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IS EMPOWERMENT A QUICK FIX OR A MAGIC BULLET?

29 August 2012 09:19 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Faizun Zackariya
The frequent questions that many people in the development arena have not adequately addressed, confronted or even evaded when approaching women’s rights and justice issues were, - Empowerment for who? What kind of empowerment?  Who takes decisions and actions for whom?   When can women reclaim empowerment in their own right?





WHY TALK ABOUT EMPOWERMENT?
Empowerment is a catchphrase that has dominated the lexicon of development circles for many years. It has its genesis in the experiences of third world women, their political- social marginalization and social activists’ critiques of the economic models. The synergy and interaction of these social movements, analyses on gender-patriarchy advanced by others, sharpened the empowerment concept and practice.
Some oft repeated quotes that relate to practices and understanding of ‘empowerment’, ranging from development workers, politicians to social workers, businessmen/businesswomen and some women activists are :

“ ….we are running savings and credit programmes with poor women to alleviate poverty, for their economic empowerment…”
 “…  we conduct many gender trainings, we have empowered them
“……by putting women in leadership positions, we have empowered them..”

What is glaringly missing here is the invisible underpinnings in approach and embedded values.  Hence, we need to uncover the underlying assumptions, analyses, practices and misrepresentation of the terminology with a capital E - Empowerment.  Empowerment is a loaded term; we should be careful about how the terminology is used/misused without embracing its essence.  Who is using it, for what purpose, depending on whether it is corporate interests, donors, women’s organizations, politicians, researchers and civil society organizations, their interests may not be the same.
The main concern is the lack of understanding of the concept of empowerment, its power, principles and practices that affect gender relations and differentiation along ethnic and class lines.   Gender and class are rooted in women’s lived realities; when empowerment is loosely applied, it loses its bases - political, economic and social [including gender] inequalities.


WHERE IS THE POWER?  POWER FOR WHOm?
The core of these women activists’ experiences is to recognize the important linkages between grassroots activism, advocacy, action research, training and scholarly work.  Critical to our analysis are issues of power, power relationships and transforming power.  Such an approach and analysis would include dis-empowering factors that constrain women’s empowerment path. Disempowering factors depend on women’s social positioning -  namely poverty, violence against women, dominant culture, lack of access to resources [including information] lack of freedoms, mobility, opportunities ,choices, etc.  These originate from given political-socio-legal frameworks and the gender – patriarchal regime, where class and ethnicity play dominant roles. Four interlinked components for understanding, analysis and approach of empowerment are -  

Understanding : -   For women to be agents of social change and be powerful voices in their own right, they need access to appropriate information, knowledge, resources and a supportive environment.   Mobilisation paves the way for empowerment.  Mobilization and empowerment must not be thought of as a short term quick fix or even as being project oriented.  The long term actions, vision and goals of this process must be carefully understood and planned.

Rootedness:-  Mobilization and empowerment must connect to specific local rights struggles and be rooted in the community. Frequently posed, is the issue of disconnection between the rural-urban, elite and working class, gender, languages, ethnicity and others.  Many ‘mainstream’ development programmes have not been able to draw women’s potential leadership at the grassroots level and their ability to act independently. Understanding local power relations and its ramifications in changing local realities remains a challenge for development practitioners/advocates.  

Reflection and Analysis:- Reflection, self critical appraisal and developing once's own analysis should not be expertise-driven. Learning process should be continuous; it must build on past experiences, a strong presence in the current while taking concrete steps to consolidate work in the community.  In trying to achieve short term results, those who implement these projects miss out on taking note of the interconnectedness of activities and its consequences.  Combining skills, knowledge, analysis and reflection, and sharing life experiences can stimulate potential for wider participation from the ‘bottom up’.  Further, women’s voices are paramount to sustain the efforts and shape the approach.

Principles, Practices and Actions:-   Solid foundations  in shared vision, ethical norms [gender and societal] and principles will bring social changes; ensuring systems to address equality, justice, accountability and transparency while confronting inequality, biases and prejudices. Above all, practising democratic values within and without, develop collective ownership, collective decision-making, right to information and representation will support the mobilization - empowerment processes.
Let grassroots women’s voices resonate in our work and lives.

Faizun Zackariya is Co-founder of M/Women’s Research & Action Forum [1986], currently on the Board of directors. She is also member of the Governing Council and Board of Trustees of WLUML – International network of solidarity and support. Formerly, she was the independent international consultant for Hivos [Netherlands] for nearly more than 12 years. The views expressed here is not necessarily those of any of these organizations.   

Questions of mobilization and empowerment cannot be confined to rhetoric or addressed in a vacuum without understanding fundamental issues of power and shifting power relations, processes and practices.  In order to take the vision and approach of empowerment forward, achieve the goals of gender equality and justice and make positive changes for the lives of the marginalized, oppressed and violated, we have to learn to question and do things differently in different contexts.
 Can Women reclaim empowerment?

What brings change on the ground?  What is the collective? What makes the movement?
Reclaiming empowerment rests on ownership.  Hence empowerment primarily hinges on intrinsic characteristics of individual woman and her interactions with the external outside world. Depending on her social position, women confront pressures in their daily lives in multiple ways.
Nevertheless women have inner power; constrained by many factors – social class, ethnicity, other identities, self esteem, skills and ability.  Empowerment comes from the self, initiative illustrates -

“I feel liberated from exploitation; I am standing on my own feet.”
“I have developed strength to analyse, deal with my own problems, addressing as a social issue.”
These individual women’s experiences remain isolated. When can women reverse their own status and transform these experiences to bring social change? What are the moments when the individual experiences could be transformed into a collective experience?

Mobilization gives a sense to women’s power, empowerment and sustains the collective.   Strengthening individual capacity into collective capacity to act as a force is a big challenge. Fundamental questions being, power, access and control, decision making and whose interests are represented at what levels.  Women’s voices must be heard but which women’s voices need to be heard?  Who should be represented on behalf of whom?   What spaces are occupied by whom?  
Women need access to informational resources that support and equip them for the advocacy work. However, this information must be mediated in a language they understand and relevant to their needs to influence positive social change. Motivating a new generation of women, instilling the passion and commitment is vital for continuity. Finally, we need to think of alternative routes, actions to change and challenge structural gender inequalities.  
Let grassroots women’s voices resonate in our work and lives.

Faizun Zackariya is Co-founder of M/Women’s Research & Action Forum [1986], currently on the Board of directors. She is also member of the Governing Council and Board of Trustees of WLUML – International network of solidarity and support. Formerly, she was the independent international consultant for Hivos [Netherlands] for nearly more than 12 years. The views expressed here is not necessarily those of any of these organizations.
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