NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s empowerment is a popular mantra in international-development circles, linked to the premise that the most effective way to help an overall society is to invest in women.

But what does women’s empowerment mean? How is it defined? Can we measure it?

How do providers of humanitarian aid support women’s-empowerment projects?

CARE, the international antipoverty group based in Atlanta, joins the effort to answer such questions with a March 8 report on a multi-year project in Bangladesh that has produced an eye-popping correlation between women-focused spending and a 28-percent drop in childhood malnutrition or "stunting" during the study period of almost four years.

Researchers defined empowerment as entrepreneurship opportunity, greater participation in children’s education and more awareness of harmful and taboo topics as early marriage, dowry and violence against women. They made "interventions" in all these areas.

CARE called the project SHOUHARDO, which stands for Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to Development Opportunities and means "friendship" in Bangla.

Researchers targeted 400,000 households, each with an average size of five members, so the program affected about 2 million, said Faheem Khan, head of the program.

The lessons learned with SHOUHARDO are now being applied to a second phase, which will reach nearly 2 million more in Bangladesh by May 2015, said Khan. "If we are able to significantly reduce stunting, we are able to change a population for the better for the rest of their lives. The children will grow up more healthy and intelligent, enabling them to be more productive members of society."

The $126 million project involving over 1,500 staff members was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which last week announced a policy to close the gender gap in international development efforts. Under the new policy, Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg said women’s interests would be integrated "into the very DNA of everything we do."

Khan hails that news, based on the findings of his own project.

"Our analysis clearly demonstrates there is a strong link between improving the nutritional status and the households overall well-being when women are empowered," said Khan. "It is the woman of the household who is the caretaker of the children; it is the woman who plays a critical role in what food types are grown around the house and bought from the market; it is the woman who plays a pivotal role in the cleanliness of the household members; all of which are vital for improving the nutritional and health status of all household members."

Khan would like to see SHOUHARDO replicated on a global scale. Spreading the word about this project’s success, he said, can save resources that other projects might spend testing what this project has proven, he added.

CARE found that between February 2006 and November 2009, the period when the program was running, the percentage of stunted children in the study population fell from 56.1 percent to 40.4 percent.

SHOUHARDO took on pregnant and lactating mothers with children under 2 years old, so the program benefited both fetal and infant health. Children were measured at the start and end of the program.

"Women who participated in the empowerment interventions were getting better antenatal care, eating more nutritious food and getting more rest during pregnancy," said Lisa Smith, a senior economist at TANGO International, the firm that was hired to evaluate the project. "They and their children also had better diets in terms of the variety of foods."

The project invested both in broad "empowerment" programs focused on employment, education and awareness as well as some direct investments in women’s needs. Pregnant women, for instance, were provided regular rations of wheat, vegetable oil and yellow split peas. Researchers found significant synergies among interventions. Women who participated in both empowerment activities and direct nutritional-support programs saw a greater reduction in the stunting of their children than those who participated in only one.

The program targeted women and children from poor and extremely poor families. The women spent most of their time at home, with few contacts with the external world.

With a few months of enrolling in the program, women started to leave their homes to travel to markets to buy and sell goods. Women’s influence over household decisions also increased. "Women, once they have a voice, they are the ones who determine what food or clothes should be bought," said Khan.

Khan also observed a positive change in male attitudes. "By the end of 2009, it was completely different. Men understood the importance of women contributing to the decision of the household," he said.

Detailed surveys conducted before, during and after the project, measured women’s overall decision-making power within their households as increasing by 23 percent. That finding was based on such things as women developing more say over the use of household loans or savings, sale of major household assets and expenditures on members of the family and themselves. Women grew more active in local village courts too.

The project’s number-crunching joins a growing list of tape measures in the women’s empowerment tool kit, which already includes the Gender Parity Index and the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index.

Last November, the United Nations’ statistics division and UN Women, launched the "Evidence and Data for Gender Equality Initiative," at a meeting in Busan, South Korea, to improve the availability and use of statistics on gender gaps in economic activity.

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Hajer Naili is a writer currently based in New York. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.