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11/9/16 - "Women’s Empowerment for Refugees in Educational Programs in Dadaab, Kenya" by Ally Krupar

Women’s Empowerment for Refugees in Educational Programs in Dadaab, Kenya


Ally Krupar is a dual-title doctoral candidate in Adult Education and Comparative and International Education. She received an ARC research grant in Fall 2015 for her project entitled "Women’s Enpowerment and Forced Migration:  Adult Learners’ Experiences in NGO-led Adult Education Programs in Dadaab, Kenya".

Women’s empowerment is a driving force behind educational programming in international development worldwide. Given the growing global migration crisis, this study analyzes responses to forced migration in Dadaab, Kenya in the form of educational programs that aim to empower women provided by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). I specifically analyze how women participants in educational programs experience and conceptualize empowerment related to their involvement in the adult non-formal learning environment. Using innovative visual and educational ethnographic methods, this research seeks to answer: How is empowerment interpreted, internalized, (re)appropriated, or contested by women learners in NGO educational programming in Dadaab? How do women participants in programs interpret empowerment in their day-to-day lives? How does their participation in NGO-led programming, as a social process, develop (or not) these experiences of empowerment? I conducted a visual educational ethnography of empowerment in educational programs drawing on data collected in June - August 2014 and May - June 2015. With the support of the Africana Research Center at Penn State, I was able to complete data collection from April – June 2016 in an iterative and compressed time mode ethnographic study.

Preliminary findings: Women’s and field workers’ narratives

Women interpreted, internalized, (re)appropriated, and contested empowerment in their narratives about daily life and changes they experienced related to NGO educational programs. They defined empowerment in terms of abilities, making, sharing, and a recognition of their contributions to their families and communities. They defined these elements of empowerment, but did not consider them to be aspects of power. Women defined power as predominantly political power and consistently argued that they did not have power as refugees because they could not influence systems in which they lived and were dependent on humanitarian aid in the form of food distribution and other services from NGOs and UNHCR. Dependency was a theme in both field workers’ and women’s narratives about empowerment related to learning outcomes and in daily life. This theme was so ever-present that some women defined the services provided by NGOs as evidence of their empowerment, and not solely as a tool to develop empowerment. Field workers, on the other hand, were hopeful that training would help motivate and enable women to hone their skills and enhance their autonomy, especially beyond the refugee camps.

Power and empowerment were not linked for field workers and women participants. Instead, power was amorphous, though I was able to extrapolate and identify some definitions of power that fit within power-to, power-over, and power-with constructs, specifically the power to make an income, political actors’ power both within Dadaab and beyond, power over women participants, and women’s collaborative power to produce goods, engage in trade, and lead community development projects. Empowerment signified changes in skills, knowledge acquisition, and actions within women’s families, homes, and communities but there was little recognition of these sites of empowerment as also sites of power. Power, for most co-researchers in this study, existed as a political and economic fact, not directly related to efforts to empower.

Women and some field workers contested empowerment through a patriarchal gendered lens of domination. Men, it was agreed by many participants and field workers, were not empowered in the refugee camps. Instead, programs focused on building women’s skills and participation at the expense of men. This reflected the emphasis on programming intending to empower women. It also signifies internalized patriarchal systems amongst all participants. Finally, refugees’ dependency on NGO programs related to the disempowerment of men and women participants.

I argue that empowerment is interpreted by women participants in this study as the acquisition of new abilities, especially, although not always, related to the production of goods for sale. Field workers, similarly, emphasized developing participants’ autonomy and abilities, and deemphasized the role of NGO’s in women’s actions. Women internalized the concept of empowerment as a mundane aspect of participation in NGO programming, an expected if unmeasurable outcome, often associated with NGO’s provision of services. Field workers similarly understood the ubiquity of empowerment as a goal of all programming but more critically considered when their actions and the structure of their programs was developing women’s autonomy, and when it was not. In (re)appropriating empowerment, women emphasized how empowerment was synonymous with “good” and “learning.” Field workers often simplified empowerment to equate to learning in educational programs themselves but then in interviews described the linkages between the overall organizational objectives, set forth by international agendas, and the specific empowerment in the program presented here. Both women and field workers contested women’s empowerment, with the emphasis on women. Women described how men were excluded from programming, leaving male family members idle and creating asymmetry in household activities with women bearing the brunt of domestic and income-generating activities. Field workers also raised issues of gender but returned to dependency models, where refugees were made dependent upon NGOs for services, resources, and programs. In sum, empowerment is intertwined with NGO programming in Dadaab, subject to international agendas and goal-setting, and interpreted and enacted on the ground through abilities and independence.

Ally Krupar blog

Ally Krupar teaching women to use the cameras for data collection as part of the visual ethnography.