Unpacking Women's Empowerment: Preliminary Program


“Unpacking Women’s Empowerment: Implications for Research, Policy and Practice in International Development”

2018 Annual Conference

Institute for the Study of International Development

McGill University

March 15-16 2018, Faculty Club, 3450 McTavish

Since the 1970s governments and various civil society actors at international and domestic levels have engaged in legal, political, economic and social efforts to advance diverse visions of women’s empowerment. Yet, more work needs to be done to clarify what constitutes women’s empowerment in contemporary circumstances, and how to evaluate various policies or practices in terms of their impact on promoting various forms of women’s empowerment. These tasks are complicated by the diversity of development contexts, as well as the multidimensional nature of factors affecting women’s empowerment. They are also especially policy relevant given Canada’s new Feminist International Assistance Policy aimed at promoting gender equality in aid programming.

ISID’s annual conference on March 15-16, 2018 presents a valuable opportunity to “unpack” the agenda of women’s empowerment in global development, with an interdisciplinary group of experts who will discuss contemporary challenges and opportunities for research, policy and practice, as well as examine some of the recent evidence on empowerment initiatives in resource-poor settings. The conference will focus on various challenges that confront scholars and policy makers seeking to construct policies and assess their impact on increasing women’s autonomy, voice, and/or well-being in the household, civil society, and national politics. Some of these challenges include the difficulties associated with how to measure and benchmark progress toward achieving women’s empowerment in diverse development contexts, as well as concerns that the design and implementation of women’s empowerment policies obscure their politically contested nature. Other challenges have to do with how to incorporate evidence of social and political backlash in assessing the impact and success of various policies.

This conference will also highlight ISID’s current partnership with Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), to disseminate the results of their $17.5 million women’s economic empowerment program, GrOW, taking place in over 50 countries around the world. We must take advantage of this opportune moment in Canadian politics to unpack the concept of women’s empowerment and move the national and international agenda forward.

Day 1  -  March 15, 2018


Arrival and Registration


Welcome, Opening Remarks, and Introduction of Conference Theme

Sonia Laszlo (Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University)

Catherine Lu (Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University)


Policy Keynote Address:

The Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau (Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, Government of Canada)

Introduction by Antonia Maioni (Dean of the Faculty of Arts, McGill University)


Panel 1: Unpacking Women’s Empowerment

Bipasha Baruah (University of Western Ontario)

Eleonor Faur (National University of San Martin)

Lisa Baldez (Dartmouth College)

Panel Chair: Vrinda Narain (Associate Dean of the Faculty of Law, McGill University)


Health Break


Academic Keynote Address:

Naila Kabeer (Professor of Gender and Development, London School of Economics and Political Science)

Introduction by Sonia Laszlo (Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University)



Panel 1: Unpacking Women’s Empowerment

Leaders and international organizations such as the United Nations have declared women’s empowerment in household/domestic, social/economic/communal, and political spheres of society to be ‘fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace’ (Beijing Declaration 1995 – para 13). This panel unpacks some concepts and practices currently associated to the agenda of women’s empowerment, including gender equality, women’s rights as human rights, women’s political leadership and political participation, ending violence and discrimination against women, as well as women’s economic empowerment in the household, and control over reproductive decisions and health. Are these concepts and practices adequate for realizing women’s empowerment, and in ways that would count as advances towards development? What relationships and tensions might exist between these diverse faces of women’s empowerment, and how well or poorly do international formulations of the agenda of women’s empowerment connect with local social, economic and political agendas?

Day 2  -  March 16, 2018


Arrival and Registration


Welcome and Opening Remarks:

Suzanne Fortier (Principal of McGill University)

Introduction by Catherine Lu (Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University)


Panel 2: Women and Markets

Markus Goldstein (World Bank)

Khalil Shariff (Agha Khan Foundation)

Laura Doering (University of Toronto)

Panel Chair: Elissar Sarrouh (Professor of Practice, Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University)


Coffee Break


Panel 3: Empowerment Within the Household

Agnes Quisumbing (International Food Policy Research Institute)

Lotus McDougal (University of California San Diego School of Medicine)

Siwan Anderson (University of British Columbia)

Panel Chair: Arijit Nandi (Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, and The Institute for Health and Social Policy, McGill University)


Lunch Break


Panel 4: Community and State Level Analysis

Kathleen Fallon (Stony Brook University)

Mona Lena Krook (Rutgers University)

Stephanie Rousseau (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú)

Panel Chair: Kelly Gordon (Assistant Professor, Political Science, McGill University)


Coffee Break


Roundtable and Open Discussion: Implications for Research, Policy and Practice

Arjan de Haan (International Development Research Centre)

Rt Hon. Aminata Touré (Former Prime Minister of Senegal)

Mayra Buvinic (Center for Global Development and UN Foundation)

Deirdre Kent (Global Affairs Canada)

Panel Chair: Chris Ragan (Director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University)

Panel 2: Women and Markets

One central notion in women’s empowerment is her ability to be gainfully and meaningfully employed, to gain her financial autonomy, benefit equally from a good education, gain skills and have access to productive resources such as land and capital. Despite universal agreement that girls’ and women’s education is of central importance to their well-being and to development itself, the gender gap persists in many places in the world. Despite increases in labour force participation, the glass ceiling remains unbroken and the job opportunities available to women who often shoulder the burden of care of the young and elderly are often of poor quality and low remuneration. Meanwhile, considerable efforts in development programming to ‘level the playing field’ (e.g. microfinance, job-training, etc.) have been met with mixed results. This panel will explore contemporary challenges and ways forward to narrow these gender gaps and promote access to productive resources and opportunities.

Panel 3: Empowerment within the Household

Recent years have seen increased attention to women’s decision-making power within the household, from a wide array of scholars, practitioners and program designers. A central dimension of a woman’s empowerment is her ability to affirm her voice and exert her preferences in relation to fundamental decisions such as her freedom of movement and association, her degree of access and control over household resources, her autonomy in securing livelihoods and financial independence, her control over her health and fertility and influence on the care and wellbeing of her children. This panel will highlight important advances in conceptualizing empowerment within the household decision-making sphere and survey recent evidence from programs which have aimed at improving women’s agency, voice and outcomes in household matters. How successful have these programs been? Is increasing women’s bargaining power within the household necessarily a zero-sum game where empowerment will lead to backlash? How can theory help better inform practice?

Panel 4: Community and State Level Analysis

Historically, women have been systematically underrepresented both at national and local level politics throughout the world. Even now, after years of attention to women’s political engagement, we see a large gender gap in political involvement. These issues of women’s political exclusion become even more severe when we take an intersectional view and look at women from racial or ethnic minorities. In the last decades, we have seen increased attention to the empowerment of women at local and national level politics, both from researchers as well as from policy makers. This panel will look at advances and outstanding issues when it comes to women’s empowerment in community and national level politics, paying special attention to women’s leadership, while considering intersectional issues of race and ethnicity. What has been the effect of the multiple electoral quota laws enacted in the last decades on women representation? When and how do women reach positions of power and leadership at both local and national level politics, and to what effect? What added obstacles do indigenous women face at the community level?

Roundtable and Open Discussion: Implications for Research, Policy and Practice

This roundtable panel will distill the conversations that have taken place throughout the conference, and provide an opportunity for open discussion with a view to implications for research, policy and practice. Specific attention will be paid to how policy and interventions can be improved such that backlash and unintended consequences for women’s empowerment can be addressed and eliminated.


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