Let me share with you the story of my mother. My mother is a transaction specialist for the World Bank, but she didn’t start out in that position and not much in her life story will suggest that she will end up where she is right now. Once upon a time, she was born on a coffee farm in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. She was the fifth child of a coffee farmer who had only completed his elementary education and of a homemaker whose education level remains a mystery to me to this day. Because of my grandmother’s decision to leave my grandfather when my mother was around 8 years old she and her sisters didn’t go to school for 2 years. In those 2 years, they occasionally worked on the streets selling candy. Luckily they got to move back with my grandfather, who had turned into an alcoholic after losing his family. This lead to him losing a lot of his land, which means his income was reduced. But with the return of his daughters he pulled through and was able to be a good parent to them.
He sent them to school again, but the town they lived on didn’t offer education beyond the primary level so he sent them to a bigger town in the Andes. Because my grandfather knew the none running the school he was able to enroll his daughters for free. Otherwise, all 3 of them attending school wouldn’t have been a possibility. My mother and her sisters finished elementary and secondary school in that town. After that, my mother decided to go to university to become an accountant. She often reminds me that during her student years she only had 2 pairs of pants, 2 t-shirts and one pair of shoes. So I am guessing she had to endure a lot of duress during that time. Higher education is not very affordable in Peru now, and back then it was even less accessible. To pay for her classes she always had to work.
She met my father during this time, because her sister married his uncle. My mother graduated and married my father, whose major was business administration. My dad founded a company and my mom decided to become a homemaker, her lifelong dream. She has said this to me many times, so I can tell you she never had any intention to work after she got married. She had some accounting clients here and there while I was growing up, more as a hobby than anything else. When I started going to school and my brother was in kindergarten she started doing some work for my father so she could for 2 of my cousins’ tuition, because her sister couldn’t. Her whole salary went towards that. However, she would always be home by 3 to help me with my homework and play with my brother. But when I turned 11 my father’s company was going broke so my mom had to find another job. At 45, with 2 kids and a long time out of the labor market outside our family, she went looking for a job. And she got one at the World Bank no less. It was hard for me and my brother for my mom to go back to work. But now I know that without her doing that we would have had to give up our apartment because the mortgage would have been unaffordable. We would have had less and worse health care because her insurance paid for everything. Without it, my brother would still have very crooked teeth and countless other ailments related to his severe allergies like asthma or extreme rashes all over his body.
We were able to see the best doctors in Peru and they helped him. My dad got to have his many surgeries in the best clinics in Lima. We got to stay in our school, even though tuition started rising every year. My cousins got to stay in college and graduate. I am able to study abroad for my bachelor and my masters and my brother probably will too. I am sharing this with you because even though my mom wasn’t part of the target population for a development program she was economically empowered by the World Bank. She took the opportunity and made the life of her nuclear and extended family better by providing us with a quality education and countless other things that not many Peruvians have, much less those with her background. But the thing is my mom was only economically empowered. She providing as much and sometimes more than my father could, was very hard for him to accept and it brought out the worse in him. He was psychologically abusive and controlling. He called her a bad mother for not being at home with us. She had to ask him permission to go on business trips and if her flight on the way back was delayed he would tell her that she didn’t need to come back. Those are only 2 examples of what she had to endure for 12 years since she started working and will probably put up with until she retires in about 4 years.
Empowering women economically deeply changes the gender dynamics, especially if the women are married. But it could also change them with their fathers. And these men can become physically or psychologically abusive. And what kind of message is that to these women’s children or to their younger siblings? We can’t empower women only economically. I don’t even think it’s the first step to empowerment because I believe it only strengthens the idea that paid work is the only valid work. We need to teach women to value themselves before we empower in any way. They need to know that what they do is valuable regardless of what other people might tell them or what role that plays in the economy. By doing this you teach them that their voice matters and once they know that they can choose how they can empower themselves. This may be by speaking up about the working conditions if they already have a paid job, getting a paid job if they please or retaining the control on their own wages instead of giving them up to men. But it might also be becoming an equal partner within the household. In development, you separate the world in countries that need development aid and those who don’t and those who give it. The last 2 categories tend to overlap. But you can’t do that with gender inequality. You can’t separate the world in countries that need to improve their gender relations and those that don’t. You can say that some countries have made more progress than others but that’s it. When I say we need to teach women their value instead of just empowering them economically I don’t just mean women in Africa or Latin America or Asia. I mean all women. Because if you have a career and no children and think your life is incomplete or children and no career and feel frustrated, like some women in the western world tend to feel, then it is obvious that these women don’t know their value. Those who have a career are more than economically empowered, but if they regret not having a family because of that career then they didn’t use their empowerment to change the economy to make it work for them instead of just working for it.
I believe that if they had been taught to value themselves and what they as a contribution to life and the world as a whole instead of just focussing on their contribution to the economy they could change the rules of the game. They could make having a job and a full family life possible just by knowing that their paid job is as valuable as their husbands’ so there is no reason why they should do all the housework or all the care work when they get home. And men should know that what they do, regardless of it’s contribution to the economy is important so that they don’t feel frustrated or become abusive when they see women being more valued by the economy than them. There is no doubt that women achieve great things when they are economically empowered, but they would achieve even greater things if they knew their value all around. There could be a women’s union that would strike until there was paid maternity leave in the USA.