Opening Minds, Improving Lives: Education and Women's Empowerment in Honduras

Opening Minds, Improving Lives: Education and Women's Empowerment in Honduras

by Erin Murphy-Graham

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Juanita was seventeen years old and pregnant with her first child when she began an activity that would "open" her mind. Living in a remote Garifuna village in Honduras, Juanita had dropped out of school after the sixth grade. In 1996, a new educational program, Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (Tutorial Learning System or SAT), was started in her community.

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Juanita was seventeen years old and pregnant with her first child when she began an activity that would "open" her mind. Living in a remote Garifuna village in Honduras, Juanita had dropped out of school after the sixth grade. In 1996, a new educational program, Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (Tutorial Learning System or SAT), was started in her community. The program helped her see the world differently and open a small business.

Empowering women through education has become a top priority of international development efforts. Erin Murphy-Graham draws on more than a decade of qualitative research to examine the experiences of Juanita and eighteen other women who participated in the SAT program. Their narratives suggest the simple yet subtle ways education can spark the empowerment process, as well as the role of men and boys in promoting gender equality.

Drawing on in-depth interviews and classroom observation in Honduras and Uganda, Murphy-Graham shows the potential of the SAT program to empower women through expanded access and improved quality of secondary education in Latin America and Africa. An appendix provides samples of the classroom lessons.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the Comparative and International Education Society's Jackie Kirk Outstanding Book Award

"Based on her years of intensive interviews, Murphy-Graham teaches us that the right kind of education promotes much more than economic opportunities. We learn about the remarkable ways that women changed: recognizing their own human worth, developing public voices, creating their own businesses, pursuing higher education, and negotiating more egalitarian marriages. This book should be read by everyone interested in the transformational power of education and in gender equality, and by all who seek hope for a better world."
—Francine Deutsch, Mt. Holyoke College

"A major contribution in helping us turn discussion of empowerment and education away from jargon and cynicism, enhancing our concern with women's struggles for recognition, capabilities, and wider social change."
—Elaine Unterhalter, University of London

"Erin Murphy-Graham shows how the complex process of empowerment unfolds, and answers the question of how it can take place within an educational program that also prepares students for traditional educational assessments. A valuable contribution to understanding gendered processes of empowerment at school and home."
—Karen Monkman, DePaul University

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Opening Minds, Improving Lives

Education and Women's Empowerment in Honduras

By Erin Murphy-Graham

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1829-3


On Gender, Education, and Empowerment

Napoleana is a single mother in her midforties. She lives in a simple concrete house with her adolescent son in one of the Honduran villages where this study was conducted. The house belongs to her sister and brother-in-law, who live in New York City. Napoleana separated from the father of her son after living with him for about a year. She explained that he was an alcoholic, and "he had his vices, and he deceived me, so I left him." She decided it was better for her to stay single. Napoleana was aware that many women in her situation do not have the option to live alone because they lack financial support. She received remittances, "from time to time," from her family in the United States. When I asked her why some women choose to remarry and others prefer to remain single, she explained that it is based on need: "There are some women with five or seven children, and for them it is obligatory that they get married again. There are some mothers that don't have any help from their family." She also believed that some women had bad luck: "This having children with various men, this is a woman's bad luck. Some women do it out of necessity because some men say that they are going to help economically ... she has to accept it. Poor thing, because later this isn't a good home. There isn't understanding between them."

Napoleana, like many in her village, completed only primary school. When SAT opened up in her community, she eagerly enrolled. Previous research suggests that by participating in secondary education, she is more likely to earn higher wages, improve her health and that of her son, have fewer children, and become more involved in community affairs. These benefits of education are often associated with women's empowerment, and they explain why investing in girls' and women's education has become a top priority in international development. However, while research has consistently demonstrated a positive correlation between education and beneficial social and economic outcomes, we know relatively little about how and why education can trigger the empowerment process. Under what conditions can education alter a woman's circumstances in the community so that she does not have to partner with a man "out of necessity"?

Women's Education and Development

More than two hundred years ago, the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, wrote about the importance of education for national development in Wealth of Nations: "a man educated at the expense of much labor and time ... may be compared to one expensive machine.... The work which he learns to perform ... over and above the usual wages of common labor will replace the whole expense of his education" (cited in Psacharopolous 1988, 99) ). Fast-forward two hundred years to the remarks of another economist, Lawrence Summers, who expressed a similar sentiment. This time the emphasis is not on "man" but on girls and women:

If you think about the full social return on different investments in the developing world ... there is a strong case that the highest return investment available is the investment in the primary and secondary education of young girls.... Part of the return to that investment is pecuniary in the form of the higher earnings those who are better educated have. Much of the return is social. Judged purely as a health program, education for girls looks pretty good. Judged purely as a family planning program, education for girls looks pretty good. Judged purely as a program for reduced maternal mortality, education for girls looks pretty good. Judged as all of the above, which it is, education for girls is an extraordinarily high return investment. (2004)

The notion of education as an investment has its roots in human capital theory. Although Smith introduced the idea as early as 1776, it was more fully articulated and backed by empirical evidence through the scholarship of Theodore Schultz (1971). His work emphasized the importance of studying the investment in formal education and quantifying the rate of return on this investment. The initial work on human capital theory made no distinction between men and women. However, in the late 1980s a Yale economist, T. Paul Schultz (Theodore's son), argued that there was an especially high rate of return from women's education (1987). By examining large-scale household surveys from a number of countries, he found that higher levels of female education were associated with a number of desirable outcomes, such as reduced rates of child mortality and reduced fertility. Unterhalter (2007) explains that while Schultz was careful not to assign causality, or to claim that women's education has a direct impact on other outcomes such as health or fertility, the policy recommendation that emerged from his work viewed women's education as a policy lever for poverty alleviation and development. She calls this the "instrumentalist argument" for the education of girls and women (2007, 43).

An influential book published in 1993 by the World Bank, Women's Education in Developing Countries: Barriers, Benefits, and Policies, summarized the research on the benefits of women's education, largely following this instrumentalist approach. The first chapter of the book argues that women's education is associated with increased earnings, lower infant mortality, lower maternal mortality, and lower total fertility rates (King and Hill 1993, 21–22). A number of publications and policy statements have expanded on these findings (e.g., Herz and Sperling 2004; Lewis and Lockheed 2006; Rihani 2006; UNESCO 2003). For example, Herz and Sperling (2004) present evidence suggesting that women's education is associated with:

• higher wages

• faster economic growth

• more productive farming

• smaller families

• lower infant mortality

• increased child immunization

• increased education for children

• lower rates of HIV contraction

• delayed sexual activity

• decreased risky sexual behavior

• reduced domestic violence

• decreased female genital cutting

• improved democracy and political participation

Policy appropriations of the instrumentalist argument are evident in a number of international declarations, publications, and policies, including the World Bank's 1995 education strategy (Unterhalter 2007). However, soon after the World Bank published King and Hill's book on women's education in developing countries, feminist scholars in the field of education began to critique the instrumentalist approach. In 1995, Nelly Stromquist delivered a presidential address at the Comparative and International Education Conference, later published in a leading education journal, Comparative Education Review, where she argued that simply expanding educational access for girls and women would not address the underlying causes of their underrepresentation in education (Stromquist 1995a).

By the mid-1990s, an alternative to the instrumentalist justification for female education was beginning to emerge. This was in part a result of the growing influence of the publications of the scholar Amartya Sen, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. In a number of lectures, articles, and books, Sen articulated what is now called the "capabilities approach" to development. Rather than focusing on individuals as a means to economic growth, the capabilities approach frames development as the expansion of what a person is able to do and be. A capability is "a person's ability to do valuable acts or achieve valuable states of being" (Sen 1993, 30). Development, in this framework, is essentially about expanding people's opportunity to lead lives that they have reason to value. Sen's capabilities approach influenced the way in which the United Nations Development Program, and their annual publication, the Human Development Report, conceptualized and measured development.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a frequent collaborator with Sen, has developed a list of ten specific capabilities that she sees as central to human flourishing. Drawing on her work with women in India, Nussbaum explains this through the concrete example of a woman she calls Vasanti:

The central question asked by the capabilities approach is not, "How satisfied is Vasanti?" or even, "How much in the way of resources is she able to command?" It is instead, "What is Vasanti actually able to do and be?" Taking a stand for political purposes on a working list of functions that would appear to be of central importance in human life, we ask: Is the person capable of this, or not? We ask not only about the person's satisfaction with what she does, but about what she does, and what she is in a position to do (what her opportunities and liberties are). And we ask not just about the resources that are sitting around, but about how those do or do not go to work, enabling Vasanti to function in a fully human way. (2000, 71)

The ten capabilities that Nussbaum proposes are life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one's environment (ibid., 78–80). Particularly relevant to education are three of these capabilities:

senses, imagination, and thought, which, according to Nussbaum, include the ability to use the senses; to imagine, think, and reason in a way that is informed by an adequate education that includes but is not limited to literacy; numeracy; and basic scientific training

practical reason, or being able to form a conception of what is good, and to engage in critical reflection

affiliation, which means being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, and to be able to engage in various forms of social interaction

Education plays a critical role in the capabilities approach to development because it can expand what people are able to be and do. More specifically, education can provide the opportunity for children and adults to develop their senses, imagination, and thought; their ability to reason; and their relationships with and concern for others (among other capabilities on Nussbaum's list).

The influence of the capabilities approach in development circles means that women's education is no longer emphasized solely because of its economic or social benefits. Rather, education is seen as a way to expand women's opportunities to live meaningful lives. Education is seen as a way to empower women.

Education and Women's Empowerment

In the decade that followed the publication of Sen's and Nussbaum's most influential work on the capabilities approach (2000–2010), women's empowerment as itself an important goal of development crept into the discourse of major development institutions. Even the World Bank, whose early emphasis on women's education stressed its "instrumental" role, came to embrace women's empowerment as a means to improving human welfare and social justice. In a paper commissioned by the World Bank, Malhotra, Schuler, and Boender explain:

The World Bank has identified empowerment as one of the key constituent elements of poverty reduction, and as a primary development assistance goal. The Bank has also made gender mainstreaming a priority in development assistance, and is in the process of implementing an ambitious strategy to this effect. The promotion of women's empowerment as a development goal is based on a dual argument: that social justice is an important aspect of human welfare and is intrinsically worth pursuing; and that women's empowerment is a means to other ends. (2002, 3; emphasis mine)

The World Bank was joined by a number of other international aid agencies, including the British Department for International Development and the Canadian International Development Agency in identifying women's empowerment as a strategic goal. "Empowerment" quickly became a buzzword in the international development community. Scores of development initiatives claimed "women's empowerment" as one of their aims (Mosedale 2005). Many of these linked women's empowerment directly or indirectly with women's education.

While women's empowerment emerged as a central goal of international development efforts, the mechanisms by which education sparks the empowerment process were not clearly specified. In the late 1990s, Malhotra and Mather argued that despite its theoretical appeal there was no concrete evidence that education leads to empowerment, and that to make this assumption was an "analytical leap of faith" (1997, 604). Scholars began to pose questions about how and what kind of education facilitates empowerment, and to make the point that not all forms of education are necessarily empowering.

Two 2007 books by Unterhalter—Gender, Schooling, and Global Social Justice and Amartya Sen's Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education (with lead editor Melanie Walker)—examine the connections between the capability approach, women's education, and social justice. This broader perspective on education moves away from equating years of schooling with empowerment. Furthermore, it acknowledges that schools can reinforce social norms or be of such low quality that little learning takes place. For example, Walker and Unterhalter convincingly argue that not everything "counts as education" if we wish to argue that education expands human freedoms, agency, and empowerment (2007, 14). Nussbaum, in a 2003 article entitled "Women's Education: A Global Challenge," makes a similar point. She argues that literacy and education in general are connected to women's ability to form social relationships and develop self-respect. By "education," she clarifies that she means not the mere rote use of skills but "an inquiring habit of mind and a cultivation of the inner space of the imagination" (2003, 336). "Real" education, according to Nussbaum, implies an "overall empowerment of the woman through literacy and numeracy but also the cultivation of the imagination and a mastery of her political and economic situation" (340). For Napoleana, the woman featured at the beginning of this chapter, or Nussbaum's Vasanti to expand their possibilities, they must participate in empowering educational practices.

What Is Empowerment?

What does empowerment mean, and how is the concept different from agency or the expansion of human freedoms? I propose that empowerment is a process of recognition, capacity building, and action. Empowered individuals come to recognize their inherent worth, the fundamental equality of all human beings, and their ability to contribute to personal and social betterment. They develop the capacity to critically examine their lives and broader society and to take action toward personal and social transformation.

This notion of empowerment is somewhat consistent with how the term has been described in other studies. While there is no agreed-upon definition of empowerment, there is a great deal of overlap between how different scholars describe the concept. Researchers sometimes use terms such as "autonomy," "agency," "domestic economic power," and "participation" as synonyms for "empowerment" (Malhotra, Schuler, and Boender 2002). "Empowerment" has also been used as shorthand for the outcomes associated with the capabilities approach. For example, Raynor explains that she uses "empowerment" because there is "no easy shorthand term for the process of having a person's capabilities developed so that they are able to live a life that they have reason to value" (2007, 158). Despite the lack of overall agreement on the meaning of women's empowerment, Mosedale (2005) and Malhotra, Schuler, and Boender (2002) identify commonalities in how empowerment is conceptualized in the literature. These include:

1. To be empowered, one must have been disempowered. Women's empowerment is relevant because as a group women are disempowered relative to men.

2. Empowerment is a process rather than a product. People are empowered or disempowered relative to others and to themselves at an earlier time.

3. Empowerment cannot be bestowed by a third party. External agencies or programs cannot empower women but can facilitate the conditions for women to empower themselves.

4. Empowerment implies human agency and choice. A fundamental shift in perception or an inner transformation is essential to the formulation of different choices. Empowerment includes people making decisions on matters that are important in their lives and being able to carry them out.

While conceptualizations of empowerment vary, a number of studies use some variation of Kabeer's definition: "the expansion in people's ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them" (1999, 437; and see Malhotra, Schuler, and Boender 2002; Rowlands 1997; Unterhalter and Aikman 2005). In 2005, Mosedale proposed a framework of empowerment that is closely related to Kabeer's definition, but with two important differences. Mosedale defines empowerment as "the process by which women redefine and extend what is possible for them to be and do in situations where they have been restricted, compared to men, from being and doing ... [and] the process by which women redefine their gender roles in ways which extend their possibilities for being and doing" (2005, 252). Mosedale explains that the key difference between her definition and Kabeer's is that hers stresses the gendered nature of women's disempowerment. Furthermore, Mosedale's definition focuses on individuals redefining and extending the limits of what is possible, rather than on individuals acquiring an ability to choose.


Excerpted from Opening Minds, Improving Lives by Erin Murphy-Graham. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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