The UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health
Gender, Intersectionality & Health

Reflection on Empowerment Roundtable Part 2: Women’s Empowerment and Global Health: Bridging contradictions

16 July 2018
Dr Lu Gram
Adult literacy group in rural Nepal.  Economic and educational programs are increasingly endorsed to promote "women's empowerment" in the Global South, but do they deliver on their promise?

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.

Many of us experienced considerable discomfort with a binary between the ‘disempowered’ – passive and silent victims of circumstance – and the ‘empowered’ – heroic resistors of tyranny. Disempowerment evokes connotations of violence, force, oppression, unfreedom, and powerlessness; empowerment evokes choice, opportunity, and liberty. ‘Giving’ agency to a disempowered individual seems patronising and paternalistic, while ‘relying’ on people’s agency to rescue themselves from poverty seems neglectful and unrealistic. Yet we found ourselves tied in knots trying to criticise the notion of empowerment without ourselves using words such as power, freedom and agency in our critiques.

Many of us criticised the prevailing focus of empowerment discourse on expanding individual capability instead of societal transformation; this ignores the roots of the concept in radical feminist aspirations for a complete overhaul of all systems of oppression whether based in gender, race, caste, or class (Gita & Grown, 1988). Individualist analyses cannot deal with the many structural dimensions of unfreedom whether colonialist legacies, exploitative economic systems, or patriarchal cultures. Yet, when we reflected on our own role as foreign-based and foreign-funded academics in addressing structural violence in the Global South, a great unease arose with the prospect of using our resources to promote one vision of society over another, for example, by taking sides in Dalit uprisings in North of India. In such cases, our role might be more one of a documentarian or social commentator than an interventionist.

Nonetheless, we observed instances where intervention was called for, particularly with respect to concerns over the implications for the empowerment discourse for Global Health. Capitalist industries have co-opted the empowerment concept to promote unhealthy behaviours – smoking, drinking, and taking drugs – by attaching connotations of desire fulfilment and choice to their enactment. This allows advertising companies to profit from the spread of chronic disease, while simultaneously claiming to ‘empower’ women. We discussed the importance of rigorously defining the concept of empowerment, precisely to avoid such instances of its meaning being subverted by unscrupulous industries; broad legislation to prevent structural harms from the empowerment discourse was direly needed.

This returned us to our discussion focus: Given the many problems with the empowerment concept and its potential for subversion and co-optation, should we continue to even use the term? Should we shift towards talking about ‘rights’ instead of ‘freedoms’? Or should we use purely local language terms for ‘empowerment’ in academic debates that might hold radically different connotations of transformation than its English language equivalents? Only thing was clear: This conversation needs to continue.

Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. In (pp. 167-198). London: Wiley.

Gita, S. & Grown, C. (1988). Development, crises and alternative visions: Third World women's perspectives. New York: Monhtly Review Press.

Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana Press.