She stays and she pays: Rural Women’s Labour and Empowerment in Atakora, Northern Benin
This thesis investigates the potential effect of employment in rural agricultural value chains on the empowerment of rural women in Benin, West Africa. A decolonial feminist approach is taken to critically deconstruct the meaning and applicability of the concept of
empowerment.' New empirical evidence is drawn from qualitative data collected in focus group discussions (FGDs) conducted over multi-year fieldwork (2017-2019) with rural women in four communes of Atakora, a remote region of northern Benin. Rounds of interviews were conducted with samples of participants (n= 380) speaking a mix of French and local languages in multiple waves: (i) the general population of women in Atakora; (ii) women economically active in the horticulture value chain; (iii) women economically active in the shea butter value chain. Government social protection officials were also interviewed in each commune. The first major finding is that women report playing both productive and reproductive gendered roles of both men and women. This prompts a reconsideration of the sexual division of labour in the rural African household in Atakora, and presents the potential to expand the concept of women's double burden’ to include the reputational burden of covering for economically inactive husbands in public. Secondly, when `empowerment’ is deconstructed into its constituent parts, the data reveals how women are empowered by their work together in agricultural collectives compared to their work as individual workers. In conceptualising what empowerment from employment means to them, women participants report "not having to wait’’ and "not having to ask.’’ Thirdly, in investigating freedom from violence as a measurement of empowerment for women this research finds underlying social mechanisms that may influence a woman’s ability to seek freedom from violence. These include social policing and social labelling perpetuated by women themselves. How employment may affect a woman's ability to seek freedom from violence may also depend on an individual's motivation to work. The majority of women in FGDs said that beyond meeting subsistence needs of the family, their primary motivation to work is the education of children. Thus, if incomes rise, women may have an inclination to stay – and pay - in an abusive household in order to keep their access to children and continue funding their education with increased income. By revealing complex social mechanisms and norms that affect a woman’s very identity and freedoms, findings of this thesis question the mainstream development approach to understanding, defining, and operationalising women's empowerment as an individual endeavour. The lived realities of rural African women call for an expanded understanding of women’s empowerment from work, one that takes into account collectivist forms of employment, and informs African feminism in the rural context.