'Has the term ‘women’s empowerment’ just become another buzzword in the development sphere?' - by Kayla Fillipovich, 02.01.2023
Definitions of the term empowerment are varying, but it can be thought of by and large as the ability to make choices and constitute changes. For one to be able to be empowered, they must have been disempowered in the first place (Naila, 2005). The usage of the term empowerment and more specifically, women’s empowerment, has gained huge momentum in the development sphere. It first started gaining traction in the 1980s and 1990s. It began as a radical approach to transform power relations between men and women, in order to give women more rights and equality (Cornwall and Edwards, 2014). Adopting the women’s empowerment movement at the time, was meant as a method of structural change. Feminist movements, desiring more than what they were receiving out of women in development (WID), women and development (WAD) and gender and development (GAD), found empowerment more encompassing to the social and systemic changes they were fighting to achieve. Women’s empowerment set out to challenge patriarchy, as well as prominent structures such as class, race and ethnicity (Batliwala, 2007).
With this sudden surge of popularity, a new buzzword was born. Developmental agencies and organisations, searching for a way to rebrand or ‘spice-up’ existing policies and projects, found and ran with women’s empowerment. The term has grown in such popularity it is feared it is in danger of losing its transformative edge (Cornwall and Edwards, 2014). Once thought of as innovative practices are now being mainstreamed (Batliwala, 2007). Language has such significant implications. With so many using the word empowerment without a clear definition of what empowerment methods aim to do, it runs the risk of being diluted.
Women tend to be portrayed as the heroines, as well as victims, in society. While this tells a powerful story, it does not account for the true complexities of women and the power relations surrounding them (Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead, 2007). Generalisations are made and women in need of empowering are lumped together, assuming one solution will suit everyone, but interests of women are intricate and conflicting (Molyneux, 1984). Women and girls are presented as a good investment for development. Instead of focusing on the underlying, structural issues that produce inequalities and discrimination, empowerment projects are more focused on economics and investments, reducing empowerment to measurable outcomes (Cornwall and Rivas, 2015).
How can AFAWI and other organisations remain relevant in the field of women’s empowerment?
Within the world of development, you are often working in the grey areas. Throughout my studies and brief experience, I have found most debates and raised questions are contextual. Within this specific debate, it is easy to for me to side with the negative aspects of the usage of the term empowerment and women’s empowerment as a means of fortifying development efforts and making a good case, but not actually delving into and resolving the true systemic issues. While that may certainly be the case for some organisations and agencies, I think it is important to remember that one of the main constants in development is that nothing is constant. Every situation and project is different. I think the most important thing one can do is be hyper-aware of the ever-changing environment this type of work lies in and constantly be ready and accepting of adjustments, making sure to actively listen to and base your efforts off of those being affected most. At the end of the day, true empowerment comes from women themselves, not an external actor.