The last two decades have seen women’s empowerment being informed by theories and interventions bordering on empowerment in relation to social inclusion, social justice and good governance. However, when these theories are applied on the ground, do they really achieve women’s empowerment or they create academic gabs for future research?
Looking at theories of women’s development, I would like to believe that women’s empowerment is a crucial facet to accomplishing gender equality that involves increasing women’s decision making power, self-confidence and access to opportunities and resources. Empowerment also gives power and control to effect change. It is vital to note that women’s empowerment is individualistic as much as it is a collective as it focuses on the individual’s abilities and freedom of choice (Kabal, 1999).
I am emphasizing on empowerment being individualistic because, one of the underlying assumption is that the participation of women in development programs and interventions has a liberating and empowering effect. The assumption is a misguided neoliberal ideology that reinforces patriarchy as it fails to acknowledge how empowerment is influenced by time, culture and societal values.
When looking at time in relation to women’s development, empowerment becomes a process not an event. It becomes a process of defining one’s goals, strategizing how to achieve those goals and working towards reaching the goals. This cannot be achieved in one day but becomes a process requiring different stakeholders at each stage to support women.
Women’s empowerment in line with culture recognises a woman’s relations with their families and communities. Some cultural practises thrive in oppressing women and girls making sure they continue to be subordinates of their male counter parts. When rethinking empowerment how then can we support and assist women in such cultural spaces and prevent them from facing the wrath of their communities and be agents of change that pioneer community growth?
Societal values have a psychological effect that influence personal beliefs and values which in some instances become the very object of oppression. It takes time to unlearn beliefs and values and as a result they cannot be one formular for empowering women. However, gender issues differ across communities according to geographical settings, such that they should be looked at through contexts and realities of women rather than assuming that they are all oppressive. Narayan (2005) states that empowerment is influenced by the interaction between individual and cultural specific practices.
Currently, do programmes and interventions for women’s empowerment reflect the needs on the ground or they have been homogenised to be a one size fits all? A woman is worried about sending her children to school because they have no money. I go to that woman and teach her digital skills because I believe she needs to participate in digital conversations. At that point in time, am I providing her with the kind of support she needs or am I imposing my ideology on her? How many times do organisations, civic society groups and even individuals go about implementing development programmes for women which are not in line with their individual needs. Some of it its done unknowingly while some its done knowingly in a bid to end poverty and empower women.
It is time to approach women’s development from a human centred perspective, through starting with women by listening to their needs and investing in women. Investing in women does not have to be weighed in monetary value but lending a hand, an ear or even presence. Emotional support is one of the greatest enablers of empowerment when supporting women. I would like to look at women’s empowerment as a process that begins with individual empowerment and results with collective empowerment. Today, I only pointed out a few components in rethinking empowerment, on my next piece I will explore how women are individual agents of change.