Rafia Zakaria Discusses the Myth of Development Aid through Women’s Empowerment

On Thursday, November 8th, the Schell Center for International Human Rights hosted Rafia Zakaria to speak as part of their Human Rights Workshop series. Zakaria is an immigration lawyer, professor at the Civic and Global Leadership program at City College, author of “The Upstairs Wife” (2015) and “Veil” (2017), and journalist at Pakistan’s Dawn magazine, The Guardian, and the Boston Review of Books. Her presentation titled, “Emissaries of Empowerment: Dynamics of Western Feminist Interventions to ‘Rescue’ Women of the Global South,” presented a critique of Western development aid drawn from her most recent work.  

Zakaria’s presentation analyzed the genealogy of empowerment-focused development aid. The idea of “empowerment” first entered feminist discourse in the Global South as a means to articulate the need for rights-based gender equality in society. Over time, the term was adopted  by Western feminists and development groups to rally support for programming such as women’s education, health, and programs addressing gender violence. Zakaria contended that while empowerment aid pays lip service to feminist values, it does little to address complex structural causes of gender inequality or recognize women as capable political actors. Instead, it replicates the stereotype of non-Western women as victims in need of a savior.

Take the “chicken project” as an example. Heralded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project is premised on the idea that by providing women domesticated animals they can secure economic independence. Empirically, projects such as this lead to short-term poverty alleviation, but the positive effects quickly dissipate. “The problem with chickens and sewing machines,” Zakaria explained, “is that women aren’t seen as full subjects… Empowerment programming is explicitly depoliticizing, obscuring women’s relationships to power and the state.”

NGOs and development organizations must focus less on marginal improvements in the condition of women. Rather, Zakaria proposes a decisive shift in the development mindset: if gender-parity is truly the goal of empowerment, development aid should focus on providing women the resources to protect their power through politics.

Invoking an example from her home country of Pakistan, Zakaria described an initiative launched in March of 2017 to protect and empower women affected by domestic violence. In the Punjab region, there are staggering rates of domestic violence, assault, and abuse with little effort by the government to meaningfully investigate complaints. The Protection of Women Against Violence Bill follows Zakaria’s model of providing women political avenues to secure empowerment. The bill creates Violence Against Women Centers (VAWCs) that act as a catch-all center for victims of domestic violence. Open 24 hours a day, women can seek counselling, legal aid, and request that their claims of abuse be investigated. Most impressively, these centers are completely run by women, providing them a political mechanism to ensure government accountability in the fight to end violence against women in Punjab.

Although Zakaria poses a difficult task to the development community, it is a necessary one if the goals of truly “feminist” development are to be accomplished. Only through a concerted effort by development organizations, NGOs, and advocacy workers to recenter their approach to development aid will this occur. Projects such as the VAWCs of Punjab provide a promising signal of what could come. For now, Zakaria will continue her advocacy work, writing and teaching the next generation of human rights advocates at City College in New York.