Women’s Empowerment: What Works?

The concept of empowerment has an extended history in interpersonal change work. By 1994, Srilatha Batliwala argued that the growing talk of women’s empowerment was in danger of shedding the concept’s transformative edge. She called for a more exact understanding of both charged power and empowerment. Writings from this era emphasize the relational nature of empowerment. They highlight the complex reciprocal relationship between women’s ‘personal‐understanding’ (Kabeer, 1994) and ‘capacity for self‐expression’ (Sen, 1997), and women’s usage of and control over materials resources. Gita Sen attracts on Batliwala to argue: Empowerment is, first and foremost, about power; changing power relationships in favor of those who exercised little power over their own lives previously.

Batliwala (1993) identifies power as having two central aspects-control over resources (physical, human, intellectual, financial, and the self), and control over ideology (beliefs, values, and attitudes). If power means control, empowerment therefore is the process of attaining control then. Feminist conceptual work out of this period makes it clear that empowerment is not something that can be done to or for anyone else.

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Looking back, the writings on empowerment from the 1990s offer us three important insights. These complicate the narratives about women’s empowerment in contemporary mainstream development. First, these writings suggest a version of empowerment that is fundamentally about changing power relations. What they provide us-building on work in other areas of social action from popular education to primary health care-is an account of power and empowerment in which change involves building critical consciousness. It really is this process of changing the way people see and experience their worlds that can boost awareness of inequalities, stimulate indignation about injustice, and create the impetus to do something together to change the culture.

There are important lessons here for modern development plan and practice about strategy and process, as well as about understandings of power. Second, they offer a view in which empowerment is relational. Current metrics and rubrics strip its relational measurements away. Yet any account of the lived experience of empowerment and disempowerment must embrace the fundamental sociality of the concept. There is certainly in this romantic imbrication of the non-public and politics.

Third, these writings demand that empowerment is an activity, not a fixed condition nor an end‐point, aside from an easily measurable result to which targets can be attached. Empowerment can be temporary, and some pathways of empowerment may lead women into experiences of disempowerment, from which they might or might not surface empowered.

What empowers one girl might not empower another: there are no one‐size‐matches‐all meals for empowerment. And empowering experiences in one section of a woman’s life do not automatically result in higher capacities to exercise agency and transform power relationships in another part of her life. Setting the discourses and definitions of women’s empowerment that are utilized by today’s mainstream development establishments in the context of this previous generation of thinking about empowerment reveals a few of the limits of current methods. The World Bank, for example, has taken up Naila Kabeer’s (1999) influential work on women’s empowerment. But in the process, her focus on the relational character of empowerment has fallen right out of the body.

The second is engagement with culturally invaded normative beliefs, understandings, and ideas about gender, change, and power. This takes the process of change beyond the amount of the given individual to address commonly held and overlooked assumptions that undergird gendered inequalities in virtually any particular cultural context. Changing notions of just what a woman or a man should be or do, and challenging understandings of gender relationships and identities may take a number of forms. It can range from formally instituted classes that expose participants to various ways of framing their social worlds, providing them with a new language and lenses through which to see their realities.

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