“It is nearly customary by now to begin a conceptual article on empowerment by lamenting how confused the concept has become over the last decade” - Jay Drydyk (2013)
I have often noticed a repeated cycle of puzzlement, confusion and subsequent attempt at clarification of the meaning of “women’s empowerment” in contemporary development writing. Literature reviews of the empowerment concept have listed over 30 different definitions and over 100 different indicators for its measurement (Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Upadhyay et al., 2014), while researchers and policy-makers periodically call for more research into ‘clarifying’ and ‘improving’ its measurement. I often feel such long lists of definitions and indicators confuse more than they clarify. When authors simply list countless – often mutually incompatible – interpretations, I am left feeling anything can signify empowerment, if one argues sufficiently long and hard.
An egregious example of this is the debate over whether it is ever possible for a person, group or organization of privilege to ‘empower’ an oppressed person or group. Some argue using one’s privilege to ‘help’ an oppressed person is no help at all, only oppressed people can ‘empower’ themselves. Others argue waiting for oppressed people to ‘empower’ themselves is an excuse for relinquishing responsibility. Both groups argue ‘empowerment’ is a problematic term, but for opposite reasons: One group sees the concept as advancing undue interference, another as advocating laissez-faire politics. By failing to clarify what we mean by the term ‘empowerment’, we thus end up talking past each other instead of forging constructive conversations.
It is for this reason that Joanna Morrison, Jolene Skordis-Worrall and I recently published a paper in Social Indicators Research which organizes the various meanings of empowerment along with arguments for and against each meaning into one unified framework. We developed our classification after more than five years of research on women’s empowerment in global health and development, drawing heavily on arguments from feminist and political philosophy. Our modest hope is that future researchers, educators and policy-makers will find our framework useful for making explicit their assumptions when they say are promoting or measuring “women’s empowerment”. By encouraging greater precision in the use of the term ‘empowerment’, we may all move one step closer to talking to each other rather than past each other.
Read Dr Gram's paper, 'Organising Concepts of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ for Measurement: A Typology'.
Drydyk, J. (2013). Empowerment, agency, and power. Journal of Global Ethics, 9, 249-262.
Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. In (pp. 167-198). London: Wiley.
Ibrahim, S. & Alkire, S. (2007). Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for Internationally Comparable Indicators. Oxford development studies, 35, 379-403.
Upadhyay, U. D., Gipson, J. D., Withers, M., Lewis, S., Ciaraldi, E. J., Fraser, A. et al. (2014). Women's empowerment and fertility: A review of the literature. Social Science & Medicine, 115, 111-120.
Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana Press.
'When authors simply list countless – often mutually incompatible – interpretations, I am left feeling anything can signify empowerment, if one argues sufficiently long and hard.' How, then do we make progress in this area? Alongside his new paper on 'Organising Concepts of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ for Measurement: A Typology', Dr Lu Gram reflects on how, by failing to clarify what we mean by the term ‘empowerment’, we often end up talking past each other instead of forging constructive conversations. Instead, he proposes a framework to encourage greater precision in the use of the term 'empowerment'.
Cervical screening is an important and potentially life-saving procedure, but at the moment 1 in 3 women in the UK feel unable to attend them. This month in the CGGH Blog series Dr Ellie Cosgrave writes about this huge issue for women's health, exploring how we should be promoting uptake as well as adapting medical procedures to make them more accessible. However, all too often campaigns promoting access to this service fail to understand and address the real reasons behind a lack of attendance.
We brought together an interdisciplinary roundtable of academics and practitioners working in the Global South to discuss critical perspectives of empowerment in the current Global Health discourse. Our discussion uncovered many internal contradictions and controversies over the meaning of empowerment, both a ‘thick ethical concept’ (Williams, 1985) and an ‘essentially contested concept’ (Gallie, 1956); such concepts involve judgments of both fact and value leading to continuous revisions of our understanding of the concept as our theories about social reality and societal values evolve, thus encouraging us to remain ever vigilant and self-critical about its use in our own practice and research.
Bringing together an interdisciplinary roundtable to discuss critical perspectives of empowerment in global health discourse unearthed various roots of the problematic nature of describing an individual or categorised group of individuals as being dis-empowered or who need empowering, typically by an organisation or agenda motivated by the already-empowered, writes Dr Ayesha Ahmad, reflecting on a roundtable discussion on gender and empowerment.