Working with women’s groups is more efficient – a rupee spent on women goes further than on men

A group of women in the fishing village of Thantirayankuppam in India are members of a self-help group, a cooperative that gathers regularly to arrange loans for members in distress and provide counselling to one another.

The biggest problem the group faces is the high number of female suicides. A woman had been driven to suicide by her husband. He drank and gambled; he beat her. Such behavior was the cause of virtually all the recent suicide attempts in the village.

It’s a familiar story around here, and it’s one of the reasons almost all the self-help groups in this area are aimed solely at women. Talk to development workers involved in the groups, and they’ll list all the reasons men are difficult to work with: they drink, they gamble, they fight, they bring politics into the groups, and they spend loans intended for the family on alcohol or entertainment.

In the 1990s, it became popular to talk about “engendering development.” The stated goal was to include more women in the development process, to right historical gender inequalities and make sure that aid money flowed equally to both sexes.

These are laudable goals. But what often goes unspoken in the practice of engendered development is that aid agencies want to work with women not just because they have traditionally been excluded, but also because men are harder to work with.

Indeed, in many ways, and in striking contrast to women, men often represent something of an impediment to development. Jerald Moris, has been working in rural development for more than 20 years: “Working with women’s groups is more efficient.” He added that a rupee spent on women goes further than on men.

Such talk isn’t politically correct, of course. The literature on engendered development is full of pieties about the need to include both men and women, and about the vital partnering role that men play in fostering economic and social progress.

Men generally earn more than women, but they tend to spend much of their income outside the household. Women, aid workers say, are far more likely to spend their meager incomes or loans received through self-help groups on the family.

Men are more likely to discriminate against female children, pulling them out of school early and marrying them off at a young age.

In many village households, fathers will insist that they and male children are fed first. If there is, for example, a limited quantity of meat, it might be reserved for male members of the family.

These are just some of the reasons that aid groups find it more productive to work with women than men. Their preferences are backed up by empirical studies. The economist Amartya Sen, for instance, has often drawn attention to the fact that women’s education and employment levels are among the best determinants of child mortality, fertility and other development indicators.

In other words, focusing resources on women is, to use Mr. Moris’s phrase, a “more efficient” way of spurring general development.

They cited the usual list of difficulties in working with men — alcoholism, irregular attendance at meetings, poor loan repayment rates, violence.

Men, Mr. Moris said, were more likely to discuss and argue over politics, creating friction within groups and sometimes leading to their dissolution.

Mr. Moris explains why, despite the difficulties, he had been interested in men’s groups. He said that he had been struck by a sense of exclusion and discrimination felt by many men he came across in the villages. They complained that they were being left out of the development process. Some worried they were losing their status at home because it was easier for their wives to get loans.

It is perhaps hard to feel sorry for men: they drink, beat their wives, neglect their families.

But if the goal of development is to overcome obstacles to progress, then, precisely because they are often difficult and obstructionist, it would seem that men have to be part of the process.

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