A WORKING DEFINITION
‘The process through which those who are currently disadvantaged achieve equal rights, resources and power’
“Empowerment is like obscenity; you have trouble defining it but you know it when you see it” (Rappaport 1986)
“I like the term empowerment because no one has defined it clearly as yet; so it gives as a breathing space to work it out in action terms before we have to pin ourselves down to what it means. I will continue using it until I am sure it does not describe what we’re doing.” (NGO worker quoted in Batliwala 1993)
• is concerned with increasing realisable and informed choices within a framework ofhuman rights and equality
• inevitably involves challenging existing inequalities in power and resources
• involves a combination of individual initiative and collective action
• is a complex process which consists of interlinked and mutually reinforcingdimensions (economic, cultural, legal, political, psychological) and levels (e.g. individual, family, community, macro-level)
• requires not only ‘self-help’ by those who are currently disadvantaged butchanges in those who are currently advantaged and addressing macro-level inequalities
Elements of a framework:
- process of transformation in power relations
- dimensions of inequalities where change is needed eg economic, social,political, legal
- levels at which change is needed eg individual, household, communities, markets, national, international.
The English term ’empowerment’ originated in the second half of the 17th century. It gained widespread usage in the 1960s in the US Civil Rights and Women’s Movements. But it is an extension of earlier concepts of equality, justice and freedom which were expressed in many anti-imperialist and political struggles. These are also enshrined in international agreements and also underlie the precepts of many religious traditions, including Islam.
In the 1980s the term was adopted by NGOs in both the South and the North to signify an alternative development agenda for poverty alleviation based on principles of participation and self-help. At the same time neo-liberal politicians also adopted the term empowerment to underline a commitment to increasing individual choice and self-help in the context of market reform (and also the cynical might suggest to increase their popular appeal).
Women’s empowerment is not a Northern concept. Women all over the world, including countries in the South, have been challenging and changing gender inequalities since the beginnings of history. These struggles have also been supported by many men who have been outraged at injustices against women and the consequences for society. It would be yet another instance of imperialism to say all these women and men did not have minds of their own!