Patriarchal divisions of labour in the household, poverty and a lack of empowerment over their lives has meant women in rural Bangladesh face a litany of social and economic challenges. But if women were empowered further how would their life satisfaction improve, and, should such empowerment occur, would there be a difference in life satisfaction for both men and women in Bangladesh? M Niaz Asadullah (University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur) and Uma Kambhampati (University of Reading) explain.
In agricultural households, women have to be homemakers while also working on family farms, a double burden of responsibilities that cuts into their leisure time and could lead to a reduction in life satisfaction. This is exacerbated by the fact that, in Bangladesh, as in many other developing countries, this ‘double burden’ goes hand in hand with a lack of empowerment in many other aspects of women’s lives. Not only do they face a greater burden of financial poverty, but women also suffer from intra-household inequalities in the allocation of food and health inputs and physical and sexual violence within marriage. In fact, the real measure of autonomy for these women is not whether they have the freedom to do certain things but what would happen if they chose to ignore these freedoms. For both women and men, true freedom requires some self-indulgence and the freedom to do unproductive things, such as listen to the radio, visit friends and so on.
What impact does this lack of voice have on women’s subjective well-being? Studies examining women’s life satisfaction are limited and there are few in the context of developing countries. Much of the past research on the determinants of subjective well-being (SWB) in developing countries has focused on economic factors, while studies of empowerment have tended to concentrate on its impact on household welfare. In a paper just published in the journal World Development, we asked two separate questions. First, does empowerment have an intrinsic effect on an individual’s life satisfaction? Second, is there a difference in gender empowerment on life satisfaction in Bangladesh? We answer these questions by defining empowerment in terms of autonomy in agricultural decision making and then studying its impact on life satisfaction.
Our analysis is based on a nationally representative survey data set — the Bangladesh Integrated Households Survey 2012 (BIHS 2012). We measure life satisfaction scores as a response to the question “how would you rate your satisfaction with your life overall on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means you are not satisfied and 10 means you are very satisfied?”. While definitions of empowerment vary in the literature, we follow that of Kabeer (1999) who argues that empowerment is the expansion of people’s ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them. To be specific, empowerment would then include control over a range of personal decisions, domain specific autonomy, household decision making and the ability to change one’s life at both the individual and communal levels. It therefore involves empowerment across 5 domains of agricultural decisions: agricultural production (“Production decision making”), access to and decision making power over productive resources (“Access to productive resources”), control over use of income, leadership in the community and time allocation. This 5-domain empowerment index is higher for men than for women.
Since empowerment is likely to be endogenously related to life satisfaction, we exploit the fact that localities in which female participation in community activities is high are those where women are more empowered. We hypothesize that this positive association arises either because of peer (or social interaction) effects in community participation (e.g. an individual woman is more likely to engage in community activities if others also participate) or shifting attitudes towards women (e.g. greater presence and engagement of women in the community makes it more acceptable for them to be visible outdoors and for husbands to share responsibility within the household). We find that women participate in fewer community activities than men though there is a strong correlation between participation in community activities and the empowerment index for both genders. The variation in empowerment across individuals caused by differences in participation rate in community activities by other women is then used to model the causal effect of empowerment on life satisfaction.
Our results indicate that empowerment is significantly and positively associated with life satisfaction regardless of household income, gender, religion, and geographic location. In other words, empowerment and the ability to make decisions in relation to a range of issues in life helps to increase an individual’s satisfaction with life in rural Bangladesh. In addition, our analysis reveals that rural Bangladeshi women are better satisfied with life than their male counterparts who are similar in terms of empowerment, demographic, health, economic and household specific factors. Our disaggregated analysis across the domains of empowerment indicates that the economic components (including ownership and use of assets, input into production decisions and so on) are highly significant as is satisfaction with leisure.
We find first, that women appear more content than men in the agricultural sector, particularly when comparison is restricted to men and women who experience similar conditions in relation to education, income, age and empowerment. Second, empowerment has a positive and significant impact on life satisfaction for women but not for men. This is not so surprising when we consider that the base level of empowerment is higher for men than women in Bangladesh. The lower level of life satisfaction owing to borrowing among women, but not men is consistent with the notion that economically active women face the ‘double burden’ of providing care and fulfilling household responsibilities. It might also relate to the increased responsibilities women have for paying back these loans.
Therefore, while economically active women draw satisfaction from economic empowerment, this can involve an important trade-off. Various patriarchal norms govern women’s lives in rural Bangladesh irrespective of their economic engagements in a way that do not constrain and disempower men. This is possibly another explanation for why we do not find a causal effect of the empowerment variable on the life satisfaction of men in our study.
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