of women’s empowerment. Gender is an important and significant issue in Nepali society. Historically, women in Nepal have largely been confined to domestic work and raising children.
“Their labor, their effort is not accounted in any economic terms,” said Joshi. “So since they do not have that financial capability, they’re not a voice in the family.”
The Benefits of Empowering Women
Women’s empowerment is a meaningful goal in development, and not just for the sake of gender equity. It also promotes a healthy and economically stable future for families.
“There is a long tradition of finding that men and women value different things,” said Michael Carter, director of the MRR Innovation Lab. “Women seem to put particular emphasis on child-centric outcomes.”
Carter has been evaluating asset-transfer programs with a focus on women for the past decade. In Samburu, Kenya, Carter is testing a graduation program for women paired with index-based livestock insurance in partnership with The BOMA Project and the International Livestock Research Institute. In Peru he is evaluating the impacts of the Haku Wiñay program, which includes coaching interventions to shift how much control women believe they have over their lives.
Carter said that in particular, the way income is shared within the household has an impact on both women’s empowerment and a family’s future as a whole. A growing body of research has shown that it isn’t enough to create intervention programs if they overlook the allocation of income within the household.
“Empowering women is valuable in and of its own right,” Carter said. “But instrumentally it’s valuable if you care about the outcome of the next generation and you care about women having more control over the household.”
Measuring Women’s Empowerment in Nepal
The stories of dramatic changes Janzen heard during focus group discussions in Nepal in 2014 were the same stories she saw in the data years later. But her estimates showed the broader impacts were somewhat smaller. There was still a puzzle to be solved.
“Based on our indicators, the women in our study were quite empowered to begin with,” said Janzen. “It’s hard to see impacts when there isn’t much room for improvement.”
The research team was using USAID’s A-WEAI to measure empowerment, but the team discovered the standardized indicator wasn’t capturing empowerment in the ways they had originally expected. Instead, the researchers turned to other measures of empowerment.
“We decided to look more closely at goat enterprises, because we knew if anything was happening we should see it there,” said Janzen.
What they saw matched what Janzen was told to expect from the very beginning. Women were more likely to own, manage and control income from their goat enterprises.
“There seems to be strong evidence that women are more empowered over their goat enterprises,” said Janzen. “We’re still trying to figure out what that means for their overall welfare.”