The problem with empowerment

Sewing machines, livestock gifts and training classes can help support livelihoods, but claims about their role in women’s empowerment are overplayed.
Photo: Julian Fong / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

The field of international development is rife with buzzwords—consider terms like good governance or rights-based—these are terms that are invoked often but offer only a shallow description of the issue at hand. When the United Nations Development Program, for example, states that it promotes good governance, it is not clear what good governance entails and how the meaning changes based on context.

Empowerment has perhaps the most expansive application and is the “most used and abused” in the development lexicon, as Srilatha Batliwala put it in the book Deconstructing Development Discourse. It has morphed from an approach that sought to fundamentally alter power relations to a “magic-bullet” catch-all phrase that bilateral and multilateral organizations alike use to refer to anything that has to do with promoting women in any capacity. The importance of recognizing the subordination of the term is most clearly demonstrated in what it is most commonly associated with—women.

History of Women’s Empowerment

According to Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès, a professor of Sociology at the University of Montreal, the feminist movement in the Global South that took place in the 1980s can be credited with the formal appearance of the term “empowerment” in the international development field.

At this time, women’s empowerment began as a concept that challenged not only the patriarchal imbalance in societies but also the structures of race, class, ethnicity, and in places like India and Nepal, caste and religion, which determined women’s position in their respective societies. Batliwala defined empowerment at this point in time as, “the transformation of the relations of power between men and women, within and across social categories of various kinds.”

Feminist movements, notably in Latin America and South Asia, developed their own distinctive approach to women’s empowerment which emphasized gender equality and radical movement building. Together, the influence of these discourses led to the widespread adoption of the term throughout international organizations.

Advocates of what became known as the “empowerment approach” were critical of past top-down approaches which viewed women as beneficiaries, rather than agents, of change.

India Case Study

To take the case of India that Batliwala lays out in her book, women’s empowerment entered the women’s movement lexicon, like much else of the world, in the 1980s. In doing so, it replaced “women’s welfare,” “women’s development,” and “women’s upliftment,” in use at the time by government agencies and donor organizations who were working with marginalized women.

A diverse range of experiments occurred in India in the 1980s to 1990s that aimed to create new spaces for women to collectivise around shared experiences of poverty, exclusion, and discrimination. Batliwala describes how women’s groups began to address their unequal access to economic and natural resources, education, health services, and aimed to change the gendered division of labor. Meanwhile, major public campaigns were launched for legislative reform which called for greater representation of women in political institutions.

In its early phases, the empowerment approach was considered a success.

However with success came popularity, by the beginning of the 1990s, everyone concerned with women’s issues and gender equality in India was using the term “women’s empowerment.” As the multitude of different actors adopted the empowerment approach they attached different meanings to the term and there was no clear articulation of what “empowerment” meant. It was common for NGOs and donor agencies to note their objective of empowerment in mission statements and annual reports, but lack a comprehensive definition of what it signified to them.

Empowerment Today

The co-option of the term by every local and international NGO, donor agency and government body in India reflects what occurred around the world and the present state of the empowerment approach today.

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As described in the New York Times, empowerment is now most often expressed through technical programming with little attention given to the wider social issues that restrict gender equality. Multiple NGOs and charities have programs in which you can “empower women” by donating for the purchase of things like a sewing machine, poultry, or livestock. At Heifer International, for example, you can buy “The Gift of Women Empowerment” which buys a share of training and livestock.

Behind these types of donations and programs is the assumption that women’s empowerment is an economic issue, rather than a socio-political one. While chickens and sewing machines are useful and may improve women’s short-term livelihoods, by no means does an increase in household income translate to emancipation and equality.                                                         

Further, the very nature of empowerment programs reproduces unequal gender relations. Many women’s empowerment projects around the world focus on tailoring, cooking, and hairdressing. As Mayssoun Sukarieh, a lecturer at King’s College London explained in The Guardian, “it’s telling women: this is your role, to cook and sew.” While for some women learning new skills can be valuable, there is little evidence that these schemes “empower” women in any meaningful way.

Understanding the Way Forward

Empowerment was initially conceived as a radical transformation of political and legal changes that would address gender parity. It has since been narrowed and depoliticized to refer to efforts that help women into work and address gender violence. While these sorts of programs can be important in their own right, they fail to address the deeper social structures that restrict women from work or subject them to violence in the first place. When women are marginalized by their communities, and more largely, their governments, giving away ten chickens or a sewing machine isn’t going to solve the problem.

It helps to understand the dynamics at play among development actors. Aid organizations need funding and women’s empowerment has become a popular programming model that appeals to donors. As donors increasingly request data and deliverables in their funding decisions, the simplified version of empowerment allows aid organizations to point to the exact number of women they have “empowered” through those who have attended job training workshops or received a livestock gift.

Therefore, an ideological shift in how we view empowerment within the field of international development is required, from donors to those who implement programs. There is no magic-bullet; programs should be evaluated on a long-term basis and on their ability to increase women’s potential for political mobilization. As individuals, we have to ask more of the organizations we support. When you come across the ever-present “empowerment” program, ask yourself, what is the initiative really accomplishing—is it working to fundamentally alter power relations, or is it distributing sewing machines?

Categories
Gender
Claire McMahon

Claire is a researcher at an international affairs organization in San Francisco which works at the intersection of the private, philanthropic, and non-profit sectors. Previously, she has worked in Nepal where she conducted a study on women's workloads and the gendered division of labor in the context of community forestry. She has also completed research in Trinidad and Tobago regarding indigenous experiences and discrimination. She received her MSc in International Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2017 and has bachelor’s degrees in international policy and anthropology. She has particular interests in gender and social inclusion, foreign policy, aid structures, and seeks to understand the nuances around critical development issues.
One Comment
  • Vickie Frandle
    7 February 2018 at 10:52 pm
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    Again you have brought to light a reality that I knew nothing about. We in America are trying to help and yet clever marketing used by companies abuse our trust and our donations. I appreciate your sharing of worldwide truths about such marketing. I will continue to give but will be more careful when choosing the organization.

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