19 March 2018

The Business of Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda

A presentation by Catia Gregoratti, University of Lund

Report by Vanessa Gauthier Vela, The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Catia Gregoratti presented a part of her research in the context of the Gender Centre’s Gender Seminar Series. She situates her work within the field of International Political Economy. Starting from the concept of transnational business feminism (TBF) developed by Adrienne Roberts, Gregoratti showed us the methodological challenges that she and her co-author faced when doing field research on the subject of corporate-backed gender equality programmes.
The theoretical work and text analysis on this subject is well-known. The originality of Gregoratti’s work is her approach by case studies analysis in order to understand TBF historically. Her presentation was based in one case that the researchers had to abandon and four others that they could investigate, all situated in Rwanda. Rwanda was chosen because after the genocide, gender equality and women empowerment became high priorities for the state during the rebuilding process. This context helps thus to understand how transnational business feminism is acting in Rwanda.

The researchers first tried speaking to corporations, aiming to understand their motives for participating in these programmes. While in contact with Goldman Sachs, the researchers came across a paradox: the programmes benefit from a high visibility but at the same time it is difficult to understand who is actually in charge. The second problem was that the access also came with secrecy and legal contract. It was impossible for the researchers to talk to the beneficiaries of the programme and the company does not know what happens in the field. Even if the Goldman Sachs case was dropped, the researchers still learned three things from it: the boundaries, the preferred partners and the power of numbers, meaning the legitimisation by presenting everything as a success.

Entering in the field with critical literature in mind – arguing that (neo)liberal empowerment obscures power structures – the researchers approached four different cases in Rwanda: a local NGO, cooperatives and a Walmart supplier factory. All are involved in the production of baskets and jewels and stressed the empowerment of women participating in these programmes. In the field, the researchers found a more nuanced reality than what the critical literature often describes. They found ways of empowerment in the associational life of women. The pedagogical purpose was also important. Other observations were however resonating with the critique. The women participating were still in a precarious position, and in the Walmart factory the wages depended on the amount of pieces produced. Also, different partners see empowerment in different manners. Walmart underlines the importance of financial literacy while the NGO pushes for a pedagogy of gender, encouraging a positive masculinity and knowledge about health issues and AIDS. Gregoretti argues that these observations tell us much about the development of capitalism in Rwanda. She makes a link between the economic system prevailing in Europe and the one existing in the observed cases – both relying on housework.

By focusing on an empirical reality of gender equality programmes with a feminist political economy analysis, Gregoratti shows the importance of studying cooperatives in political economy. She is highlighting those cases where the public-private operates and addresses the nuances and the contradictions of how it operates on the ground.