Conceptual Understanding of Women’s Empowerment: Past and Present

Over the past decades, empowerment has become a buzzword within the international development field in the same way as sustainability has. In the 1980s, the term ‘empowerment’ was coined by feminist movements to fight grassroots struggles of unjust and unequal power relations through which women were put at a disadvantage (Cornwall, 2016). Today, it is used by corporations, non-governmental organisations, banks, and development donors as a means of pursuing their own objectives (ibid.). In this way, Cornwall (2016) argues that many insights from the feminist theories developed in the 1980s and 1990s have been lost. In the following, I will first explain what the term ‘empowerment’ meant to feminist scholars in the 1980s before we are moving to how the concept is used today.  

In the 1980s, feminist academics produced extensive literature on women’s empowerment. Their radical approach focused on altering power relations in favour of women’s rights and greater equality between men and women (Batliwala, 1993; Kabeer, 1994; Sen, 1997). By the 1990s, Batliwala (1993) demanded a greater distinction between the concepts power and empowerment as the transformative element was fading away.

Batliwala (1993) defines 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, then empowerment therefore is the process of gaining control (1997: 2).”

Thus, empowerment can be understood as an unfolding process of gaining control over resources and ideology. Kabeer (1994) and Sen (1997) emphasise the complex joint relationship between women’s self-understanding and capacity for self-expression and women’s access to and control over material resources. Furthermore, feminist scholars assert that empowerment is not something that can be bestowed by others, but it is about “recognizing inequalities in power, asserting the right to have rights and acting to press for and bring about structural change in favour of greater equality” (Cornwall, 2016).

To summarize, the literature on women’s empowerment developed in the 1980s and 1990s focus on these three main points:

  • Empowerment is primarily about changing power relations
  • Empowerment is relational (self-understanding, self-expression, and access to and control over material resources)
  • Empowerment is a process (there is no end-goal, not a fixed state, and also no easily measurable outcome)

Cornwall (2016) stresses that it is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all recipe when it comes down to empowerment. What empowers one woman might not empower another. If a woman takes action in one area of her life, then that does not mean that she will have automatically greater control over resources and the capacity to transform power relations. Moreover, empowering women can also cause disempowerment. For example, if a woman becomes more empowered financially, because she earns an income then it can be that her husband opposes women’s empowerment by being violent towards her. Empowerment is thus reliant on an individual’s circumstances.

By comparing past literature on women’s empowerment to mainstream’s interpretations of the term, limitations of today’s approaches can be revealed. For example, The World Bank’s statement on women’s empowerment focuses mostly on assets and the creation of opportunities to get access to financial services.

“Equal access to financial services, helping women build assets and professionalizing the care-giving sector can help accelerate progress in women’s economic empowerment” (The World Bank, 2017)

Cornwall (2016) argues that providing women opportunities to earn a financial income may improve their financial situation, but in order for it to be transformative, the root causes of poverty and the structural basis of gender inequality need to be addressed. She asserts that empowerment requires more than enabling women’s access to resources or creating institutions, laws, and policies. For a true transformation to occur, there needs to be a shift in consciousness that focuses on “transforming limiting normative beliefs and expectations that keep women locked into situations of subordination and dependency” (Cornwall, 2016).

For the ones who have read the interview on women’s discrimination in employment. The above-mentioned reason is why I am not in favour of women’s quotas in the long term, because it does not address the underlying normative beliefs on gender roles.  

In the mainstream international development field, the focus is mainly on providing women resources, assets, or services. The empowering conceptual frameworks on transforming power relations is lacking in this approach. Access to resources is just one feature of women’s empowerment. This is why it is important to include the relational aspect. In order for women’s empowerment to be transformative, women need to reflect on how they have been taught to think about themselves as women, citizens, mothers, daughters, sisters, and human beings. Assuming that access to economic resources will have a ripple-effect on other areas of a woman’s life is simply not probable. It might happen for some women, but one cannot claim that this will always be the case. Transformative change on gender inequality comes from within, is the idea.

To conclude, feminist researchers claim that women’s empowerment is primarily about changing imbalanced power relations, it is a process, and it is relational. In today’s society, the idea of empowering women is based on providing access to resources, but this is only one part of the problem. The underlying structures behind gender inequality are often overlooked by institutions.

What about including men in women’s empowerment? Are they not needed for transformative change to occur? More about this in the next post.   

Batliwala S. 2007. Taking the power out of empowerment: an experiential account. Development in Practice 17(4/5): 557–65.

Cornwall, A. (2016). Women’s empowerment: What works? Journal of International Development28(3), 342-359.

Kabeer N. 1994. Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought. Verso: London.

Sen, G. (1997) Empowerment as an approach to poverty, Working Paper Series 97.07, background paper for the UNDP Human Development Report, New York: UNDP.

The World Bank (2017). Accelerating Women’s Economic Empowerment.

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