Have you #HeForShe’d yet? – Data for women’s empowerment?

Eraptis, October 2

As the third anniversary of the global #HeForShe solidarity movement for gender equality just passed us by on September 20, I decided to renew my commitment to ”he for she” (apparently, I had already committed to the campaign two years ago). But now that I’ve committed (again), what do I do? As I browsed further on the website I discovered their action kit specifically targeting students, I felt compelled to act, the results so far? A tweet and a blog post (starting small…):

Since its inception, the #HeForShe campaign, which is organized by UN Women, has gathered an impressive 1.5 million commitments, of which 1.2 million are from men, sparked over 1.3 billion gender equality actions and generated 1.1 thousand offline events and counting. Using “online, offline, and mobile phone technology to identify and activate advocates in every city, community, and village around the world” surely this must generate a large amount of data, possibly even “big data”, for analysis of the contribution of the movement towards UN Women’s core strategic pillars. This is important because achieving gender equality everywhere is absolutely crucial, and perhaps not the least so in communities and villages in developing countries. However, with this is mind, the question from my previous blog post echoed loudly in my head when I saw the global distribution of commitments on the interactive map on the #HeForShe site. Is all data created equal?

Photo: heforshe.org (accessed September 28, 2017)

Although it looks like the question “Have you #HeForShe’d yet?” is mostly a phenomena asked among “Western” men, there are also some beacons shining brighter in Magenta (the color symbolizing the movement) than others. In Rwanda, over 200,000 commitments have been made, of which over 160,000 are from men. While its neighbor Uganda have less than 1,000 commitments. Why this difference? Perhaps part of the answer spells Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. But does Kagame’s role as an IMPACT Champion for #HeForShe help to better position his country to empower women? It could, for a number of reasons – some which could be extrapolated from his quote:

Women and men are equal in in terms of ability and dignity, and they should be equal in terms of opportunity. As Rwandans, as a global community, we need every member of our society to use his or her talents to the fullest. – Paul Kagame

Kagame’s words can be elaborated further in terms of power by using Naila Kabeer’s distinction of positive and negative agency. The interpretation of the first sentence of the quote could be that of limiting men’s power over women (negative meaning of agency) by clearly making the statement of equality in both ability and dignity, coupled with a vision of equality in opportunity. Whereas the second sentence is more directed towards the positive meaning of agency aimed at nurturing the power to pursue ones own choices and goals in life. The latter aspect can be further traced to Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach and the notion of development as freedom. Although these elements are primarily aimed at altering the power balance of individual agency between men and women, there is also a structural aspect related to the issue of women’s empowerment. In this second dimension, Kagame’s position in Rwandan society offers the opportunity to greatly influence the structural and institutional barriers hindering such a development.

How could data generated by #HeForShe be used in order to measure the impact of the movement on women’s empowerment both in terms of agency and structure in Rwandan society? Here, we enter the domain of theory. A good starting point would be to depart from Dorothea Kleine’s depiction of the choice framework.

In her framework, the combination of individual resources (agency) and the structural dimensions of a particular society determine the degrees of empowerment of individuals in that society, and whether or not they can identify the various degrees of choice and use it to achieve a set of development outcomes, of which choice itself is the primary outcome. But choice is complex. In her paper, Kabeer points out the difficulties of qualifying choice itself referring to the conditions (access or absence of viable alternatives) and the consequences (the degree of importance) of choice. Furthermore, Kabeer has also demonstrated the conceptual difficulties of using indicators in order to measure empowerment due to a very complex and dynamic interrelation between choice and access to resources, achievements, and agency. However, combining the development outcomes suggested by Kleine with Kabeer’s insights from her “reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment” could provide a practical blueprint for how theory could be used in order to analyze the large amount of data generated by #HeForShe and determine its impact on women’s empowerment in Rwanda and elsewhere.

Thus, the point I try to make here is similar to that of my previous post that data is “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”, but to make sense of it all we need to view the data through a theoretical lens. Do you agree? Let me hear your thoughts in the comment field below and let’s engage in dialogue!


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  1. Hi Emanuel,
    Thanks for a very thoughtful post and raising important questions about the HeForShe impact. Indeed, taking the pledge, tweeting and an interesting blog post is an excellent starting point and commitment.
    I’ve been following the HeForShe movement, personally and professionally, and although there are many positive aspects I still wonder what it is the real impact of the HeForShe movement or more than what it is, how can we measure it. As the positive aspects, as you mentioned in your post, the importance of positive agency. One of the communicative goals that I think HeForShe is contributing to is to bring back the value and meaning of gender equality, by remarking how gender equality will benefit everyone, or how Emma Watson is bringing back a positive definition of feminism. Probably one of the main goals as well is how the HeForShe aims to provoke an institutional change by inviting leaders to become Impact Champions.

    The HeForShe movement, due to its online aspect is generating tons of data, how we look at it and how we analyse it is crucial. I am new to “data”, so these are just general first thoughts about it, but I feel that sometimes we look at data analysis from just a quantitative perspective, not qualitative. I am not sure what kind of data we can extract from just taking the pledge, but for instance, a qualitative analysis of the negative and positive conversations generated on social media under the #HeForShe could contribute.

    I agree with you on the importance to look at data from a theoretical lens, to include, as aI said before, more qualitative analysis. To measure the impact on gender equality anywhere is a complicated and laborious task, and it probably won’t be just the result of one movement but of many collective actions. Also, in the case of HerForShe, we’ll probably need to look too at the offline aspect of the movement and how both offline and online activism are synchronised.

    PS: Your post brought me to your previous post on how data is facts and statistics collected together for the reference or analysis. Congratulations for that one too and the interesting conversation you generated 🙂

    • Hi Irene! Thank you for your very thoughtful comment!

      I liked that you raised the point “probably one of the main goals as well is how the HeForShe aims to provoke an institutional change by inviting leaders to become Impact Champions”. I agree with this and appreciate that the movement is holistic in its approach working both top-down and bottom-up. The example I take up in the post, Rwanda and Paul Kagame, seems to have started with a top-down approach and then spurred engagement.

      If you want to learn more about how Big Data could be used for women’s empowerment I’d like to recommend my post (Big) Data for women’s empowerment? – How does it work? where I present a case from Data2x. Very interesting indeed. However, I also agree with you regarding the online/offline dynamic. #HeForShe has generated over 1.000 offline events (which in turn certainly have generated social media posts) – what is the impact of this?

      Thanks for reading my posts and I’d love to keep the dialogue going!