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«Journal of International Development J. Int. Dev. 17, 243–257 (2005) Published online in Wiley InterScience (DOI: ...»

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Journal of International Development

J. Int. Dev. 17, 243–257 (2005)

Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/jid.1212





Institute for Development Policy and Management, Manchester University, Manchester, UK Abstract: When policymakers and practitioners decide that ‘empowerment’—usually of women or the poor—is a development goal what do they mean? And how do they determine the extent to which it has been achieved? Despite empowerment having become a widely used term in this context there is no accepted method for measuring and tracking changes.

Presumably if we want to see people empowered we consider them to be currently disempowered i.e. disadvantaged by the way power relations presently shape their choices, opportunities and well-being. If this is what we mean then we would benefit from being better informed about the debates which have shaped and refined the concept of power and its operation.

Therefore in this paper, after briefly reviewing how the empowerment of women has been discussed within development studies, I look at how the concept of power was debated and refined during the second half of the twentieth century and discuss how power relations might be described and evaluated in a particular context. I then propose a conceptual framework within which empowerment might be assessed. Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


What is Empowerment?

‘Empowering’ women has become a frequently cited goal of development interventions.

However, while there is now a significant body of literature discussing how women’s empowerment has been or might be evaluated, there are still major difficulties in so doing.

Furthermore many projects and programmes which espouse the empowerment of women show little if any evidence of attempts even to define what this means in their own context *Correspondence to: Sarah Mosedale, Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, Harold Hankins Building, The Precinct Centre, Oxford Rd, Manchester, M13 9QH, UK.

E-mail: sarah.mosedale@manchester.ac.uk Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

244 S. Mosedale let alone to assess whether and to what extent they have succeeded. Instead traditional development goals, such as better health or increased income, are cited as evidence of empowerment. In such cases it is not clear what is added by using the word ‘empowerment’.

Despite its having ‘identified empowerment as a... primary development assistance goal... neither the World Bank nor any other major development agency has developed a rigorous method for measuring and tracking changes in levels of empowerment’ (Malhotra et al., 2002, p. 3).

Different people use empowerment to mean different things. However there are four aspects which seem to be generally accepted in the literature on women’s empowerment.

Firstly to be empowered one must have been disempowered. It is relevant to speak of empowering women, for example, because, as a group, they are disempowered relative to men.

Secondly empowerment cannot be bestowed by a third party. Rather those who would become empowered must claim it. Development agencies cannot therefore empower women—the most they can achieve is to facilitate women empowering themselves. They may be able to create conditions favourable to empowerment but they cannot make it happen.

Thirdly, definitions of empowerment usually include a sense of people making decisions on matters which are important in their lives and being able to carry them out. Reflection, analysis and action are involved in this process which may happen on an individual or a collective level. There is some evidence that while women’s own struggles for empowerment have tended to be collective efforts, empowerment-orientated development interventions often focus more on the level of the individual.

Finally empowerment is an ongoing process rather than a product. There is no final goal.

One does not arrive at a stage of being empowered in some absolute sense. People are empowered, or disempowered, relative to others or, importantly, relative to themselves at a previous time.

Women and Gender

While the reasons for any particular woman’s powerlessness (or power) are many and varied, considering women per se necessarily involves questioning what we/they have in common in this respect. The common factor is that, as women, they are all constrained by ‘the norms, beliefs, customs and values through which societies differentiate between women and men’ (Kabeer, 2000, p. 22). The specific ways in which this operates vary culturally and over time. In one situation it might reveal itself in women’s lower incomes relative to men, in another it might be seen in the relative survival rates of girl and boy children and in a third by severe restrictions on women’s mobility. Virtually everywhere it can be seen in domestic violence, male-dominated decision fora and women’s inferior access to assets of many kinds.

A woman’s level of empowerment will vary, sometimes enormously, according to other criteria such as her class or caste, ethnicity, relative wealth, age, family position etc and any analysis of women’s power or lack of it must appreciate these other contributory dimensions. Nevertheless, focusing on the empowerment of women as a group requires an analysis of gender relations i.e. the ways in which power relations between the sexes are constructed and maintained.

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Int. Dev. 17, 243–257 (2005) Assessing Women’s Empowerment 245 Since gender relations vary both geographically and over time they always have to be investigated in context. It also follows that they are not immutable. Nevertheless, particular manifestations of gender relations are often fiercely defended and regarded as ‘natural’ or God-given. Although many development interventions involve challenges to existing power relations it tends to be those which challenge power relations between men and women which are most strongly contested.

While there has been criticism of attempts to ‘import’ Northern feminisms to the South it is patronising and incorrect to assume that feminism is a Northern concept. Women of the South have their own history of organization and struggle against gender-based injustices. Also, gender analysis arising from the second wave of feminism in the North has benefited from extensive criticism of its initial lack of attention to class and ethnicity and its Eurocentricity and there has now been some twenty years of dialogue and joint action between Northern and Southern feminists.

The validity of using gender as a critical analysis of the position of ‘Third World women’ (itself a critically contested category) is not universally accepted. Of course the validity of the concept is also contested in the West. We are told that we now inhabit a post-feminist era—the implication being that whatever reasons women may have had in the past for dissatisfaction with their social and political identities (it’s usually conceded that our being allowed to vote and own property should stand for example) there is no further need for agitation. Further, it is said that irritating Western feminists are guilty of stirring up discontent among women in developing countries and applying inappropriate culturally-specific notions of female liberation. This is considered particularly offensive since these Western feminists often come from nations which have oppressed these countries in the past (and arguably continue to exploit them in the present).

However Western feminism has not only been attacked by those who are against feminism in general. For example Chandra Mohanty criticizes (some) such feminist texts for their underlying assumption that feminist interests as articulated in the US and Western Europe are the norm and that ‘third world women’ constitute a homogenous Other. ‘This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘‘third world’’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-orientated, victimized etc). This... is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions’ (Mohanty, 1991, p. 56).

Mohanty also criticizes the way much feminist discourse defines women in terms of ‘object status’ i.e. the way they are affected by certain institutions or systems. This perspective characterizes women as a pre-existing socio-political group outside such social relations instead of understanding that ‘women are produced through these very relations as well as being implicated in forming these relations’ (Mohanty, 1991, p. 59).

Analysis of women’s position should therefore be based on the realities of their lives rather than on a generalized assumption that they are oppressed.

Taking it as given then that successfully organising for empowerment requires analysis of women’s particular situation rather than an assumption of oppression, is it possible to identify any universal values?

This is attempted by Martha Nussbaum who takes the charge of cultural imperialism sufficiently seriously to devote some eighty pages of Women and Human Development: the Capabilities Approach to a defence of such values. In seeking to construct a universal framework to asses women’s quality of life she recognizes the objection that ‘the particular Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Int. Dev. 17, 243–257 (2005) 246 S. Mosedale categories we choose are likely to reflect our own immersion in a particular theoretical tradition and may be, in some respects, quite the wrong ones for the assessment of Indian lives’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 40). This is a particularly serious challenge as many development interventions have failed due to a failure to properly appreciate the local circumstances.

Nussbaum investigates, and refutes, three ways she identifies that it can be argued that ‘certain very general values, such as the dignity of the person, the integrity of the body, basic political rights and liberties, basic economic opportunities, and so forth, are not appropriate norms to be used in assessing women’s lives in developing countries’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 41). She calls these the argument from culture, the argument from diversity and the argument from paternalism.

The argument from culture states that Indian norms (both Hindu and Muslim) of female modesty, deference, obedience and self-sacrifice have defined women’s lives for centuries and should not be assumed to be incapable of constructing good and flourishing lives for women. Also Western women have a hard time too with their high divorce rate and exhausting careerism. It is patronising for feminists to assume that only lives like their own can be fruitful.

Firstly, Nussbaum’s framework allows women to choose a ‘traditional’ life if they want to. Secondly, this argument ignores ‘countertraditions of female defiance and strength’ of which Nussbaum gives various examples in the Indian context. Thirdly, change is a constitutive element of all cultures, not just Western. Fourthly arguing, from cultural relativism, that normative values need to come from within the society to which they are applied, ‘has no bite in the modern world, where the ideas of every culture turn up inside every other, through the internet and the media’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 49).

Confusing cultural relativism with respect for diversity ignores the fact that most cultures have exhibited considerable intolerance of (as well as some respect for) diversity and prevents us from adopting any more general norm of tolerance that could help us limit the intolerance of cultures (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 49). And also ‘if divorce and career difficulties are painful, as they surely are, they are a lot less painful than being unable to work when one is starving because one will be beaten if one goes outdoors, or being unable to leave an abusive marriage because of illiteracy and lack of employable skills’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 42).

The argument from diversity argues that our world benefits from, for example, the richness of different languages, and then extends this to entire cultural systems. But unlike languages, cultural practices frequently harm people so we have to ask whether they are worth preserving. Also ‘we might add that it is not clear that there is interesting diversity in the practices of male dominance that feminists have most contested. Getting beaten up and being malnourished have depressing similarities everywhere; denials of land rights, political voice, and employment opportunities do also’ (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 51).

The argument from paternalism says that when we use universal norms as benchmarks for societies we are telling people what is good for them and showing too little respect for people’s freedom as agents. Being aware of this danger gives us a good reason to prefer a form of universalism that is compatible with the most significant freedoms and choices.

However any system of law is paternalistic in keeping some people from doing some things that they want to do and this is not a credible argument against law itself. Also many existing value systems are highly paternalistic towards women. For ‘their own good’ they treat women as unequal under the law, as lacking full civic capacity and not having the same rights of association, property ownership and employment as men.

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