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Women’s empowerment: sharpening our focus

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What is women’s empowerment? How do you measure it? Why is it relevant to the WASH?

Empowerment, and more specifically women’s empowerment, is among the most fuzzy concepts within international development. This article looks at how it has evolved drawing on key international feminist thinkers, concluding that women’s empowerment is best understood as a process rather than an end goal, where marginalised women are able to set their own political agendas, to access resources, form movements and achieve lasting change in gender and social power structures.

But how do you measure success if there is no end goal? Women’s empowerment processes are complex, diverse and multi-layered that take us from individual self-perception to structural drivers shaping context - this makes any simplified measure problematic. Long-term contextual qualitative research is needed (in additional to quantitative approaches) which takes note of small incremental changes around empowerment, which over time can add up to a bigger shift. It also requires intersectional analysis to understand the differences between women’s lived experiences which can be extremely varied.

What does this mean for WASH? This article has emerged from a research project Gender in WASH: partnerships, workforce and impact assessment, currently underway led by ISF-UTS and partners. Key questions related to women’s empowerment explored through this project include:

  • Is a woman who establishes a water supply or sanitation business with support from a WASH program actually ‘empowered’? We need to critically question the lived experiences of women in these situations.
  • What are we actually measuring when we are trying to understand empowerment outcomes for women involved in WASH programs?
  • The oft-cited claim that WASH programs involving women have better outcomes for the community at large needs to be critically questioned. If such projects increase women’s workload, without shifting inequitable gendered responsibilities, can such projects be truly described as empowering?

In asking these questions and contributing to critical debates, the authors hope to strengthen the WASH sector’s engagement with empowerment towards more socially transformative approaches and outcomes.

Date: 17 June 2019