Power, Women's Empowerment and the Gender Empowerment Measure: Voices from Sri Lankan Factory Women who Work in Export Processing Zones
Asia Pacific Press
Faculty of Computing, Health and Science
Centre for Social Research / School of International, Cultural and Community Studies
Since the UNDP introduced the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) and the Gender Development Index (GDI) in the 1995 Human Development Report, a global-level discourse has emerged analysing the measures. More importantly a critical discussion has emerged about the concepts of gender, power and women’s empowerment (Attanapola, 2003; Bardhan & Klasen, 2000; Charmes & Wieringa, 2003; Dijkstra & Hanmer, 2000; Dijkstra, 2002; Hancock, 2001; Jayaweera, 2002 & 2003; Pyle & Ward, 2003; Sharma, 1997; Visvanathan, 1997). The most important elements of this discourse have highlighted problems with global measures of women’s empowerment, most of which argue that such measures ignore or misrepresent the position of many women in developing nations. Reference to the discourses that have analysed the GEM is important to this article as they introduce the reader to the ways in which global measures of gender and empowerment have been discussed. This discussion is also important to the qualitative findings of our research, as they point to the need for global measures (like the GEM) to incorporate certain local conditions in future measurements of women’s empowerment. The paper also provides thematic discourse on what power and, specifically, the empowerment of women means to women working in multinational export oriented factories in Sri Lanka. The focus upon export oriented factory workers is because it is this sector that commonly leads developing nations’ attempts to create modern economies. As these sectors employ predominantly young women (18-25 years of age), who are more likely to have modern outlooks, it is believed that their experiences as workers will highlight important issues and discourse vis-à-vis the conceptualisation and measurement of women’s empowerment. This research was designed to measure, in qualitative and some quantitative terms, the extent to which women who work in any of Sri Lanka’s Export Processing Zones (EPZs) are empowered as a result of their employment. In general, women’s narratives revealed that they were subjugated at the factory and community level as a result of working in EPZs. This subjugation, however, was not experienced at the individual and family level. It was in these two micro areas where empowerment was widely experienced and enjoyed by the participants. So, despite problems with industrial systems and the negative community stigma associated with factory work in Sri Lanka, participants reported experiencing empowerment as a result of regular wages and new lifestyles associated with factory work. The research revealed, however, serious obstacles to empowerment of women in Sri Lanka, obstacles that centre around the state, community and industrial system itself.