Women’s empowerment can be defined in simple terms as “the process of increasing women’s access to control over the strategic life choices that affect them and access to the opportunities that allow them fully to realize their capacities” (Chen and Tanaka 2014). Because of its positive connotations, the word “empowerment” has become a comfortable and indisputable term, which has led to a wide range of institutions, organizations, and governments to adopt it as something they aspire to work towards (Papart, Rai, and Staudt 2003, 3).
Papart, Rai, and Staudt point out that, because of its widespread use, the definition of the word has become imprecise. Organizations and institutions alter the definition of empowerment to what best suits their private goals, limiting the effectiveness of their actions in actually empowering women, which is why it is so important to clearly define women’s empowerment and take into account all relevant considerations when working towards it.
Female empowerment shouldn’t be seen as an item on a long list of things to achieve by a certain year or as yet another unattainable goal that organizations just pretend to do something about. Instead, it should be approached in such a way that fully puts women at the forefront of the action being taken, the policy being implemented, or the initiative being launched, and in such a way that adequately understands what empowerment really entails.
Papart, Rai, and Staudt propose four different aspects that should be considered when approaching women’s empowerment: (1) it should be analyzed in global, national, and local terms; (2) the analysis of power should be more nuanced since empowerment “involves the exercise rather than possession of power;" (3) the empowerment process should take place "within the structural constraints of institutions and discursive practices;" (4) empowerment should be both a process and an outcome (Papart, Rai, and Staudt 2003, 3-4). In order to empower women, we must reconsider how we think about empowerment and widen the scope of the application of the term. Particularly, empowerment should be acknowledged as something that is fluid, both a process and an outcome, that changes depending on time and place. Consequently, its definition ought to be adapted to specific contexts.
Scholar Naila Kabeer suggests another way of understanding female empowerment. According to her, empowerment can be better understood through the concepts of agency (the processes of making choices), resources (the medium through which agency is exercised), and achievements (the outcomes of the choices made) (Kabeer 2005, 14). There are three key resources through which gender equality and women’s empowerment can be achieved: education, employment, and political participation (Kabeer 2005, 13).
Kabeer claims that “the social relationships that govern access to the resource in question” (Kabeer 2005, 13) are what determine the success in improving the conditions of women’s lives, and thus that work in female empowerment should focus on those relationships rather than solely on the resources. In practical terms, attempting to improve the educational system, employment opportunities and methods of political participation is not enough. In order to truly empower women, the issue should be attacked at the root; in order to empower women, efforts should be directed towards changing the social relationships that oppress them. Only this way will women actually become able to exercise agency and make their own decisions, which is essential to female empowerment.
Chen, Yin-Zu, and Hiromi Tanaka. 2014. “Women’s Empowerment.” In Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research, edited by Alex C. Michalos, 7154–56. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Papart, Jane L., Shirin M. Rai, and Kathleen A. Staudt. 2003. “Rethinking Em(Power)Ment, Gender and Development: An Introduction.” In Rethinking Empowerment : Gender and Development in a Global/Local World, 3–21. Routledge.
Kabeer, Naila. 2005. “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal 1.” Gender & Development 13 (1): 13–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552070512331332273