Women’s empowerment: What does it mean, and whose empowerment?


Jemimah Njuki

I was at a function a few days ago and got talking to a group of people working in the environmental sector. They had been implementing a project and knowing what I do on gender and agriculture, the team were prompt to tell about this technology that they had been developing and promoting, and how impressed they were with it because it had empowered so many women.

It got me thinking again, on how loosely we use that term “empowering women”, and how many times I have heard people say they trained women on this and that and empowered them, and how often I have fallen into that trap myself.

Women’s empowerment had been defined in many ways, from the complex to the simplistic.

Naila Kabeer defines empowerment as the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire that ability. Sen’s definition, which is very close to Kabeer’s, refers to empowerment as capabilities, or the potential that people have for living the lives they want.

A big debate then is “empowerment according to who”? Those that are meant to be empowered, or those measuring empowerment. While it is important to look at empowerment from the perspectives of the women who should be empowered, Kabeer and Sen’s definitions of empowerment do point to some limitations to this. What a woman wants, and the choices that she wants to make can very much be defined by the experiences that she has. The simplest way to present this is “you don’t know what you don’t know’. This means that both an individual perspective of women and an external perception of women’s empowerment is required.

How to measure empowerment has also been a subject of great debate, tools and approaches, the latest one being the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, developed for use by USAID’s Feed the Future Program.

Coming back to how we then define and measure empowerment, there are three critical conditions that we should all be concerned about if women are to acquire the ability to make strategic life choices or live the lives they want for themselves and their families;

Women’s Agency: This refers to women’s own aspirations, their skills and capabilities and the resources they own and control. Empowerment involves a journey through which women increase their agency. Women’s agency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for their empowerment as other structural issues could limit the exercise of this agency.

Structures: This refers to the environment that surrounds and conditions women’s choices. These are the routines, patterns of relationships and interaction, and conventions that lead to taken-for-granted behavior; institutions that establish agreed-upon meanings, and “behaviour accepted as normal” including forms of domination or discrimination. Structures can be both tangible and intangible; they are composed of both behavioral patterns that can be observed and counted but also the ideologies that underpin why some behaviors are socially acceptable. Examples are acceptable ideologies on who can own property, which can become legalized. Examples include kinship, economic markets, religion, castes and other forms of social hierarchies, educational systems, political culture, resource control/ownership dynamics, forms of organization, and many, many more. Projects or programs that for example aim to change customary and legal laws on women’s ownership of land are changing structures.

Relations: Even when women have skills and capabilities, resources and aspirations, they may not be able to excise these because of unequal relations between them and men. These relations are defined by among other things social norms that define acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. Both agency and structure are mediated through relationships between and among social actors while, at the same time, forms and patterns of relationships are deeply influenced – frequently in hidden ways – by agency and structure. Actions, by men and women themselves, and by external influences to make these relations more equitable contribute to women’s ability to exercise their strategic life choices. Changes in gender relations are the motivation for strategies such as engaging men and boys for gender equality. Building coalitions amongst women, through social groups for example, can help them claim and expand agency and alter inequitable structures.

Only by addressing these elements, can we then say we are moving towards creating the conditions that enable women to have choices and the ability, capacity and freedom to exercise those choices.

So next time if you have trained women on a technology, call it that—training women—because it takes much more than building skills to empower women.


2 thoughts on “Women’s empowerment: What does it mean, and whose empowerment?

  1. I find this explanation of agency and empowerment of women very useful. I need more materials to deepen my understanding and b a better educator. Thank you all.

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