Generic catchphrase or global commitment: What is women’s empowerment?

Empowering all women and girls is among the global goals guiding international development efforts toward 2030, and innumerable projects, investments and interventions have stated ‘women’s empowerment’ among their objectives. But what do we really mean when we talk about women’s empowerment?

In this interview, Nozomi Kawarazuka, scientist with the International Potato Center (CIP) and Steven Cole, senior scientist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), help ground the concept in theory, evidence and practical examples to improve our understanding of what women’s empowerment is as well as how it can be achieved and measured.

Sita Kumari, farmer, working at the farmers cooperation in Nepal. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR.

Q: What do we actually mean when we talk about women’s empowerment?

Nozomi: First, we need to realize that women’s notions of empowerment are very diverse – more so than men’s. For example in Vietnam, supporting women to make greater incomes might not increase their ability to make strategic choices. On the contrary, their increased incomes might upset the harmony of the family, putting them in a worse position because of the local norms and context. Therefore, women might intentionally choose to remain in a supporting role. This is also what makes empowerment complex, and we have to acknowledge that small changes – for example, women negotiating more with their husbands – are also a form of empowerment. Empowerment is both a process and an outcome.

Steven: To me, the most important distinction when we talk about empowerment concerns people’s ability to make strategic life choices, where previously such choices were not possible. And by strategic, rather than practical, we mean choices about education, family planning, crops to grow, expenses to take on, and so on. So empowered women are able to make choices in their lives that add value and that they consider important.

Q: When did the concept of women’s empowerment emerge?

Steven: Empowerment is a concept that has evolved over time. We saw a lot of activity in the 1990s, with the Beijing World Congress on Women, where governments committed to pursuing the empowerment of women. At that time, theories on empowerment were evolving around rights and freedom, including for example Naila Kabeer’s seminal work on resources, agency and achievements. Then, during the 2000s, a kind of politicizing of the term came about, and you saw a focus on empowerment because of its instrumental value, meaning as a means to an end, vis-à-vis intrinsic reasons and as a goal in and of itself.

Q: Why does the terminology itself sometimes give rise to questions?

Nozomi: The gender and development studies that discuss women’s empowerment encompass some really rich discussions, with a lot of complexities. But, I think that in order to mainstream gender, we at some point needed a catchy phrase and ‘women’s empowerment’ became that catchphrase. It has now been adopted, and is sometimes misused in the agriculture research for development community. Basically, we wanted everyone to consider gender equality in their research and interventions, but in the process of marketing our product, a simplification happened – especially of this term, ‘women’s empowerment’. Now its true meaning has been watered down, and we are often back to ‘business as usual’, even for projects or interventions that claim women’s empowerment as a goal.

Q: Why is women’s empowerment important — for global goals and other efforts?

Steven: In order to achieve any of the global goals, we – as a collective – also have to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment. To achieve production increases, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability and so on, we first and foremost have to achieve gender equality. This means addressing the underlying causes of inequality and women’s disempowerment.

Nozomi: Another way that women’s empowerment can help achieving the global goals of equity, social justice and poverty reduction is by increasing diversity in perspectives. For example, in agriculture, women’s empowerment and stronger women voices could facilitate greater innovation, better technologies and new approaches that support better outcomes not only for women, but also for men.

Q: How can we know whether women are — or are becoming — empowered or not?

Steven: A lot of different tools, both qualitative and quantitative, exist for measuring women’s empowerment. For example, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index and the Reach-Benefit-Empower framework can help project leaders determine how to design projects to achieve women’s empowerment. The really positive thing emerging from those efforts is also that when you measure something, people take notice. Having the ability to assess or measure empowerment then also enables us to evaluate if development projects are actually successful in helping facilitate women’s empowerment.

Q: What are the biggest challenges standing in the way of achieving women’s empowerment?

Nozomi: One of the biggest challenges is that we’re not addressing the underlying causes of women’s disempowerment. It is a structural issue, including within our own institution, CGIAR. Changing hiring policies, dealing with toxic masculinities and creating alternatives as well as having more women in leadership roles is something we have to work on at the same time. If we aim to change realities for women in rural communities, we have to start with ourselves.

Steven: Another element to not overlook is the importance of engaging men and boys. It is not a zero-sum game – women and men can together facilitate the growth of communities and achieve more and better outcomes. Institutions also play a big role; as long as we are not changing the formal and informal norms and power relations that constrain women, the paths to women’s empowerment will remain blocked and we will not achieve gender equality. That’s also why we, in CGIAR, need to keep that current focus on the food systems, on the institutions that make up agriculture and agricultural livelihoods, and on using our evidence base to come up with the best ways to transform these systems.

Blog published by CGIAR Gender Platform