Women’s empowerment is one of the greatest areas of progress in the last century, so what better theme for a post on ‘voice’ than gender rights?
Globally, the gradual empowerment of women is one of the standout features of the past century. The transformation in terms of access to justice and education, to literacy, sexual and reproductive rights and political representation is striking.
That progress has been driven by a combination of factors: the spread of effective states that are able to turn ‘rights thinking’ into actual practice, and broader normative shifts; new technologies that have freed up women’s time and enabled them to control their own fertility; the vast expansion of primary education – particularly for girls – and improved health facilities.
Politics and power have been central to many, if not all, of these advances. At a global political level, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW ) appears to be one of those pieces of international law that exerts genuine traction at a national level, as it is ratified and codified in domestic legislation.
But what is needed to turn such global progress into better national policies? To find out in the case of violence against women, Laurel Weldon  and Mala Htun  have painstakingly constructed the mother of all databases, covering 70 countries over four decades (1975 to 2005). It includes various kinds of state action (legal and administrative reforms, protection and prevention, training for officials), and a number of other relevant factors, such as the presence of women legislators, GDP per capita, the nature of the political regime, etc. In a paper for the Gender and Development journal , they concluded that the empowerment of women was crucial:
‘Countries with the strongest feminist movements tend, other things being equal, to have more comprehensive policies on violence against women than those with weaker or non-existent movements. This plays a more important role than left-wing parties, numbers of women legislators, or even national wealth.’
As Htun and Weldon’s paper implies, violence remains one of the main obstacles to women exercising their rights. Beyond the grim realities of such violence, however, there is some good news at national level, from women-only ‘pink’ public transport, to women’s police stations  to the rapidly snowballing campaign against female genital mutilation  (FGM).
That focus on women’s movements and women’s voice is a core part of Oxfam’s work around the world. It starts with understanding the very nature of power, the invisible force field that connects individuals, communities and nations, whose visible consequences include much of what we call ‘development outcomes’.
Much of the standard (i.e. ungendered) work on empowerment and voice focuses on institutions and the world of formal power – can people vote, express dissent, organise, find decent jobs, get access to information and justice? These are all crucial questions, but there is an earlier stage, known as power ‘within’. The very first step of empowerment takes place in the hearts and minds of the individuals who ask: ‘do I have rights? Am I a fit person to express a view? Why should anyone listen to me? Am I willing and able to speak up, and what will happen if I do?
‘Power within’ is particularly important for work on women’s rights. In South Asia, the ‘We Can’ campaign  is an extraordinary campaign on violence against women launched in late 2004, that at the last count had signed up some four million women and men to be ‘change makers’ – advocating for an end to violence against women in their homes and communities. It aims to reach 50 million people (via 5 million change makers) – a symbolic target equal to the estimated number of . What’s different about We Can (apart from its scale) is that it is not about policies, laws, constitutions or lobbying the authorities – it aims to change attitudes and beliefs about gender roles at community level. And it’s viral. Each change maker talks to their friends and neighbours, and tries to persuade them to sign up too.
In a piece on women’s voice, I’d better leave the last word to a woman, in this case Selvaranjani Mukkaiah, A We Can Change Maker in Badulla, Sri Lanka:
‘To me change is the killing of fear. For example, someone may know how to sing but will not sing. Someone or something needs to kindle the fire in you and kill the fear that stops you from changing. I have killed the fear of talking and that is a change for me.’
This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power .
First photograph of woman voting in Nasiriyah March 7, 2010 courtesy of DVIDS Hub 
Second photograph of a member of the Gulabi Gang  in India by McKay Savage  via Wikimedia Commons