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Putting power back into empowerment

About the author
Srilatha Batliwala is the India-based Scholar Associate, AWID (Association for Women's Rights in Development)

Of all the buzzwords that have entered the development lexicon in the past thirty years, "empowerment" is probably the most widely used and abused. Like many other important terms that were coined to represent a clearly political concept, it has been "mainstreamed" in a manner that has virtually robbed it of its original meaning and strategic value.

The concept of women's empowerment emerged from critiques and debates generated by the women's movement during the 1980s, when feminists, particularly in what was then known more widely as the "third world" (Before the term "global south" gained currency), were growing discontent with the largely apolitical and economistic models in prevailing development interventions.

There was at the time growing interaction between feminism and the "conscientisation" approach developed by Paulo Freire in Latin America. But where Freire ignored gender and the subordination of women as a critical element of liberation, there were other important influences on activists and nascent social movements at this time: among them the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci's "subalterns" embodying and the hegemonic role of dominant ideologies, the emergence of social construction theory and post-colonial theory.

Srilatha Batliwala is an Indian feminist activist and researcher, and currently Civil Society Research Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organisations at Harvard University. Her research reports and analyses include Women's Empowerment in South Asia - Concepts and Practices (1993) Also by Srilatha Batliwala in openDemocracy: "Women transforming power?" (6 October 2005)

The interplay of these powerful new discourses led, by the mid-1980s, to the spread of "women's empowerment" as a more political and transformatory idea for struggles that challenged not only patriarchy, but the mediating structures of class, race, ethnicity, - and, in India, caste and religion - which determined the nature of women's position and condition in developing societies. Feminist movements in the global south, but particularly in Latin America and south Asia, evolved their own distinct approach, pushing consciousness-raising into the realm of radical organising and movement-building for gender equality. All efforts to more clearly conceptualise the term stressed that empowerment was a socio-political process, and that the critical operating concept within empowerment was power, and that empowerment was about shifts in political, social, and economic power between and across both individuals and social groups.

By the beginning of the 1990s, empowerment held pride of place in development jargon. And though it was applied in a broad range of social change processes, it was most widely used with reference to women and gender equality. Development assistance agencies (multilateral, bilateral and private), eternally in search of sexier catchphrases and magic bullets that could somehow fast-track the process of social transformation, took hold of the term and began to use it to replace their earlier terminology of "people's participation" and "women's development". The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) played a critical role in introducing the "e" word to state actors, and governments anxious to demonstrate a progressive approach to gender quickly adopted the catch phrase of women's empowerment.

An agenda won

Empowerment entered the gender equality arena in India through distinctly different political routes - that of feminists challenging patriarchal gender relations, of progressive government policy, and of aid agencies anxious to do something new. By the 1990s, everybody concerned with women's issues and gender equality - state actors, aid agencies, development professionals and feminist activists and advocates - were using the term empowerment. But like a latter-day development Babel, there was no clarity about what exactly this meant to its various proponents, since the meanings they attached to the term were seldom articulated in any clear or specific way.

In an attempt to clear the conceptual and strategic cloud, I was invited, in 1992, to examine how empowerment was understood and operationalised across south Asia by grassroots women's and development organisations with a stated objective of women's empowerment. This gave rise to Women's Empowerment in South Asia: Concepts and Practices (Batliwala 1993), which defined empowerment as a process of transforming the relations of power between individuals and social groups, shifting social power in three critical ways:

* by challenging the ideologies that justify social inequality (such as gender or caste)

* by changing prevailing patterns of access to and control over economic, natural and intellectual resources

* by transforming the institutions and structures that reinforce and sustain existing power structures (such as the family, state, market, education, and media). The document argued that ideological and institutional change were critical to sustaining empowerment and real social transformation. And it emphasised that transformatory empowerment could not be achieved by tackling any one of these elements of social power - even at that early stage, its architects were clear that there was no "one-shot" magic bullet route to women's empowerment, such as providing women access to credit, enhanced incomes, or land-titles.

This conceptualisation of empowerment drew on experiences in the subcontinent, and especially in India, of experiments that attempted to enact the process of empowerment on the ground with various marginalised communities, but most often focused on poor rural and urban women. These approaches tried to depart from past interventions that treated women as beneficiaries of services or producers or workers, and adopted feminist popular education strategies that created new spaces for women to collectivise around shared experiences of poverty, exclusion and discrimination, critically analyse the structures and ideologies that sustained and reinforced their oppression, and raise consciousness of their own sense of subordination. The main inputs in these processes were new ideas and information, not hand-outs or services; an opportunity for women to locate and articulate the changes they wanted to make, and evolve strategies to do so.

In retrospect, it is the early successes of the empowerment approach - despite contemporary angst about how difficult it was to measure, or took too long to show impact, and other anxieties - that contributed inadvertently to its subsequent instrumentalisation, and its conversion into not only a buzz word but a magic bullet for poverty alleviation and rapid economic development, rather than a multifaceted process of social transformation, especially in the arena of gender equality.

A ground lost

By the mid-1990s, India had enthusiastically embraced neo-liberal economic policies, but it was also an electoral democracy where the poor - particularly the rural poor - were the largest vote-banks who routinely threw out regimes who failed their interests and needs. Opening up rural markets and raising incomes of the poor was thus critical to political survival. In India's populist politics, empowerment was a natural target for co-option by varying political agendas most of whom were anxious to limit its transformatory potential.

Consequently, political parties of various hues and ruling regimes rapidly adopted and simultaneously constricted the concept and practice of women's empowerment into two relatively narrow and politically manageable arenas: the so-called "self-help" women's groups (SHGs) which were meant to simulate empowering grassroots women's groups, but in reality engage in little else but savings and lending, and reservations for women within local self-government bodies which is deemed to lead to political empowerment.

Both of these are described as "women's empowerment" approaches, though there is little evidence that either result in sustained changes in women's position or condition within their families, communities, or society at large. Indeed, there is a growing body of analysis that the empowering effects of these interventions are complex, and that they can consolidate existing power hierarchies as well as create new problems, including manipulation and co-option by dominant political interests, growing indebtedness, doubling and tripling of women's workloads, and new forms of gendered violence.

Although virtually every government policy claims to support women's empowerment, a deeper scrutiny of both policy and implementation strategies reveals that the broad-based, multifaceted and radical consciousness-raising approaches fostered in programmes like Mahila Samakhya in the 1980s and early 1990s have more or less disappeared. Every department's narrow-bandwidth intervention, in the era of increasing divestment and privatisation, is packaged in the language of empowerment. India's rural development policy describes its objectives as poverty alleviation and empowerment, and that these will be achieved through the strategies of self-help groups and strengthening local governments, the twin sites of "women's empowerment".

In the larger political arena, there has been an equally disturbing trend where the idea of women's empowerment has been distorted and co-opted into the ideological frameworks of the religious fundamentalism that has become deeply entrenched in Indian politics - the status of women in certain minority groups, and their need for "empowerment" (in its vernacular equivalents) has been a key component of the Hindu nationalists' ideological and political project, as has been the construction of the Hindu woman as the educated, equal, empowered opposite - even while they remain deeply hostile to the questioning of the disempowerment and subjugation of millions of women with the spread of particular regional and upper-caste Hindu practices such as dowry, female foeticide through sex-selective abortions.

With donors increasingly abandoning the kind of empowerment processes that feminists developed in the 1980s as a no-longer fashionable (indeed practical) methodology, and enthusiastically championing large-scale micro-finance programmes as the quickest route to women's empowerment (and overall economic development!), the old feminist empowerment concept and practice has fast lost ground. Meanwhile, in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual - from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signalling individual power, achievement, status.

An idea reclaimed

Today, I ask myself a simple question: if this word, and the idea it represented, has been seized and re-defined by populist politics, fundamentalist and neo-conservative ideologies, and corporate management, if it has been downsized by micro-finance and quota evangelists, and otherwise generally divested of all vestiges of power and politics, is it worth reclaiming?

Indeed it is. And it must be reclaimed because our vision of social transformation remains uniquely important, in a world where magic bullets and mechanical solutions attempt to evade the more fundamental processes of social justice that were at the core of feminist thinking from its earliest days. But the task of reclaiming has three vital components. First, we need to need to actually reclaim the agendas - such as empowerment - and the spaces for engaging the mainstream discourse from which we have been marginalised: the spaces of other social movements such as economic justice, the environment, and human rights, where gender is barely present anymore.

Second, we need to reframe some of our visions and strategies, in the context of contemporary challenges, such as globalisation and changing multilateral and bilateral economic and policy regimes, which demand new analysis, frameworks, and engagements.

Third, we must actively resist certain processes - the politics and policies of fundamentalisms, militarisation, and neo-liberal formulas - that have further impoverished, violated, displaced, and re-subjugated women in multiple ways.

Also in openDemocracy: Andrea Cornwall, "Pathways to women's empowerment" (27 July 2007)

Srilatha Batliwala and Andrea Cornwall's articles open a new collaboration between openDemocracy and the research consortium Pathways of Women's Empowerment project at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Together we will explore ideas, projects and initiatives from around the world - Brazil to Egypt, Sierra Leone to Bangladesh - which aim to understand what enables women to empower themselves and sustain changes in gendered power relations

A vision shaped

These three tasks, of reclaiming, reframing, and resistance, require a new clarity of vision and invigorated strategies on the part of feminists and their movements. Rather than seeing ourselves in retreat or defeat, we must recognise that we are witnessing a historical and dialectic process, where our voices and claims, once in the ascendant, have been co-opted and ritualised as a means of neutralising or pushing back the deep changes in power that we sought along both gender and social hierarchies.

It is time to regroup, rethink, and engage the dialectic or else our movements will wither away and die. We may appear weak and marginal at the moment, but we must realise it is only a moment - and an opportunity - that is challenging us to come back, with more powerful strategies and a sharper, more relevant discourse, building on the learning of the past decades, and willing to jettison ideas and approaches (such as the focus on mechanisms of formal equality) to which we were wed in the past.

A critical piece of this is to reformulate our concept and practice of movement-building. We keep calling ourselves a movement, but where is the movement we are talking about? Aggregates of women's organisations highly dependent on funders and governments? We need to return our attention to building real movements, to rekindle the mobilisation and organisation of a large popular base of women, which was our great strength in the past. This is the space that many of us have vacated in the process of specialised advocacy and policy work - the space that reactionary forces so effectively seized over the past twenty years, mobilising thousands of people, including women - for their retrograde political agendas.

We need to rearticulate a compelling, powerful vision with accessible messages to which poor women - and men - can connect at the local, national and global level. This is possible only if we go back to listening to poor women in their movements and struggles, to learn from them the values, principles, and actions that frame their search for justice. From such a process we can build not only a new depth and breadth of organising, a genuine global feminist movement, but solutions and alternatives for a sane, just, sustainable and peaceful world that have not yet entered our political or philosophical imagination.


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