Empower (verb): To make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.
Last year, I had the pleasure to work with the European Women’s Lobby’s Programme Unit to help in the development, promotion and data visualization of the EmpowerMap Project, which is a joint initiative of the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) and the Orange Foundation.
The goal of the project was to gather information about grassroots women’s organizations in Spain, France, Romania and Poland who have on-the-ground programs aimed at the socio-economic empowerment of vulnerable women.
In response to this need for information, this six-month project provided map of the needs of vulnerable women and the practices and capacities of grassroots organizations which assist them.
Tapping into the EWL’s network of over 2,500 member organizations, this project illuminates the various issues and struggles that women in situations of economic difficulty face across diverse countries, how service-provision organizations assist them in their journey to empowerment, and how digital education has the potential to help them become independent.
EmpowerMap revealed that in all four countries, the main vulnerabilities experienced by women included domestic violence, single motherhood, social isolation/lack of networks, and low self-esteem. Additionally, lack of childcare and eldercare was one of the biggest recurring obstacles women faced when trying to enter the labor market.
Furthermore, in the studied countries, the most vulnerable populations—including migrant women, homeless women, women in prostitution and Roma women—were those that had the hardest time entering employment. Organizations working with these populations noted that often digital training with the aim of increasing employability only had a chance of being effective after the organization had done long-term work with the woman to get her into stable housing, proper work documentation, and taken care of other more basic needs. Similarly, organizations working with women who had experienced domestic violence explained that women needed help dealing with trauma emotionally and psychologically before they could tackle economic issues.
Across countries the organizations which were the most successful at getting women into jobs were those that worked long-term with women in a holistic way, first attending to their other needs including social and emotional counseling, self-esteem issues, legal issues and the residual effects of violence. Only after a woman was in a stable physical and emotional place was she ready to benefit from digital skills training aimed at helping her find a job.
Other commonalities included a lack of help and support for organizations working with women in rural areas, as well as the heterogeneity of poverty. Many organizations across all four countries worked with vulnerable women of all ages, backgrounds, life situations, and education levels, demonstrating that any woman can fall into poverty, experience violence and end up in a vulnerable situation.
How programs like this are empowering women?
Having better information about the needs of vulnerable women on the ground and knowing which women’s organizations are best positioned to empower women with digital skills is a great way to reach out the right stakeholders to fund and support women’s organizations, as well as to create purpose and drive action.
So I’m left to answer this question: What does it really mean to empower women? Political empowerment? Economic empowerment? Social empowerment? I will say these categories are not mutually exclusive- They are mutually reinforcing.
The barriers preventing women’s empowerment extend beyond individuals – there are institutional and systemic reasons why women in some societies cannot participate freely. To break down these barriers, individuals have to work together to reform the laws, social norms, or whichever institutions are inhibiting women’s productivity.
Societies must also acknowledge the potential for growth and prosperity that can be achieved when women are included.
From Caracas to Brussels, I am inspired by the rising of women’s work (especially in the digital world). People are starting to notice how impactful we can be as drivers of change.
By using technology for social change, I want to spread the idea that women are decision-makers for themselves, their families, businesses. For societies where this is not the case, people speak of the need for women’s empowerment—we need to be part of that!
Google Technology Policy Fellow – European Women’s Lobby
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