'Women's empowerment:' Ambiguous term or effective call to action?

Women participate in a puppetry training. Photo by: Gaganjit Singh / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — The global development sector agrees that the commitment to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all will only be achieved if development initiatives consider the unique needs, knowledge, and potential of women and girls.

This belief sits solidly in Sustainable Development Goal 5, “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” and is a crucial part of work in education, finance, advocacy, and other initiatives contributing to “women’s empowerment” all over the world.

At the same time, the term “empowerment” has become “diluted to the point of complete ambiguity,” according to a report co-authored by Kate Cronin-Furman, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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“It appears in the mission statements of everyone from Save the Children to the Islamic State and is used to refer to everything from access to technology to gender equivalence in parliamentary representation,” states the report, titled “Emissaries of Empowerment.

The term has drawn further criticism for implying that an external force bestows empowerment upon a woman — diminishing her own power and agency.

“We also are not comfortable with the term used in that context,” said Jensine Larsen, founder and chief executive officer of World Pulse. “However, we endorse the term as naming a process — that is the process of a woman activating her own internal power and agency to change her circumstances. The process is often the result of many factors, internal and external.”

Considering the term encompasses a vast extent of gender-focused development work and has become a favorite phrase for fundraising, Devex asked several professionals in gender, advocacy, sexual and reproductive health and other fields what they think “women’s empowerment” really means.

Here are their definitions

“Empowerment should mean that women gain the ability to challenge and combat their oppression. In practice, it has come to mean marginally improving their material circumstances.”

— Kate Cronin-Furman, postdoctoral fellow, Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

“Empowerment is enabling girls and women to develop their own solutions to the problems they face, and supporting them to transform their own lives, families, and communities.”

— Denise Raquel Dunning, founder and executive director, Rise Up

“When a woman is in a condition where she is aware of her self-worth and values herself. With that comes the confidence and ability to make decisions for herself, her family and in other domain of her influence without being bothered about the boundaries that culture, society, and other norms have created for her.”

— Neena Joshi, director of programs, Heifer International Nepal


— Michelle Carpenter, project manager, Girl Stats

“Women empowerment is the provision of women with the means, skills, and opportunities to be independent, make their own choices and lead a life free of all sorts of violence and discrimination.”

— Nada Hamza, sexual and reproductive rights specialist, United Nations Population Fund

“Women’s empowerment must include workplace safety and equity — no more discrimination, harassment or conditions that mean working mothers miss out on career advancement opportunities.”

— Constance Newman, senior team leader for gender equity and health, IntraHealth

“Women’s ability to act in spite of their constraints to make the changes that they seek and they desire.”

— Jensine Larsen, founder and CEO, World Pulse

“When women are valuing themselves and their contributions, and men are valuing women and their contributions as well.”

— Anik Gevers, prevention for violence against women researcher and consultant

“When I look at the word ‘empowerment,’ I see the word ‘power.’ And so when we speak of ‘women’s empowerment,’ to me it is about changing the systems, institutions, and mindsets that perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies of power and social order.”

— Sangeeta Chowdhry, senior program director of economic justice, Global Fund for Women

“There is no empowerment without rights, so women’s empowerment needs to be anchored in human rights which provide a universal framework for monitoring. For women to be empowered, they need resources, respect, and voice. This requires redressing women’s socioeconomic disadvantage, addressing stereotyping, stigma, and violence, and strengthening women’s agency, voice, and participation.”

— Papa Seck, chief statistician, UN Women

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.