According to social theorists, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Autonomy. An ability influenced by factors such as: social class, religion, ethnicity, societal norms, and gender.
Women living in the 21st century are unequivocally the most liberated in history. Modern-day women have been able to exercise their agency through education, enabling them to take up space (thank you, Zozi!) in different spheres of society. Today, there are more women in politics, business, and science—fields which were strictly reserved for and dominated by men in the past.
However, despite evident strides that have been made in the women’s empowerment movement, women’s agency continues to be severely limited around the world. For instance, women in low-income countries are reported to have less freedom of choice and less control over their own lives. They are also reported to have less of a say in household decision-making and less life satisfaction compared to their male counterparts. Therefore, agency, or the lack of it, arguably has a direct impact on women’s quality of life.
It is no secret that the scourge of Gender-Based Violence is highly prevalent in lower-income countries. According to People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), a significant number of women facing intimate partner violence are financially dependent on their abusive partners. This can be attributed to the high unemployment rates in low-income countries which, statistically, affect more women than men.
This renders abuse victims helpless and at the mercy of their abusers. Without agency, women are compelled to stay in abusive relationships where their agency is undermined or completely ignored. Research also indicates that sexual assault is prevalent in abusive relationships. This further highlights how women are denied, in this case, autonomous agency, a basic right.
Globally, women’s agency is undermined on a structural and policy level. Since the Taliban’s return to power, Afghani women have been subjected to the organisation’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Despite the Taliban’s so-called rebranding, the organisation, which is now Afghanistan’s official government, has imposed a range of restrictions that revoke the liberties of Afghani women.
Women in Afghanistan are no longer allowed to feature in movies and television series, while female journalists are required to wear headscarves when on air. According to Al Jazeera, there are tertiary learning institutions in the Afghan state of Kabul that no longer accept applications from prospective female students. The Taliban-influenced Afghan government is depriving women their agency to decide whether or not they want to study and their agency to become financially independent through education.
With that said, it is also important to understand that women’s agency is not only undermined in lower-income countries. Women in middle- and high-income countries also experience their share of oppression.
Towards the end of 2020, despite weeks of protests and global criticism, the Polish government imposed a near-total ban on abortion, which didn’t apply in cases of rape, incest, and if the pregnancy placed the mother’s health at risk. The ban stripped away women’s reproductive agency, compelling them to birth children against their will.
After Poland’s abortion ban came into effect, Izabela, a thirty-year-old Polish woman pregnant with a foetus with defects, died in hospital from septic shock caused by pregnancy complications. Despite being aware the foetus posed a threat to her life, tentative doctors refused to perform an abortion because of the near-total ban. Poland is an example of how women’s agency can still be undermined in high-income countries.
Apart from policy and structural oppression, women in middle- and high-income countries are also facing household oppression. In her talk “This Ain’t No Pussy Shit for The New School”, bell hooks, the late feminist author, detailed how heteronormativity and gender roles are still the order of the day in most households despite the milestones that have been overcome in the workplace. Women are still being socialised to favour care-giving, self-sacrifice and domesticity.
This results in them being expected to take on all household responsibilities, from cooking and cleaning to nurturing the kids, even if they have a 9-5. According to hooks, social gender norms make it difficult for women to exercise their agency by negotiating household matters with their partners. This is just another example of how women’s agency can be compromised regardless of their class.
As a Black woman living in South Africa, the ‘rape capital’ of the world, my agency is constantly compromised even in the simplest of ways. With the culture of cat-calling, I am constantly second-guessing the way I dress. When leaving the house, I ensure that I wear clothes I think will draw the least attention. My agency to wear whatever I feel comfortable in is overshadowed by my fear of being harassed or, even worse, murdered. This is despite the fact that I live in a country with one of the most progressive constitutions globally, which permits me to dress however I want.
There’s a clear intersection between women’s agency and women’s empowerment. However, it’s important to note the two are not interchangeable. Agency, fundamentally, is more about individual choices; women’s empowerment is about all women. We need to be proactive in our efforts towards ensuring that women’s individual agencies are protected. This can only be achieved through policy change and education about agency.
Without agency, women’s empowerment is impossible.