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Women and empowerment on the Befana day

We Italians celebrate every 6th of January the Befana, that ugly looking lady smiling on the picture to your left, taken by Trisha. She has other names, the Befana. Frau Holle or Frau Berchta, in Germay. The witch Posterli, in Switzerland. Its tradition comes from pagan celebrations, through which one used to celebrate fertility, Mother Nature and the feminine. In January, old and bare, Mother Nature’s fate is death and rebirth, awaiting Spring time.

Female and witch. A complex and ambivalent vision that is still present in modern society, where gender discrimination goes often hand in hand with an increased role in society for women, that generates new opportunities for all. You don’t believe me?  Esther Duflo, economist at MIT, in her beautiful review  cites, for example, “research conducted in rural Tanzania (which) shows explicitly how the vulnerability of women increases when households face a crisis. When the harvest is bad, due to droughts or floods, and food is scarce, the murder of “witches” (almost always old women) is twice as likely to occur as in normal years.” Sure, things can change. With development, for example, which makes droughts more easily manageable and preventable. In Southafrica, Duflo again, “at the end of apartheid, in the early 1990s, old-age pension programs, previously limited to whites, were expanded to cover South Africans of all races. Since the introduction of the program, witch killings in rural Northern Province have dropped dramatically (Singer, 2000).” More than that. Indeed, Duflo finds that “girls who live with a grandmother who receives the pension are heavier than those who live with a grandmother who is not quite old enough to receive the pension. Moreover, when she looks at height, Duflo finds that older girls, who were born before the pension was in effect, are smaller when they live with a pension recipient (male or female) than when they live with a non-recipient. However, among young girls, who have lived their lives since the pension system was put in place, those who live with a grandmother who receives the pension are taller than those who live without one. This suggests that pensions received by women do translate into better nutrition for girls. While the weight of the older girls catches up immediately, deficit in early nutrition continues to be seen in height even after good nutrition has resumed, and this is why the older girls remain smaller. We estimate that for girls, living with a grandmother who receives the pension is enough to bridge half the gap between the size of children in the U.S. and in South Africa. In contrast, no such effect is found when the pension is received by a man.”

2 stories in one therefore. Economic development helps women to obtain more empowerment (not being killed as witches) and more empowerment for women boosts development (girls’ height). Without, however, falling prey to misguided enthusiasm. For example, more empowerment for women changes political decisions that are taken, sometimes toward better outcomes sometimes less clearly: “to understand the effect of having women as policy makers, Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) study the reservation policy for women in India mentioned above. A constitutional amendment required states to both devolve power over   expenditure for local public goods to rural village councils, and to reserve a third of all council seats and council presidencies for women. As a result, the political representation and participation of women has increased. A comparison of the type of public goods provided in reserved and unreserved village councils showed that the gender of the council president impacts investments. Women invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant to the expressed development priorities of women. In West Bengal, where women complained more often than men about water and roads, reserved councils invested more in water and roads. In Rajasthan, where women complained more often about drinking water but less about roads, reserved councils invested more in water and less in roads…… While this reform was clearly good for women (whose preferences were now taken into account), it is less clear whether it is overall welfare improving or not: in order to answer this question, one would need to decide whether water was more important than schools or roads. There is no obvious way to do this calculation: in West Bengal, we tested all water wells, and found most of them to be completely clean. The extra investment in drinking water infrastructure may thus have been primarily a matter of convenience for women.”

She concludes that “on the one hand, economic development alone is insufficient to ensure significant progress in important dimensions of women’s empowerment, in particular, significant progress in decision-making  ability in the face of pervasive stereotypes against women’s ability. On the other hand, women’s empowerment leads to improvement in some aspects of children’s welfare (health and nutrition, in particular), but at the expense of some others (education). This suggests that neither economic development nor women’s empowerment is the magic bullet it is sometimes made out to be. In order to bring about equity between men and women, in my view a very desirable goal in and of itself, it will be necessary to continue to take policy actions that favor women at the expense of men, and it may be necessary to continue doing so for a very long time. While this may result in some collateral benefits, those benefits may or may not be sufficient to compensate the cost of the distortions associated with such redistribution. This measure of realism needs to temper the positions of policy makers on both sides of the development/empowerment debate.”

I forgot to tell you that the Befana we celebrate today in Italy carries with her sweet presents for kids and everyone else. Celebrating Mother Nature, fertility and exorcising witches is all right by me, but we should make sure we understand the gifts that are brought to society  by a larger empowerment of women and by a simultaneous effort to expand growth and opportunities for all.

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