What does 'bargaining power' mean to young married rural women in Ethiopia?

I notice that in the lead-up to this year’s International Women’s Day, a popular hashtag on social media is #SheDecides. This is clearly linked to campaigning for women’s decisions around family planning but of course goes beyond that be a rallying call for funding and enabling those choices. It reminded me that though clearly decision-making at a global level has a huge impact on women’s lives and opportunities, so too does decision-making at the most local level: one’s own home. I’ve recently written about this most personal level of #SheDecides - ‘bargaining power’.   

In 2014, Ethiopia ranked 129 out 188 countries in the Gender Inequality Index. This is despite the government’s commitment to improve the social standing of girls and women, and the considerable number of programmes targeting different aspects of gender inequality, from early marriage to women’s job creation, as well as attempts to change local cultural belief systems.

One concept that has been used to understand gender inequality, primarily from the field of economics, is that of ‘bargaining power’. Bargaining power is explained as negotiations between members of a household to arrive at decisions regarding the household unit. The basic premise is that men and women have different roles and priorities when it comes to household decision-making, and that decisions are made through a bargaining process in which household members each attempt to use the resources they have to achieve their desired ends.

Bargaining power’ matters.

Bargaining power could be argued to be a domestic issue – what happens behind the family door, between a wife and husband. But policymakers care about the bargaining power of women because of its direct correlation with different life outcomes. It is not enough to provide women with access to opportunities, services, or information, if they are powerless to act due to social and economic constraints. Increased bargaining power has been correlated with better outcomes in terms of health and education, and of the clothing of children and other members of the household. It has also been shown that women who wield greater influence in household decisions can greatly improve their children’s nutritional status.

My new working paper examines the ‘bargaining power’ of young married Ethiopian women within their marriage and their household. The paper is based on interviews with a group of young women, now in their early 20s who participated in the Young Lives longitudinal qualitative research over a seven-year period (from 2007 to 2014) spanning pre- and post-marriage, and for some of them, pre- and post-childbirth. By age 19, one in six young women in the Young Lives sample were married. I examined the changes in their bargaining power by comparing their experiences before and after marriage.