Voice as a dimension of poverty

In 1995 the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action agreed by world leaders as the outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women, adopted a multidimensional definition of poverty, which includes not only lack of income, but deprivations ranging from the absence of basic services to the absence of safety. The Platform for Action identified discrimination and social exclusion as both causes and manifestations of poverty, stating that poverty is ‘also characterized by lack of participation in decision-making and in civil, social and cultural life’. The Platform for Action made clear that poverty cannot be addressed without inclusive decision-making. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entitles citizens to ‘take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives’ (Article 25(b)) and to vote (Article 25(c)). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women entitles women and men to equal right to seek education, health care, employment and other opportunities.

The SDGs recognise the relationship between poverty, voice and gender equality. SDG Target 1.B (on ending poverty) calls for the creation of ‘sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions’. Such frameworks cannot be achieved if individuals are unable to express their views and concerns, or are unable to make decisions about their own lives. SDG Target 5.5 requires ‘women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’, while SDG Target 5.1 is to ‘end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.’

What the research reveals about voice in empowerment

Within global development discourse, the concept of empowerment – and particularly women’s empowerment – has become increasingly influential, as evidenced by SDG 5, to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. Yet, as Kabeer (1999) points out, empowerment is a complex phenomenon, involving a process of change whereby those who are excluded from power recognise that they have genuine choices, are able to make choices, and can exercise agency (both making choices and engaging in bargaining and negotiation). Empowerment cannot be imposed on the powerless by others. Kabeer (1999: 43) warns against ‘outsider models of women’s empowerment’, arguing that what is valued by women in a particular context is essential to empowerment. Attempting to change women’s lives without understanding what is valued risks ‘prescribing the process of empowerment and thereby violating its essence, which is to enhance women’s capacity for self-determination’ (Kabeer, 1999: 47).

The conceptual challenges in clearly defining empowerment make measurement exceedingly difficult. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, which draws on Kabeer’s definition of empowerment, has made advances in assessing women’s empowerment. The index aims to track progress over time across five domains: decision about agricultural production; access to and decision-making power over productive resources; control over use of income; leadership in the community; and time use (Malapit et al., 2019).

Given that empowerment is a process of change, measuring agency within a multi-topic survey of multidimensional poverty may be a more plausible approach. Kabeer (2002:438) defines agency as 'the ability to define one’s goals and act upon them’. Agency can play out in a number of ways, but can be defined as decision-making at the personal, community and political levels.

Agency has often been translated in global development discourse as ‘voice’. Klugman et al. (2014: 2) define voice as ‘the capacity to speak up and be heard, from homes to houses of parliament, and to shape and share in discussions, discourse, and decisions that affect them’. Voice and agency have been argued to bring development dividends, enhancing individual wellbeing and increasing productivity and economic progress (King and Mason, 2001: 6). King and Mason (2001) argue that there is a nexus between women’s power to make decisions within the home, and broader development outcomes. Women’s voice and agency are recognised as being especially important in improving outcomes such as income, health and nutrition (Malapit et al., 2019) – all of which are closely associated with multidimensional poverty.

What the IMMP reveals about voice

The participatory research that underpins the IMMP highlighted the extent to which those who are poor and marginalised are excluded from community-level decision-making. While this is the case for both women and men, women often experience the dual exclusions of gender norms and poverty. For example, in some sites, women noted that they are not able to engage in community meetings or discussions, but must rely on male relatives. This becomes particularly problematic for female-headed households or when men are unable or unwilling to represent the views of women. The research also illuminated the ways in which the inability to exercise control in personal decision-making limits opportunities for education, income-generating, accessing health care, and engaging in social networks. This can be both a cause and effect of poverty, and was identified in the participatory research as an indicator of poverty.

What the IMMP Voice dimension measures

The voice dimension of the IMMP is made up of two themes: voice in the public domain and personal control over decision-making.

Theme 1: Voice in the public domain

The first theme, voice in the public domain, is constructed from three indicators: voting, raising concerns within the community and perception of raising concerns.

The first indicator, voting, consists of three variables. The first variable is whether the respondent voted in the most recent election. The second variable asks those who voted in the last election whether they could freely choose whom to vote for. The third variable asks those who did not vote their reasons for not voting, and notes whether respondents were too young to vote.

The second indicator, raising concerns, is also constructed from three variables. The first variable measures whether in the past 12 months there were any issues affecting the community that the respondent felt strongly about. The second two variables ask whether the respondent raised any concerns, and if they did not, why not.

The third indicator considers perception of raising concerns, and consists of two variables, both of which are considered through hypothetical questions. The first variable assesses the respondent’s perceptions of how difficult raising concerns with local leaders, organisations or influential people would be, if they had a concern to raise. The second variable assesses their perception of whether their concerns would be taken seriously, if they raised them.

Theme 2: Personal control over decision-making

The second theme pertains to personal control over decision-making. This theme has only one indicator, which is constructed from six variables. These variables ask whether people living in the same dwelling as the respondent have prevented the respondent from doing certain activities or making personal decisions in the past 12 months: seeking education or training; seeking work for income; seeing family and friends; going to a local event; seeking health care; or spending money on household expenditures. 


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