Facilitating Female Economic Empowerment Through the Combating of Maternal Depression

Design by Gaby Freid

Dr. Victoria Baranov, a development professor and assistant professor at the University of Melbourne, is currently in the process of publishing her findings on the treatment of depression during the last trimester of pregnancy, also known as the perinatal period. On Nov. 9,  Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Baranov gave a presentation on her research at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and the implications of her findings on maternal economic empowerment, pertaining to self-autonomy and decision making agency. This was demonstrated through these women’s power to make financial decisions in and concerning their home. Due to the social structure and gender norms of rural Pakistan, female empowerment is demonstrated through child and household investments. By analyzing a family’s spending in these financial areas, Dr. Baranov was able to observe and study maternal financial empowerment of this region.

According to the United States Agency for International Development’s  website, Pakistan ranks 144 out of 145 countries worldwide on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2015 report. This index report ranks 145 national economies based on their existing gender gap, taking into account economic, educational, health-based and political indicators. This data illustrates the vast inequality that exists between men and women in essentially every sector of society. This gender gap is facilitated by social constructs that have severely curtailed women’s security and empowerment. Therefore, it is important to understand the different meanings and applications of postcolonial feminism, which recognizes the intersectional aspects beyond the experiences of women from Western cultures, and recognize that in countries where the immediate goals of women empowerment differ drastically from those in the Western world.

Some members of the Western world may view the factors that Dr. Baranov analyzes as inadequate, but in reality the ability for mothers in rural Pakistan to execute economic decisions, even if they are solely focused on household and childcare arenas, is a large indicator of women’s decision making agencies. However, in her presentation, she somewhat fails to address the cultural context in which her test subjects lived in, and the practice of postcolonial feminism is at the core of this research.

Dr. Baranov’s research examines a population of pregnant women who all suffered symptoms of perinatal depression in rural Pakistan over the span of eight years. Dr. Baranov examines the relationship between depression among expecting mothers and their own empowerment in their respective lives. This study utilizes a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, known as the “Thinking Healthy Program” (THP), where local health workers show the subjects animated images and verbal messages depicting healthy and happy relationships between a mother and their child in order to facilitate healthy thinking.

This experiment is the longest span of cognitive behavioral therapy ever conducted, and its THP methods proved so successful that the World Health Organization adopted this technique in 2015 to be used around the world.

Due to the traditional gender roles that are dominant in Pakistan, a mother’s responsibilities in the family primarily pertain to household and child care. Because of this specific role, a chief means of measuring maternal financial empowerment can be seen through a household’s investments in the child, as these monetary decisions are customarily directed by the mother because it is her responsibility to direct aspects of the household and childcare.

Examining the relationship between depression and poverty from an economic standpoint is critical when looking at the financial empowerment of women. When looking at non-Western countries, it is easy to view regions such as Pakistan through a lens of Western bias, applying American notions of critical-feminist theory to cultures and societies that have drastically different perceptions of what female empowerment is and looks like. While exercising control over monetary resources is natural to all genders of the Western world, in countries such as Pakistan, documenting a mother’s spending power, which occurs in home and child investments, is a key indicator and expression of financial empowerment.

This experiment examined certain channels of the expecting mother’s behavior and care, including but not limited to: expectations – such as hope or fear, time spent playing with the child, productivity, monetary resources, and investment in the child post partum. THP yielded positive results among the experimental group, where mothers showed an overall increase in investments in the child in regards to education and home resources. Child investment was measured through monetary and behavioral investments, such as education, learning materials, allotment of time, etc. Additionally, self-reported surveys were taken, recording subjects such as happiness, life, satisfaction, sleep quality. However, aspects such as physical condition and survival of the child remained unaffected.

Through an overall increase in monetary investments, this study supports the hypothesis that treating depression can have large impacts on economic decision-making for mothers, and society as a whole. Additionally, this study highlights the substantial impact that assigned gender of the child had on the empowerment of women postpartum, given that the mother was unaware of the child’s assigned gender while pregnant.

In order to understand this result, it is critical to look at the cultural response to gender in Pakistan, where boys are consistently favored over girls due to preconceived societal notions of contributions associated with particular genders. The strong cis-heteronormative social constructs that exist in Pakistan lead to a strong preference towards sons. Reflecting the dominant cis-heteronormative culture, when a woman gives birth to a child, a strong preference for male newborns is demonstrated by the father and community as a whole. However, through THP intervention, the effects of the newborn’s gender on maternal economic empowerment are mitigated, re-igniting the financial decision making agency of the women in the household, thereby reducing the symptoms of depression.

This experiment further proves that treating depression can have large impacts on economic decision-making, specifically with mothers who are often alienated from financial empowerment by social constructs. Access to monetary resources is crucial to liberation, and by eliminating inhibitors to motivation, like depression, women have a stronger will, resulting in improved child care and an increase in child investment.

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