Reclaiming feminist visions of empowerment

Glib and glossy visions of women’s empowerment, designed to avoid actual power structures, are being avidly promoted by corporations and the development industry alike. A new book by Srilatha Batliwala reminds us of what lies at the heart of feminist empowerment work.

Andrea Cornwall
7 April 2014
Engaging with Empowerment by Srilatha Batliwala - book cover

Last month's 58th Commission on the Status of Women in New York ended with less on the floor than some had feared. Intense negotiations in the final days kept in the agreed conclusions financing for women’s organizations, affirmation of key aspects of Cairo and Beijing, and a recognition that there is still very far to go in the struggle to realize women’s human rights. Among the gains that are being celebrated is a commitment to a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment and to mainstreaming gender across the other Sustainable Development Goals.

But what does a commitment like this actually mean these days? The language of “women’s empowerment” has become ever more ubiquitous. Corporations are scrambling over themselves to profess their desire to empower women. Consumers of development marketing are treated rebranded versions of the old talk about women’s role in development – and new and absurd parodies like the recent advertising campaign by Oxfam that takes the metaphor of women “lifting” their communities and turns it into levitating beneficiaries.

In the midst of all this, it is easy enough to sigh, shrug and say, “there goes another one of those development buzzwords…”. But there’s more to empowerment than the glib and glossy merchandise purveyed by the development industry might have us believe. Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey tells stories about how change happens in women’s lives that reclaim and reaffirm an approach to empowerment that looks and acts very differently. And it is a reminder that these ways of thinking about and doing feminist empowerment work are far from buried in the past: they are just obscured from view, like the hidden pathways that are changing women’s lives that may be missed by those who travel on development’s motorways.

Srilatha BatliwalaA compendium of Batliwala’s writings on women’s empowerment, feminist movements and feminist leadership, traversing activism and theory, Engaging with Empowerment compels us to revisit and revalue “empowerment”. Exploring the trajectories of her own engagement with the politics of transformation, Batliwala gives us fresh insight into the sparks that can ignite processes of change. At the core of this work is a definition of empowerment that emphasises the power, politics and, above all, purpose of empowerment:

Empowerment is not a goal,” writes Batliwala, “but a foundational process that enables marginalised women to construct their own political agendas and form movements and struggles for achieving fundamental and lasting transformation in gender and social power structures.”

I can think of no better definition of empowerment. We are taken straight to the heart of the matter and glimpse how this kind of empowerment might contribute to achieving a more just and equal world. Words like foundational, fundamental, lasting are coupled with others, such as political agendas, movements, struggles, transformation. These are words that mean business, not the words that might be found in one of development’s business cases.

Women lying along a train track

Women of Kudankulam, on the coast of Tamilnadu State, protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant The ideas that underpin this understanding of empowerment are the stuff of the empirical chapters of the book. They take us into worlds of struggle in which we see, time and again, that transformations in consciousness coupled with collective action constitute a mode of challenging and changing gender and power relations that is a far cry from today’s diluted discourses of empowerment-lite. At the core of this work is movement-building. Batliwala’s reflections on organizing women and building movements come from deep experience, and from an acute insight into the politics of constructing counter-hegemonic institutions. They include an uncompromising analysis of the changes that must come from within feminist activism itself, exposing some of the barriers to transformation that exist as much within feminist-led organisations as outside them.

20 or so women sitting in a room

STEPS Women’s Jamaat, Tamilnadu state in south India. Photo: www.stepswomenjamaat.org

For all of us who have experienced the angst Batliwala writes about when reflecting on the lack of good role models of feminist leadership, as well as those of us who have been fortunate to learn from leaders who are truly democratic and enabling, the analysis hits home. Her emphasis is, as always, on power: on the use of power to close and to open space, on authoritarianism and the unwillingness to surrender power, and on what it takes to create a genuinely different style of leadership that resonates more closely with feminist values and aspirations.

Women in a demonstration

Women of Kudankulam protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant

Locating movement-building within a larger terrain of shifting fashions in the development industry brings Batliwala to an engagement with the discourse of rights. It is one to which she brings her characteristic acuity of vision and sharpness of insight. “The simplistic recipes” that donors and governments have come up with, she reflects, are “so that they don’t have to deal with the fact that [empowerment and human rights] is — and has always been — about fundamental shifts in power, privilege, and the control of resources and agenda-setting”. In Chapter 11 of the book, ‘When Rights Go Wrong’, Batliwala takes us to the most painful contradictions of the rights discourse, particularly the exclusion of the poorest “rights-bearers” in the conceptualisation of universal human rights.

Batilwala is unsparing in her critique of the sacred cows of gender and development. She writes of how mainstream development’s magic bullets represent feminist ideas divested of the complex transformative strategies within which they were originally embedded and ‘reduced to formulas, rituals and mantras’. The net result of this, she charges, has been that the … mechanical and depoliticised implementation of these strategies… have, in many contexts, merely shifted greater responsibility and burden for economic survival and political change onto women themselves, or ended up as a numbers game.

In shifting her focus from empowerment to other processes critical to gender equality, she gives us something new: a more profound focus on developing the structures as well as the agency to build a solid foundation for transforming gender and power relations.

Moving adeptly between ideas and immersion in the lived realities of women’s struggles, Engaging with Empowerment has many moments when it takes us to places that are resonant with frustrations many of us working in the field of gender and development have experienced, but also to moments of inspiration. The book ends with a piece of advice from Sundaramma, a women’s collective leader from rural Karnataka, that ought to be heeded by everyone who enters the field of development seeking to bring about changes in other people’s lives:

Work with us, not for us; don’t tell us what to do to change our lives but share your knowledge and skills so we can figure out how to do it; you cannot do much for us economically, but help us eradicate the poverty of our ideas and dreams — show us new ways of understanding the world. Help us be heard by those who don’t listen to us. And when we find the path we wish to tread, first, walk in front of us; then, when we are stronger, walk beside us; and finally, when we are truly strong, walk behind us, so that if we should stumble and fall, you will be there to help us get up and walk again.


Srilatha Batliwala's book 'Engaging with Empowerment - An Intellectual and Experiential Journey', is available from Scholars without Borders

Read more articles on Pathways of Women's Empowerment on 50.50

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData