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Women Empowerment: a question of Choice
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Women Empowerment : A question of Choice

A reflection on what the widely used "women empowerment" actually entails.
Women working in a field, Morocco. ©Leonardo Lamorgese

Gender is at the top of the agenda in International Development.

“ Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” is the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)[1], announced in 2000 by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The promoting part of the goal has been tackled, now it is time to act.

International news and press releases from pressure groups like Amnesty International constantly share news of women suffering abuse, of different kinds. In India, there has been a huge case on the link between lack of access to hygiene and rape; women and girls are raped on the way to find a clean bathroom.  Another story is the one of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death for apostasy because she married a Christian man in Sudan. She was arrested and forced to give birth in a dirty prison, in chains. Not to mention the 200 million children that are estimated to be victims of sexual abuse every year. The situation worsens when there is an ongoing conflict, as protective networks usually collapse during this time. This was one of the biggest topics at the world summit to end sexual violence during conflict a few weeks ago in London. Most of the victims of rape during war are women, so gender-based violence was huge on the agenda too.

As we approach the New Year many international organisations are pushing for women and girls to be at the top of the post-2015 MDG agenda. The Nike funded “girl effect” has, for example, released a Girls Declaration which is a call for action linking women empowerment to poverty alleviation.

The Guardian Global Development recently featured an interactive graph showing Women’s rights by country. It gives a great overview of the legal side of the topic (which often is what actually changes things) showing country by country, what laws and legislation prevent or allow women’s rights.

Gender is everywhere.


A few weeks ago I received a notification from a discussion group on LinkedIn that discusses gender issues. The discussion started with the question:

“How do you define empowering women in few words? All women want to be empowered but a few women seek power”

I was baffled. I did not and still do not, think that there is a way of defining “women empowerment” in a few words. I also don’t agree with the second statement on women not seeking power -what does seeking power mean anyways?

As I expected, a series of clichéd explanations started coming up in the comments to this question. Some suggested that empowering women was giving them self-confidence, others mentioned equal treatment within the law, others suggested economic independence, and some spoke of access to health care and quality education, the list goes on. All valid points, but they still were not a holistic explanation of what women empowerment means.

As I read on, it became clear that finding one sentence was probably not possible, the definitions – or indicators-  that define women empowerment are too many.

Ruth Alsop and Nina Heinsohn describe empowerment as the ‘capacity to make effective decisions and convert them into desired outcomes”.  This made me think that perhaps though it was not possible to use one sentence to describe women empowerment, ironically it would have been possible to use one word: CHOICE.

When an individual is able to choose – socially, politically and economically- they are free and therefore become empowered. Having the possibility to express your religious or political views, to be able to wear what you want, and to choose your own path is what we should aspire for every human being to have.

Just yesterday the European Court for Human Rights ruled the French ban on the veil as not being a violation of human rights.  Yet another example of taking away women’s choice: there is still a long way to go.

With the deadline of Beijing +20[3], and many women around the world still not enjoying basic human rights, now is the moment to spur recommitment on women rights.

Although I don’t undermine the importance of definitions, having worked in the development sector and in an emergency context, I think the time has come – after years of promoting and defining gender-related words –  to stop trying to give words meaning and Give Women a Choice.

Virginia Vigliar

Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona, consults for Oxfam in Spain and the Netherlands, and she is the Chief Editor of WIB. She is a passionate advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. And a meme enthusiast. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Spain. To see her work, look at her website here:
8 Comments on this post.
  • WiB Team
    WiB Team
    20 November 2014 at 3:15 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Thanks for this interesting link. Is there something that you wanted to point out to us in particular?

  • Roger Hawcroft
    Roger Hawcroft
    2 November 2015 at 1:22 pm
    Leave a Reply

    I think you had it right early in your article, Virginia: “I did not, and still do not, think that there is a way of defining “women empowerment” in a few words.”

    A problem for me with discussions (?) about gender and gender “rights”, in particular, is the divisiveness that it tends to introduce.

    “Choice”? Most definitely an essential enabler for participation in society and for realising personal potential in life. However, as I think you imply – though perhaps wrongly – this is true for all people, regardless of gender.

    It is also true that any individual’s choice will be limited by context. That limitation could be law, as with the French example you cite, or physical or mental ability, or knowledge, or any of many variables.

    Just as freedom can only ever truly exist in conjunction with responsibility, so I think that choice can only ever exist with equity. I think that neither can stand unqualified.

    I would modify your conclusion, therefore, to one of “equitable choice” and consider it relevant to both male and female.

  • Virginia Vigliar
    Virginia vigliar
    2 November 2015 at 1:46 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for your reply. I will definitely consider what you said! It is true that choice cannot exist without equity, the two are mutually exclusive!

  • Avatar
    Women empowerment: a question of choice | Virginia Vigliar
    12 September 2016 at 1:02 pm
    Leave a Reply

    […] Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” is the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)[1], announced in 2000 by the Secretary General of the UN. The promoting part of the goal has been […]

  • Avatar
    Preeti A
    5 November 2018 at 6:02 am
    Leave a Reply

    In my opinion, “women empowerment” is to help women realize to believe in herself so that she is able to make decisions in her own interest and own choice. Reassure her that she can do it.

    • WiB Team
      WiB Team
      5 November 2018 at 9:39 am
      Leave a Reply

      Hi Preeti, Virginia here. I think you are right, we all have an individual way of being empowered as well, and this is so important to consider. A definition of women empowerment at a high level is important, but so are all the different versions each of us feels empowered! Thank you for reading 🙂

  • Avatar
    sarah ann harding
    7 April 2019 at 11:16 pm
    Leave a Reply

    Women would be more powerful if they would unite’

  • Avatar
    25 April 2019 at 10:06 pm
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    Thank you for this. Love it.

  • Leave a Reply



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