I was born in Brazil, and for the last 33 years, I have resided in the United States and traveled to various countries. In 2015, however, I had a chance to visit the happiest country on the planet.
The Republic of Paraguay is a landlocked country known as the heart of South America with borders to Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina. A member of MERCOSUR, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States, Paraguay is the happiest country in the world with 87 percent of its seven million inhabitants1 scoring high on the Positive Experience Index.2
My opportunity to visit Paraguay came with the invitation to evaluate a program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The focus of the “Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay” (WLPP) was to provide disadvantaged, indigenous, and rural women opportunities to enroll in higher education programs in agricultural sciences. The external evaluation examined the WLPP initiatives in order to generate knowledge about how higher education partnerships could contribute to the promotion of gender equality and female empowerment in Paraguay. (Ramos-Mattoussi & Caballero, 2015)3 For the task at hand, my Paraguayan counterpart, a woman fluent in both Spanish and Guaraní, the two official languages of the country, introduced me to the beautiful Paraguayan land and culture. We traveled to several rural areas where the population spoke only Guarani.
Even though the country has a literacy rate of nearly 95 percent, access to higher education remains allusive. One of the greatest barriers to progress for all Paraguayans is their education level, particularly for women. Indicators clearly show that individuals with less schooling have lower incomes and more health issues. According to a gender assessment study, “poor women within the lowest quintile, less educated and Guaraní speaking have on average 4.1 children, though the national average is about 2.5 and only 2 for women in the cities.”4 In Paraguay, women make up a little less than half of the population, and nearly one-third of households are female-headed.
Agriculture remains an important sector of Paraguay’s economy, representing 90 percent of exports and employing approximately 30 percent of the population (World Bank Database). Although women’s labor force participation has increased in the last decade, gender gaps are most evident in patterns of employment and incomes in rural areas and gender stereotypes continue to limit women’s access to agricultural extension and credit.5
In the face of these challenges, efforts to increase rural women’s and men’s equal access to education, agricultural support services, and laws that enable women’s empowerment have been implemented by the Government of Paraguay and civil society organizations.
In 1999, the Government of Paraguay became a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and ratified it in 2001. In addition, the Ministry for Women (MINMUJER) has implemented the Third National Plan for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men (2008-2017), which prioritizes equal rights and participation for men and women, access to economic resources and work, equitable education, comprehensive healthcare, life free of violence, and effective decentralization. Since 2015, Paraguay has committed to boost gender equality and has made progress in the implementation of the Public Policy Law for Rural Women, with more than 1,000 rural women trained on agriculture techniques and resource management. In 2016, the Law for Comprehensive Protection for Women against Any Kind of Violence was approved, and a task force to ensure its full implementation has been formed.
Global Efforts towards Women’s Empowerment
The concept of empowerment has been associated with a range of activities undertaken by and for women in different sectors, including education.6 Definitions of empowerment vary and tend to be described as a process, an end-state, and a capacity.7 Women’s empowerment has been defined as “skills and knowledge that usually comprise several dimensions: economic (capacity to generate independent income), psychological (feelings of self-esteem), cognitive (critical understanding of one’s reality) and political (awareness of power inequalities and the ability to organize and mobilize). (Stromquist, 2002; 2006).8 Nelly Stromquist refers to empowerment as “the multidimensional changes that women must undergo to become active agents of their own transformation” (2006:154).
Amongst development practitioners, there’s some agreement that, in order to promote women’s empowerment, it is necessary to create the opportunities and an environment that allows women to participate in educational programs; and also a need to set up specific educational programs for women that provide the type of education and training that will sensitize people towards gender discrimination and will raise their acceptance of women’s promotion (Medel-Anonuevo & Bochynek, 19959; Ramos, 2007a10; 2007b11). Furthermore, in order to succeed, women’s empowerment programs must include certain components such as: promotion of gender awareness; integration of technical, entrepreneurial, cultural and communal aspects; information and lessons on politics; and provision of planning and thinking skills, among others. (Malhotra, 2003)12
Efforts to measure women’s empowerment13 may consider different levels of action (micro/macro, individual/collective), different spheres (economic, political, social), different temporal scales (often beyond the lifetime of a single program) and must be sensitive to social context. Approaches to measuring women’s empowerment must also take into account the fact that empowerment can be a slow process of change and the impact of a program may not be seen immediately at the end of the funding period.
The Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay (WLPP)
The Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay (2012-2015) integrated key elements of the USAID Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy into the program to support national and local development goals that promote gender equality and female empowerment in the agricultural sector. The WLPP was a partnership between the National University of Asuncion (UNA) and the University of Florida (UF). The primary objective of the project was to support national and local development goals in Paraguay that promote gender equality and female empowerment in the agricultural sector. The two universities collaborated to (1) promote and support women’s access to the National University of Asuncion (UNA) with a focus on developing leadership skills; (2) strengthen institutional capacity of UNA’s School of Agricultural Sciences and the Center for Leadership to produce strong female leaders through training in workforce leadership skills; and (3) develop sustainable alliances between the UNA’s School of Agricultural Sciences, civil society, and the public and private sector that promote the emergence of female leaders. The three-year project was implemented in Paraguay in collaboration with various partner organizations.
The Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay implemented eleven initiatives that were contextualized to fit the local reality by addressing the needs of faculty and students and available resources. It developed new programs and centers such as the Career Center (Centro de Desarrollo Laboral); the Mentoring and AgroLeadership programs; the internship opportunities for students in the agricultural sciences program; coordination with public and private organizations; and the partnerships with agricultural high schools in the rural areas of the country. The partnership program also provided gender awareness workshops targeting students and administrators at four agricultural schools in San Pedro, Belen, Cerrito and Mbaracayú. These schools are managed by Fundación Paraguaya and Fundación Moises Bertoni. The mentoring program to support female students and create stronger linkages between the high schools, universities, and professional associations has been one of the most effective initiatives established by the partnership.
Another success of UF-UNA partnership was the curricular revision of the five disciplines that make up the academic programs of the college of agricultural sciences (Agronomic Engineering, Forest Engineering, Human Ecology Engineering, Degree in Agricultural Management, and Environmental Engineering). A concrete achievement was the development of the gender policy, and the introduction of the ‘gender’ subject in each of those five disciplines, resulting in a new elective course: “Gender and Interculturalism,” listed in the UNA/FCA 2015 Course Catalog.
In Paraguay, where women in rural areas earn the lowest wages, and face greater societal obstacles to attain the knowledge and skills necessary for the workforce, access to higher education is a great challenge. Education alone may not address issues of gender inequality and women’s empowerment, as two other simultaneous conditions must be present: “women’s participation and equal opportunity in the public sphere and women’s differential needs in the private sphere, particularly those concerning reproductive rights, childcare and the violence they may experience in domestic settings.” (Stromquist, 2006:154).14
The WLPP strived to provide leadership and gender training with the aim of preparing women and men to develop the skills, knowledge and attitudes to pursue leadership positions in the communities where they live and work. The program provided resources for women and indigenous people to access better opportunities in education, job training and the workforce. A total of 2,308 people were direct beneficiaries of the activities implemented by the Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay.
1 “World’s Happiest Country? Would You Believe Paraguay?” NBC News. 21 May 2014.
2 “Global Misery Worst Since Records Began, Poll Finds.” Newsweek. 14 September 2018.
3 Ramos-Mattoussi, F. & Caballero, V. (July 2015). External Evaluation of the Women’s Leadership Program in Paraguay: Evaluation Report. [174 p.] Higher Education for Development (HED), American Council on Education (ACE). USAID/DEC, Washington, DC. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00KNGF.pdf
4 DevTech Systems, Inc. USAID/Paraguay Gender Assessment (2011). USAID Bur. for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade. Ofc. of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Washington, DC.
6 Global Research Framework, Women’s Empowerment Strategic Impact Inquiry (January 19, 2006). CARE, USA.
7 Kabeer, N., (2001) ‘Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment’, pp 17-59 in Discussing Women’s Empowerment - Theory and Practice’, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Stockholm, Sweden
8 Stromquist, N. P. (2002) Education as a means for empowering women, in: J. Parpart, S. Rai & K. Staudt (Eds) Rethinking empowerment. Gender and development in a global/local world (London, Routledge), 22–38.
9 Medel-Anonuevo, Carolyn and Bettina Bochynek (1995). The International Seminar on Women’s Education and Empowerment, in Women, Education and Empowerment: Pathways towards Autonomy edited by Carolyn Medel-Anonuevo. UNESCO Institute for Education Studies 5, 1995: Hamburg, Germany.
10 Ramos, F. (2007) a. Life’s Structures and the Individual’s Voice: Making Sense of Women’s Words. In “The structure and agency of women’s education,” edited by Mary Ann Maslak. Albany: State University of New York Press.
11 Ramos, F. (2007) b. “Imaginary pictures, real life stories: The FotoDialogo method,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20 (2) March-April 2007, pp. 191-224.
12 Malhotra, A. 2003. Conceptualizing and Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development.
13 Helpdesk Research Report: Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment, 2010.
14 Stromquist, N. P. (2006) Gender, education and the possibility of transformative knowledge. Compare, 36:2, 145-161.