The Feminist Approach to Development — an excerpt from my MDES thesis “Grassroots Futures”

Asia Clarke
6 min readNov 5, 2019


The Feminist Approach to Development

The gendered experience of poverty is well documented in academic literature, and lived experiences of millions of women in developing countries worldwide. Having recognized the “invisibility” of women in the development process, the United Nations set aside the period of 1975–1985 as a decade for women’s affairs (Debrah, 2013). During this period, many studies exposed the inequality in earnings, access to human rights, education, and economic opportunities due to discrimination in labor markets. The acknowledgement of these development realities gave rise to current concepts of the feminization of poverty, and began the tide of addressing poverty through women’s empowerment.

Efforts towards women’s empowerment in global economies hinge upon addressing the social, economic, cultural and educational barriers that continue to systemically produce gendered economic disparity. According to feminist groups, gender inequality is more pervasive in Africa than elsewhere. In most African societies, women rank below men in legal, social, and economic rights. The inequality is widespread in access to and control of resources, economic opportunities, power, and a political voice (Debrah, 2013). Some examples of economic barriers specific to African women include:

  1. In the workplace, women earn between 20 percent and 80 percent lower average wages than do males, depending on the country.
  2. With regards to micro-finance and women’s economic empowerment, experimental evidence has shown that a small infusion of capital alone, as a loan or a grant, is not enough to grow subsistence-level, female-owned firms because women may be pressure to spend business earnings on other purposes.
  3. Many subsistence-level female firms operate in sectors that face more severe constraints to growth (ie. Agriculture of primary crops which are vulnerable to weather related threats as well as global market valuation).
  4. Many women become “necessity” entrepreneurs who turn to self-employment because there are limited other jobs available that offer wage employment.
  5. Capital constraints are one of the main reasons for the suboptimal size of female-owned firms compared with male-owned ones.
  6. Entrenched barriers, such as childcare responsibilities, domestic tasks (collection of water and firewood), and taking care of sick persons or the elderly stifled women’s abilities to engage in paid market work.

(Debrah, 2013; Buvinić & Furst-Nichols, 2016)

Of all barriers noted, entrenched cultural barriers impact all efforts at economic empowerment for women in African societies. Many studies that investigated microlevel gender issues exposed disparities in earnings and the processes that gave rise to them, including inequalities in literacy and education and discrimination in the labor market (Debrah, 2013). Until social norms change, young women in male-dominated sectors will continue to face discrimination and harassment. Changes to social norms will only happen if more women choose to work in those sectors, but the price may be high for pioneering women (Löwe, 2019).

Feminist work in development from the 1970’s onward emphasized that empowerment is relational, and that there is a complex reciprocal relationship between women’s ‘self-understanding’ (Kabeer, 1994) and ‘capacity for self-expression’ (Sen, 1997) and their access to and control over material resources. That is to say, providing women with loans, business opportunities and means to generate income may enable them to better manage their poverty. But to see the kind of changes that can transform the root causes of that poverty and begin to address the deep structural basis of gender inequality, the conditions need to be fostered for shifts in consciousness so that women understand their situations and come together to bring about change that can benefit not only them, but also other women (Cornwall, 2014).

Under the direction of the United Nation’s SDGs, international development donor agencies, donor countries, and private companies have been funding women’s empowerment initiatives as a development strategy to reduce poverty. The ‘investment in women’ narrative appears in policies from international donors and banks who are invited to ‘invest in’ rather than give charity to support women entrepreneurs and girls as agents of change, creating a ‘business case’ for women’s empowerment (Cornwall, 2014). However, investment in the empowerment of women must take into account the relational and conceptual considerations of the women being empowered, as the aspirations of these women may uphold western notions of women’s disempowerment. This is further related to my own experience as an international development professional working in women’s empowerment initiatives — many of the beneficiaries I worked with at Pro Link Ghana in 2017 would not have considered themselves feminist, and had life aspirations that directly aligned upholding social patriarchy which effectively resulted in gendered poverty.

The literature confirms this aspect of women’s aspirations in relationship to women’s empowerment in developing countries, especially in the context of Ghana. A recent research paper titled “Creating opportunities for young women in Ghana’s construction sector: What works?’ by Alexandra Löwe (2019) looked at efforts at bringing women into the growing construction sector in Ghana. According to Löwe, considerable effort has been put into attracting young women into trades, but female participation in training courses such as painting, masonry, tiling or electricals remains low: only between 2% and 6% of female trainees chose these types of courses (Löwe, 2019). Although initiatives had been put in place to address the lack of women in economically lucrative professions (ie. The Youth Inclusive Entrepreneurial Development Initiative for Employment (YIEDIE) and the Youth Forward Initiave, both in Ghana), social norms proved a complex process to overcome. Some of the practical barriers women in trades programs expressed in this study included:

(1) Many young women worry about not being able to work when they become pregnant and while they recover from giving birth — at the very least, they require the financial planning skills to be able to save up for motherhood.

(2) Young women will need help thinking through how they can combine their chosen careers with their caring and social responsibilities.

(3) Address the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination openly by providing gender and anti-harassment training at work to male co-workers and employers.

(4) It is a necessity to create a safe space where women can learn their trade before being subject to the teasing or harassment that comes with working with male colleagues. These women-only courses should also focus on building confidence along with technical skills.

(5) Efforts should be made to find professions in the sector’s supply chains that offer viable careers without falling far outside the social norms.

(Löwe, 2019)

The changing of social norms in African societies has been an ongoing project of international development, regardless of the theory of development one uses to analyze the process. From colonialist imperialism to the current global capitalist system, development of Africa has involved a balance of technological and infrastructural development assistance, and educational capacity building of local populations. However, no particular emphasis was placed on promoting gender equality in developing countries until the rise feminist perspectives to poverty began in the 1970’s and 80’s, influencing the tide of women’s empowerment projects in African societies. As gender inequality is considered a main feature of economic realities across Africa, it may take a considerable amount of time, perhaps generations, to change these social norms.


Cornwall, A. (2016). Women’s empowerment: What works? Journal of International Development, 28(3), 342–359. doi:10.1002/jid.3210

Buvinić, M., & Furst-Nichols, R. (2016). Promoting women’s economic empowerment: What works? World Bank Research Observer, 31(1), 59–101. doi:10.1093/wbro/lku013

Debrah, E. (2013). Alleviating poverty in Ghana: The case of livelihood empowerment against poverty (LEAP). Africa Today, 59(4), 40–67.

Kabeer, N. (1994). Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, London: Verso.

Löwe , A. (2019). Creating opportunities for young women in Ghana’s construction sector: What works?. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from

Sen, G. (1997). Empowerment as an Approach to Poverty, Working Paper Series 97.07. Background paper for the UNDP Human Development Report, New York: UNDP.



Asia Clarke

I’m a multidisciplinary designer, researcher and consultant interested in re-envisioning Pan-African diaspora futures. Learn more at: