Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index: The Experience of USAID Bangladesh
This year, 2022, celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI). When the WEAI was launched in 2012, it provided Missions and implementers in the agriculture sector with a common language for how to describe and measure women’s empowerment. Many different frameworks existed prior to the WEAI, but this index facilitated the agriculture sector in visualizing a shared understanding of women’s empowerment that allowed agriculture specialists to focus and prioritize which aspects of women’s empowerment they could address. The WEAI has been key in moving the conversation of women’s empowerment forward by making the challenging concept of women’s empowerment more concrete for people who work in the agriculture sector, with a common language and common data.
USAID Bangladesh was the first Mission to pilot the WEAI and has played a role in its growth since its inception in 2011. Farzana Yasmeen, program management specialist with USAID Bangladesh, shares how the WEAI has influenced the last 10 years of programming in Bangladesh.
Upon finalizing the index, the WEAI was launched at the 56th Session of the Committee on the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York, with additional presentations done in Washington D.C.
How did USAID Bangladesh get involved in working with the WEAI?
Farzana Yasmeen, program management specialist with USAID Bangladesh: When the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index was introduced, it was something entirely new at the time, but it felt very relevant because it was not only looking at women’s participation or access to income and resources. It was looking into women’s feelings and the psychology of empowerment, by looking at issues such as time burdens and leisure. The survey really opened our eyes when we heard stories from the field about gaps in women’s empowerment, which we could use Feed the Future activities to address.
The USAID Bangladesh Mission got involved in the development of the WEAI in late 2010 and early 2011, during the launch of the Feed the Future initiative. During the rollout of Feed the Future, we began expressing concern that we did not have appropriate measures to monitor women’s inclusion in the agriculture sector broadly. So we, along with the USAID Guatemala and USAID Uganda Missions, worked with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to identify the five areas that are core to the concept of empowerment and to develop the individual and household questionnaires which were piloted in each country. From this pilot, IFPRI made adjustments and launched the first population-based WEAI baseline survey in Bangladesh in 2012, making the USAID Bangladesh Mission the first to implement the WEAI. For the Bangladesh Mission, the implementation of Feed the Future and the WEAI go hand-in-hand, and it has played a role in our Feed the Future programming ever since.
What did USAID Bangladesh learn from the trial of the WEAI and how did it impact how the Mission approached women’s empowerment and gender programming?
Farzana: We found from the pilot results that women’s empowerment in Bangladesh was significantly low, which encouraged us to focus targeted interventions for women across all of our key Feed the Future activities. We understood that the survey data was taken at a population level and that individual activities aren’t able to influence a population, but we knew that USAID Bangladesh’s activities collectively could make an impact with better gender integration and focusing on gaps in women’s participation, access and benefit. We worked with implementing partners from all of our existing programs to understand how to integrate gender and women’s empowerment concerns in order to mitigate some of the empowerment gaps. We also designed a $6 million pilot activity based on the findings from the survey, which we implemented in five districts in Bangladesh from 2014 to 2017 to train 30,000 women on literacy, entrepreneurship and agriculture production. The activity focused on increasing women’s empowerment in the areas of decisions about agricultural production, access to and decision-making power about productive resources and control of use of income. The activity also trained 7,500 men in households of these beneficiaries on the importance of women’s empowerment, and shared decision-making and control over agriculture production, productive resources and use of income. While this may seem like a small investment, we do know that our beneficiaries were more comfortable speaking in public and had a better understanding of and access to economic resources. We saw immediate results for women’s empowerment from this trial.
How has USAID Bangladesh been involved in the evolution of the WEAI?
Farzana: It was exciting to work with the WEAI because there had never been a composite measure of women’s empowerment, and at the USAID Bangladesh Mission, we were sharing updates with our implementing partners during our regular, quarterly meetings with them. It generated a lot of interest in the WEAI and gave the implementing partners and their teams the opportunity to provide feedback and ask questions. They raised the issue of how the survey was built to track at the population level and that it was very long, which made it difficult for [those implementing] activities to use. They also expressed concern with a few indicators, such as autonomy in production, which felt abstract; speaking in public, which had been included as an indicator of leadership within the community, but was ultimately very context specific; and the possibility of including health or mobility as indicators of empowerment. USAID Bangladesh, USAID Washington and IFPRI began the process of exploring a version of the index that could be used at the activity level, which formed the basis of the Abbreviated WEAI (A-WEAI). We shortened and streamlined the survey, which ultimately reduced the interview time by 30%, which made it more accessible to implementing partners, other donors and multiple types of stakeholders. Once the A-WEAI had been developed, Bangladesh piloted this version as well. Our experience and involvement in the development of the WEAI and subsequent versions was significant. And because we were covering many areas under agriculture — ranging from aquaculture, horticulture, fertilizer management, improved seed varieties and mechanization — we were able to contribute contextual information from multiple angles. Our big success with the WEAI has been in helping adapt it for use at the project level.
What does the future of the WEAI in USAID Bangladesh look like?
Farzana: Right now, we are finalizing the endline survey report for the Bangladesh Feed the Future zone of influence, so in the immediate near future we will widely share out the report and the progress we’ve made since the first baseline. We’ll be taking these findings into account in our next round of interventions to ensure we are targeting any gaps that we see in women’s empowerment and to continue to build on the success and results that we are seeing. We also want to ensure any successes we have achieved remain sustainable beyond the life of individual activities. Mostly, we want to continue to educate people about women’s empowerment and how to use the WEAI. We have a lot of resources that are publicly available, such as an instructional guide on how to use the tool. We have been working with IFPRI to foster a culture of learning and we are open to feedback going forward on what can be done differently or included in the tool.
What advice would you give other Missions, who are looking to start using the WEAI as a guiding principle for their women's empowerment in gender programming?
Farzana: The WEAI is a complex index, so I encourage new users to really familiarize themselves with the index itself using the resources available to you on the WEAI resource center. Then, you will need to contextualize the index within your country or zone of influence. What are the most important issues for your country or the context you’re working in? I would recommend doing a stakeholder consultation and bringing in an implementing partner to help you in this process. They can help you identify which are the most useful and important questions, and which would not be as useful, how to track answers and what language to conduct the survey in. Then you will need to hire the right data collection firm that understands the importance of women’s empowerment in agriculture, and that has enumerators who understand how to sensitively collect the data. You will also need some training for data analysis, because data will only matter if you are able to analyze it and present it in a way that it can be used.