BRIDGE Report 40: Gender and empowerment: definitions, approaches and implications for policy

Author: Z. Oxaal, S. Baden
Publisher: BRIDGE
Publication Date: Jan 1997
What is women's empowerment' If women are empowered, does that mean that men have less power' Empowerment has become a new 'buzzword' in international development language but is often not well understood. This paper explains the different understandings of empowerment, and how empowerment strategies should be designed. The need to 'empower' women responds to the growing recognition that women in developing countries lack control over resources and the self- confidence and/or opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. At the same time, the realisation that women have an increasingly important role to play in social and economic development has become widely accepted. Unless women are 'empowered' to participate alongside men in the development process, development efforts will only have partial effect. Empowerment strategies must carefully define their meaning of 'empowerment' and be integrated into mainstream programmes rather than attempted separately.

Empowerment has different meanings, depending on who uses the concept and how. Different definitions of empowerment emphasise increased quality of participation of individuals in decisions and processes that shape their lives (such as the construction of a village water pump), challenging oppression and inequality, collective action, and the process of developing potential to their fullest (regardless of sex). Empowering women is concerned with transforming gender roles, and advocating for increasingly shared power between men and women rather than concentrated power with one or the other. While more international development organisations adopt empowerment goals, certain tendencies must be avoided. These include:

- Taking a top-down approach to women's empowerment. The process of women's empowerment is bottom-up, and women must be included from the initial stages.
- Increasing women's access to income and skills are not empowering in and of themselves. Evidence suggests that this might only increase women's workload. What must be addressed is women's participation in decision-making and the control over these resources.
- When women have increased access to resources or decision-making power in one area, this does not necessarily carry over to other areas. For example, women's increased access to credit does not mean that they have increased control over household income.
Development organisations that adopt a women's empowerment approach should therefore carefully consider the following:
- Carefully define or explain women's empowerment, if it is stated as a goal.
- Introduce specific indicators for women's empowerment into development programme activities (e.g. changes over time of women's increased participation in household decision-making). They must also recognise that empowerment is not only about working with women, but changing gender relations between men and women in society.
- Incorporate empowerment goals into all programmes/projects. It should not be viewed as an independent activity, but one that needs to be integrated and addressed in all development efforts and levels (household, local and national government, and employment).
- Include women in all stages of development programmes, including the planning stage.
- Provide much needed support to women's organisations, as they are an essential way to empower women both individually and as a group.
- Carefully re-examine the internal gender relations and institutional structures of donor organisations, to effectively promote women's empowerment externally.