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The relationship between agency and empowerment: a case study of the Ikhowe craft group.

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There has been considerable debate in the gender and development literature on income earning opportunities and their empowerment potential for women, particularly rural women, in developing countries. In this, a critical question for the empowerment of women is, does access to resources, for example, enterprise income, translate into power and its various manifestations for women within their households? This study argues that access to resources alone is not a sufficient prerequisite for empowerment. Improved access to resources will only transform into empowerment outcomes if women are able to exercise their agency to achieve desired outcomes. The study, therefore, highlights the centrality of agency in the empowerment process. Agency acts as a link between resources on the one hand and empowerment outcomes on the other. Furthermore, the relationship between agency and empowerment is dialectical as the two concepts under investigation are constitutive of each other. Put differently, enhanced agency results in empowerment, which in turn feeds back to increased agency, leading to further empowerment. Hence, empowerment is presented as both an outcome of the exercise of agency and a driver of agency. The study frames the question of agency and empowerment within feminist theory of agency - Western, African and South African. Using a case study of the Ikhowe Craft Group in rural Eshowe, the study examines the role of agency in the empowerment process for rural women crafters in two ways. Firstly, through the feminist political ecology approach, it evaluates their ability to access the natural resource, Cyperus spp. for use in craft making. Secondly, it examines their individual agency within their households and their collective agency in the Craft Group. Within the overarching feminist research paradigm, a mixed methods research methodology was used, which entailed embedding quantitative data collection and presentation within qualitative research techniques. The empirical evidence suggests that the women crafters’ agency was enacted and empowerment achieved within a context of enablement and constraints, with gender culture and traditional leadership emerging as significant variables that mediate the rural women’s agency within their households and in accessing the raw material for their craft. Gender and culture intersect to influence how the women construct their identities, roles and responsibilities within their households. Despite the constraints of social structure, the women emerge as important agents of social change in their households. In addition, the study has revealed the private sphere to be a significant site of both the women crafters’ agency and subordination. Hence, any conceptualization of women’s agency and empowerment, particularly that of rural women, needs to be context-specific to be able to adequately capture the realities of the women that impinge on their ability to act.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2010.


Small business--KwaZulu-Natal--Eshowe., Rural women--Employment--KwaZulu-Natal--Eshowe., Handicraft industries--KwaZulu-Natal--Eshowe., Women artisans--KwaZulu-Natal--Eshowe., Theses--Environmental science.