Women’s empowerment pathways in PNG

Women’s empowerment is a key focus of development in the Pacific and around the world. Too often in the development field, empowerment is reduced to ‘economic’ empowerment with a focus on assets and financial gains. Accumulation and control of assets can open pathways for women to broader changes, and increase women’s agency in other spheres of their lives, but assets should not be imagined as an end in themselves. Key thinkers on women’s empowerment, including Naila Kabeer (see her lecture at the ACIAR-funded Seeds for Change conference here) and Andrea Cornwall, emphasise that economic empowerment is only part of the picture. To bring about real empowerment in which women are able to exercise agency in areas of their lives where previously they could not, these authors argue that economic gains must be supported by shifts in consciousness and power relations.

At times, empowerment is often framed in the development literature as being about individual women as though they are autonomous from men. Indeed, men are frequently viewed only as problematic. In Papua New Guinea, where people’s social networks are particularly entangled and are central to how people imagine themselves as persons, our research has emphasised the key role men play in both supporting and constraining women’s pathways. The relationships between husbands and wives are critical, however our research also draws attention to the important role played by other men in women’s lives including brothers, fathers, sons, and male-in-laws.

As part of the ACIAR-funded project, Identifying opportunities and constraints for rural women’s engagements in small-scale agricultural enterprises in Papua New Guinea, we are interviewing women from diverse backgrounds across Papua New Guinea about their enterprises and their pathways, with all their bumps and bridges. These women are growing fresh food to sell in local marketplaces, reselling fresh food and store goods, trading fresh food to distant markets, running poultry businesses and guesthouses, experimenting in floriculture, and buying and processing coffee among a range of other enterprises.

Our interviews have targeted women who have experienced a level of success in their businesses, though the interviews also highlight that success can be tenuous. We spoke with numerous women whose achievements are impressive – innovating and building up large enterprises, supporting their children through university, improving their houses. Some however, have seen their businesses crumble, often because their financial successes were not bolstered by more broad-based forms of empowerment.

These themes of women’s enterprises, women’s empowerment and the place of men are explored in a recent paper – Relationality and economic empowerment: The role of men in supporting and undermining women’s pathways – in which we collaborated with Ceridwen Spark.

The importance of a multi-dimensional, and culturally specific, view of empowerment is also emphasised in our research with CARE International and the Coffee Industry Corporation, in the Eastern Highlands where we are piloting Village Savings and Loans Associations. These saving groups are providing rural women and men with avenues to save and access small loans to support the establishment of micro-enterprises. The economic gains amongst members are impressive, and VSLA has enabled many of the members to set up enterprises that would have otherwise been out of reach, both in terms of their financial capacity and in terms of their imagined horizons.  However, the research also reveals that economic empowerment cannot be pursued in isolation from other forms of empowerment.

Further reading

Spark, C., Sharp, T.L.M. & Koczberski, G. (2020). Relationality and economic empowerment: The role of men in supporting and undermining women’s pathwaysThe Journal of Development Studies doi: 10.1080/00220388.2020.1850697. (People without library access to the journal can access a free e-print here).

Koczberski, G., Sharp, T., Wesley, J., & Ryan, S. (2019). Identifying Opportunities and Constraints for Rural Women’s Engagement in Small-Scale Agricultural Enterprises in Papua New Guinea. 2018 Village Savings and Loan Associations, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea: Preliminary Report. Unpublished report, Curtin University.