Success stories for empowering women

Empowering women is an essential aspect of any attempt to transform the lives of the urban poor — not only because gender equality is a human right, but also because it is fundamental to bringing an entire community out of poverty. For one thing, it magnifies the impact of such efforts, as women are very likely to invest their income back into their families, focusing on health and education. The following success stories — initiatives from Lagos, Bangalore, Jakarta, and Rio de Janeiro — demonstrate that with legal recognition, skills training, a social support group, or a garden, women can break the cycle of poverty.



Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi, Lagos Community ManagerWomen empowering women through vocational skills

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi, Lagos Community Manager

The importance of empowering women goes beyond giving them a means to sustenance and income. It is fundamental to building the fabric of society. A successful woman who is a productive member of society is more likely to create a strong community both in her home and her society. According to CARE, women and girls suffer disproportionately from the burden of extreme poverty, and make up 70 percent of the 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day.

In Lagos state, women's empowerment is the focus of two organizations that were created and are managed by women: the Real Women Foundation and the International Women's Society (IWS). Both of these organizations provide vocational training to economically and socially disadvantaged women in order to equip them with skills that serve as a source of income to alleviate poverty in their lives. Some of the vocational training courses offered include fashion design, pastry making, event decoration, and jewelry. While these two organizations have vocational skills training in common, they also provide other programs that work towards women's empowerment.

The Real Woman Foundation created the "peace villa" in 2002 as a shelter for commercial sex workers and sexually abused women. Not only does the villa provides shelter for these women, it also includes a rehabilitation program, counseling sessions, and vocational skills training. After a 6-month course, each woman is expected to develop a plan. Since the villa's inception, 88 women have been rehabilitated; some have started businesses and some have gone back to university to further their education. At the foundation's life skills training center, 275 women have completed various skills courses and have started their own businesses. The program has numerous success stories, including P., a 26-year-old woman who received shelter and rehabilitation, and is now a college graduate.

In addition to the vocational skills training, IWS runs another program worth noting: the widow's trust fund program. This program is designed to support and finance disadvantaged young widows to start an enterprise. Since its inception 10 years ago, many women have been assisted with business plans and funds to create or expand their businesses; over the past three years, 150 women have benefited from the fund. Most women hear about the program through word of mouth and announcements.

These organizations' programs support marginalized women in Lagos by creating opportunities through business support, skills acquisition, and shelter from abuse. While these organizations have been remarkably effective, they need more support in order to be able to offer these services completely free instead of at minimal prices (equivalent to 12.00-30.00 USD). Even at these low prices, some marginalized women may not be able to afford the sessions; cost-free skills training would make the program more inclusive. Furthermore, more women would hear about these programs if the organizations ran better publicity and outreach events in Lagos' high-risk areas.

Photo credit: Africa Renewal



Women empowerment is an issues that cuts across various cities and countries. It is not only important that women have a source of income and sustenance, empowerment should go beyond this. Empowerment should extend to include an understanding of basic rights, equip women with skills( vocational or literate) and some form of education to help them function in their societies. Most cultures in various ethnic groups around the world often ignore women empowerment and leave room for debasement and abuse,therefore, empowerment should also include some form of counselling and justice for women. These are factors in my opinion to be considered for women empowerment which cities such as Lagos and Bangalore are working towards as evidenced from the articles. Any program lacking these elements can be considered inadequate right?

women empowerment. strong words and through time women have made a stand, since ancient times when they were not allowed to read to present times where women are now presidents. however, as so many things, it is a process in evolution and there is still much to be done, mainly in terms of culture. sharing experiences and creating awareness is one of the best ways to empower women. changing mindsets is never easy, but both men and women need to be aware and get involved in creating equality, tolerance, reducing gender violence, etc. Empowerment is not only about economic resources, it is about educating, but not only receiving an education. I think an intrinsic part of empowerment is what we teach others. For example, as a parent do you teach your children that women can do anything they set their minds to? or do you teach them that women's only ability is motherhood? Do you perpetuate gender double standards? In general, both men and women need to start applying what they preach in terms of women empowerment.

The fact that Brazil is moving to guarantee the rights of domestic workers is an important step, in Kenya there is no talk of such a move as yet. Domestic work is an important form of employment to women living in informal settlements and as such it is the government's duty to ensure that there is a structure in place that can guarantee them some basic rights. The problem however is that it is something that is very difficult to regulate and which often boils down to good will of the employer
Catalina you note how the new law has had the negative consequence of creating layoffs. I wonder, isn't there the risk that people will just continue as before, hiring people on the black market on the cheap instead? It would be interesting to find out to what extent people are actually accessing the Domestica Legal website and how useful it has been to them.

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Catalina, it is remarkable to hear that Brazil has taken this step to actually protect domestic workers in the Constitution. This would seem like a very big deal to me. Just some background on India: there are estimated to be two-and-a-half million domestic workers, but that number, in reality, is likely to be almost double. Domestic workers are one of the most invisible workforces, since everything they do takes place behind the closed doors of private homes. Maids and other such workers have few connections and can be treated extremely poorly by their employers. I have witnessed this firsthand: when I was a paying guest in a private home, the owner of the house had a live-in maid (who was almost certainly underage) and was not allowed out of the house except on Sundays for a few hours. She worked from early in the morning until the evening for what I'm sure amounts to next-to-nothing. The "neo-feudal" relationship between employer and domestic workers makes the situation even more questionable (see here for more: Many reports have come out in the paper about physical and sexual abuse.

Therefore, I was really interested to see that Brazil had taken such a big step forward in not only recognizing this invisible workforce, but enacting this legislation. After reading your article, I just did a quick search to learn more. One piece I read said that in the first couple of months only 30% of employers had registered their domestic workers. While that seems like a small number (obviously there are 70% still to go), I am very surprised that this many people have even done it.

Regularizing domestic workers seems to me to be more problematic and difficult than your average job. While other cottage industries throughout the slums might also use casual labor, these are workplaces--factories, shops, etc. In the home, this is different; now you are relying on the average individual to recognize that they actually have an employee.

In India, I wonder how much longer domestic workers will be such a big presence in the lives of the middle class and rich. Maids, drivers, cooks, etc. are working the hours they do to send their kids to good schools to give them a better future. Major appliances have recently entered the market here--washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, etc. With all this, routine chores become easier and are slowly taking over the workload of some of these employees. For now, though, the maids have just had to learn how to use the new technologies, and statistics indicate that this is still a huge employment field for women in India.

Carlin, thanks for following up on my article and complementing it. You are right about the challenges faced in countries like India in order to "make visible" the invisible workers. I just wanted to highlight the work of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which is actually doing an amazing job with women in the informal sector. This organization has several initiatives involving research, advocacy and field work throughout the world.

Kathy, we might still need to wait sometime to see what happens with the long term effects of the new regulations for domestic workers in Brazil, as Im not sure layoffs will be a continous trend. Still some solutions to such problem are being discussed, like tax reductions to employers that hire domestic workers on a long term basis.

Regarding the permanence of old hiring practices that affect domestic workers, I don’t think that in the future many employers will continue to have employees without their proper benefits as the law will be protecting domestic workers and employers will face high fees and penalties for not following it. Of course this depends on how strong the government is intended to enforce the regulations.

On the other hand, there is an urgent need to generate awareness among domestic workers regarding their rights, for example in terms of compensation, work hours and social protection. Doméstica Legal is precisely trying to correct this lack of knowledge by providing information and assistance on domestic workers’ rights and also about the mechanisms to solve differences and disputes with their employers. I invite you all to check the Doméstica Legal site on Facebook (in Portuguese), as the organization is quite active in posting articles, documents and videos with the latest updates on the issue of domestic workers' rights.

Regulating domestic work is definitely in the right step and I hope other countries are inspired by Brazil's foresight even if long term effects are uncertain. Having the law involved in the informal sector such as domestic work will attend a lot of issues not just as a means of fighting for women rights and empowerment but it could also contribute to other social issues such as labor conditions and child labor. It would be interesting to see how this initiative progresses and hopefully other cities will follow their lead.

This may boil down to a question of semantics as I'm sure the intentions of these various empowerment initiatives are broadly the same. However I must confess that I feel slightly uncomfortable with the idea that women need to be empowered as if this is something that can be bestowed upon them.

Today I believe it is more common to talk about "capacity building" instead of empowerment because I believe it is less controversial to talk about creating "capacity building programs" than to talk about "empowering people" which has, in my opinion, a slightly condescending tone to it. The general concept of empowerment has in the past come under fire because what it boils down to is being empowered to take part in the market which does not necessarily imply that people are then empowered but just that they are now consumers who can take part in a capitalist consumerist system.

When we talk about womens' empowerment images of bras being burned in the sixties and FEMEN activists today come to mind. In these cases women were and are taking control of a means to address the imbalances that they were/are subjected to. But does working to provide women with gainful employment, hence strengthening their economic position within the household, really result in their empowerment? To what extent can empowerment be catalysed from the outside or to really work must it come from within?

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

The constitutional amendment on domestic worker in Brazil is a high achievement. Usually, developing countries don’t put much attention on the fate of informal sector workers like domestic workers, driver, baby sitter, and others. They usually paid under minimum wages. They also don’t have health protection and other rights as well as labor who work in formal sector.

In Indonesia, issue of domestic workers is also on the rise. High number of domestic workers in the country with lack of protection has made some labor activists and organizations propose the draft law of domestic workers protection to the parliament in 2010. The draft has been submitted by a combination of a number of organizations of domestic workers (PRT) throughout Indonesia since 2010, but has not yet passed into law. Low political commitment of parliament members on this issue causes slow deliberation in the House.

Meanwhile Indonesia also has problem of domestic workers overseas. Many of Indonesian women work as domestic workers in some countries like in Arab countries (mostly in Saudi Arabia), Malaysia, Hongkong, etc. Many of them abuse both physically and no legal protection.

For all reasons above, I think it is very important to urge global governments for the ratification of Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 by the International Labor Organization (ILO), instruments which establish internationally the labor standards for a decent work in the sector of domestic work.

Yuyun Harmono Jakarta Community Manager

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