By Kelly Dale

Data are essential to achieving the goals of increased empowerment, agency, and equality. Yet we are still grappling to collect and use data that highlight the unique experiences of men, women, boys, and girls, reveal barriers to equality and agency, and prove what works to improve the lives of those that we are trying to reach. This lack of data not only restricts effective programming, but masks and at times even perpetuates inequalities. So, what can we do about this?

Part I in this blog series explored the concepts of empowerment and agency and discussed some of the challenges in measuring them. I posed questions about what it means to empower someone and what increased agency might look like. I also discussed how measuring these concepts too often reflects our own personal biases, and how imperfect measures result in ineffective—or even disempowering—programs and interventions. This blog series aims to explore how we can reduce biases, think deeper about power, measure at a much more nuanced level, and ensure that we do no harm in our work.

In the last post, I outlined how empowerment is composed of three factors—resources (pre-conditions such as knowledge and financial capital), agency (the process of obtaining and using voice, decision making power, and negotiation), and achievements (such as years of schooling and reproductive rights). With the right resources, increased agency leads to greater empowerment and improvement in achievements. Therefore, empowerment can also be viewed as the “expansion of agency” or the process in which a person’s power is enhanced. In this light, recent work has further decomposed agency to understand the kinds of power that can be enhanced: power to, power with, power over, and power from within. Empowerment can be control (power over), choice (power to), change (power from within), and relational (power with). VeneKlasen and Miller (2002) developed a framework that recognizes three levels at which these power shifts can take place: personal, relational and environmental. Personal changes are changes in how a woman sees herself and her role in society. Changes at the relational level are shifts in relationships and how power is distributed on a household or community. Changes at the environmental level are much broader and can be both informal—such as social norms and attitudes—or formal changes—such as changes to laws and policies. WI-HER’s evidence-based and theory-driven approach to gender analysis integrates measurement of these various forms of power and is structured according to these levels of change.

In order to measure power shifts, increased agency, and greater empowerment over time, we must start with a solid baseline understanding. At WI-HER we recognize these complexities and know the importance of studying and learning about the landscape before we can design any kind of useful intervention. When we conduct analyses, we focus on power.  We measure concepts related to agency and empowerment at the personal, relational, and environmental (formal and informal, separately) levels. Our analyses are tailored to the project and sector in which we are working. For example, our analyses for health programs identify and examine the gender inequalities, power and relational dynamics, and social barriers that impact people’s ability to access, utilize, and adhere to health services, as well as the government’s and health facility personnel’s ability to provide continued access to and foster retention of respectful and quality care that is sensitive to the unique needs of males and females of all ages and social backgrounds.

WI-HER’s framework for gender analyses is outlined below. This framework strategically links to USAID’s 5 domains of a gender analysis (laws, policies, regulations, and institutional practices; cultural norms and beliefs; gender roles, responsibilities, and time use; access to and control over assets and resources; and patterns of power and decision making). However, our approach is unique in that it pulls from foundations of political economy analyses, which are rooted in concepts of power, incentives, motivations, relationships, decision making, and agency. This approach allows us to look not only at formal and informal systems and structures, and internal beliefs and biases, but also how these concepts manifest in relationships between men, women, boys, and girls. It is only by looking at these relationships that we can understand how power centers form or break down, how resources are shared and decisions are made, and who has influence over themselves and others. This framework guides our gender analyses and continues to inform our programming so we can track shifts in power dynamics and identify barriers and facilitators to empowerment.

WI-HER's framework for gender and social inclusion analysis

WI-HER’s framework for gender and social inclusion analysis

Our analyses consist of desk reviews which are structural diagnoses of laws, systems, and norms that shape our programs’ ability to increase agency and drive change. In this sense, our desk reviews primarily capture the resources and outcomes/achievements components of empowerment. These desk reviews explore evidence from peer-reviewed publications, gray literature, national statistics and survey data, previous program analyses, strategic plans and national frameworks, and laws and policies. However, we do not simply summarize findings, but rather aim to look at existing literature through a new lens. We uncover biases, understand power dynamics that may impact results, and reveal opportunities for additional exploration. When we delve into the existing literature and data, we must know what to look for, how to pull away the layers and read between the lines, and where to find the opportunities to know more.  We must learn to recognize where structural power dynamics and individual agency can be further explored, measured, and understood. This allows us, as implementation scientists, to better understand and more accurately describe the situation in which we are working. By doing so we can design far more effective programs. But first, we must fill the knowledge gaps.

After completing a desk review, we fill these knowledge gaps by conducting community-level focus group discussions, key informant interviews, stakeholder workshops, and quantitative surveys to better understand community dynamics. In these settings, the real challenge is how we shape and pose questions and who we involve in our research (both as researchers and participants) to most accurately capture motivations, incentives, knowledge, and beliefs. We also always contextualize our tools through field-level testing and validation. In our field-level analyses, we also use innovative quantitative and qualitative measurement approaches such as direct observation and immersion visits, games, participatory ranking methodology, and experimental vignettes.

Through these various approaches with a broad range of stakeholders, we are able measure agency at two levels—the personal (motivations, incentives, knowledge, beliefs, and biases) and the relational (time use, decision making ability, and the balance of power in households and communities). We also integrate measures on access and participation at all levels of analysis—participation, for example, is driven by motivations on the personal level, impacted by time use and responsibilities at the relational level and informal norms at the community level, and dictated by formal laws at the country level. Participation also reflects and is reflected in the three components of empowerment—resources, agency, and achievements. It is only by looking at the complex interplay of many factors at these various levels that we can understand the barriers and drivers of individual empowerment and social change. This information allows us to understand how the roles, norms, power dynamics, and abilities of individuals will impact our work and how we can best tailor programs to expand agency and increase empowerment of all community members.

We do not conduct these analyses alone. We believe in the importance of training women and men at the local level to collect and analyze data, with the aim of improving local capacity to gather data and use this information to develop solutions to improve their communities. At WI-HER, we believe that reaching program goals and ultimately achieving broader agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals will require organizations to be innovative in the ways they collect data, and to work together to share best practices as we push for systems-level change.

Next week, my colleague Tisa Barrios Wilson will discuss WI-HER’s innovative approach to capacity building and how we measure impact.  For more information on WI-HER’s approach measurement, please contact our measurement, evaluation, and learning team at