Empowerment: What is it? Who needs it?

06/11/2013 § Leave a comment

Marge Berer

Brussels, 24 October, 2013

Marge’s speech to an interdisciplinary workshop – empowerment: do we speak the same language? Organised by the Belgian Platform on Population and Development within the Health Working Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Thanks for inviting me to speak not just once but twice today! Mylène has provided a broad conceptual description of empowerment. What I will try to do is talk about the practical issue of how to achieve the empowerment of women and raise some questions about what that actually means.

Let’s start with what is most obvious. We are all subject to many kinds of control and authority in our lives – political, legal, professional and work-related, medical, cultural, social, ethnic, familial, and religious control and authority. But in almost all societies, women and girls are also subject to male authority, which is exercised through all of these other forms of authority.

The call for empowerment of women and girls, who are half the world’s population, has primarily been in response to and rejection of male authority over women, and defined primarily as a need for achieving gender equality. For example, in the UK in the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement put forward seven demands:

1. Equal pay for equal work
2. Equal education and equal opportunities
3. Free contraception and abortion on demand (thus, equality in bodily autonomy)
4. Free 24 hour nurseries
5. Legal and financial independence for all women
6. The right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians
7. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of male violence. An end to the laws, assumptions and institutions that perpetuate male dominance and men’s aggression towards women.

It’s 40 years later, and we have still not achieved any of these demands fully, though many aspects of women’s lives have improved greatly in regard to most of them. But I believe the extent of the success has been more limited than one might have expected because there is much more getting in the way than merely gender discrimination. What is involved is access to power and the exercise of power itself, and the changes in who women are if they succeed in becoming independent, autonomous, and empowered – which is something to fear for many men and many women too.

The word “empowerment” implies that women lack power, which in turn may be taken to imply that women are helpless or victims. We are often presented that way, for example as “victims” or as “survivors”, for example of rape or violence or trafficking. And indeed, many women do indeed lack power in multiple ways.

Women Can Do It is an example of an early women’s empowerment training programme originated by Norwegian Labour Party Women, as long ago as the 1970s. Their aim was to help more women participate in society, to have half the power being half the population, and holding as many formal positions and as much authority as men. They developed a training course for women that involved building confidence, learning the rules of political and organisational work, and giving the participants the courage to speak out and take part in decision-making processes, participate in society, in NGOs, in political parties, speak up at work and in the family. They argued that women often hold back from speaking their minds, worried that they will not be as eloquent as men, or not be listened to, or be ridiculed or neglected at meetings. The training was also an opportunity for women to meet and form networks. This programme has been conducted in more than 25 countries worldwide, according to Wikipedia. It covered the following topics: democracy and women’s participation, communication, argumentation, speeches, debates, working with the media, negotiation, resolution of conflicts, networking, advocacy and campaigning, and violence against women.

On the other hand, as the iconic Chinese slogan tells us, women hold up half the sky. This wonderful slogan aimed to challenge that fact that women often held up the less valued parts of the sky, with little or no recognition or reward for doing so and little space left to participate in more highly valued activities. But, clearly, the issue is not that women have no power but that they carry many responsibilities in a disempowered condition, that is, in ways that give others control over their rights, choices, decisions, actions, and ultimately, their lives. Women’s acceptance of this condition is inculcated in them from the time they are babies, and to great effect.

Let me illustrate another perspective with a 19th century response to myths about women’s helpless, female condition, through excerpts from a statement made by Sojourner Truth, an African woman in the US who had been a slave, at a Women’s Convention in 1851, entitled:

Ain’t I a Woman?

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon…

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?…

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them…” http://www.sojust.net/speeches/truth_a_woman.html

The men better let them, she said! Ponder that in relation to the term “empowerment”; I’ll come back to it. This speech was 162 years ago and the white men are still in charge, even though the pressure outside the door to get in has become much greater. So let me draw what I think are some important conclusions so far:

1) Although women not having power is about gender discrimination, it is also about many other structural violations of rights and other forms of discrimination as well, race and class being two of them, wrapped up together.

2) While men are often one of the sources, they are not the only source of women’s disempowerment.

For example, given the group session this afternoon on empowerment in health institutions made me recall a study in South Africa where the aim was to reduce the hierarchical distance between health professionals and women patients by asking the health professionals, who called patients by their names, to wear name tags so that the patients would know the name of the health professionals. It later emerged that because a lot of the patients could not read, the effort failed in its intention. Indeed seeing the doctor is often an extremely disempowering experience if the doctor completely controls the conversation about your health problem, whether and how to investigate it, can decide whether it is a real problem or not, and what will be done about it. And when I say the doctor, I mean women doctors too. The unequal relationship with patients – in social and economic class, in level of education and medical knowledge, and in control of the resources of the health system, is a bigger problem than just the sex of the persons involved. The rigid hierarchies within the health profession are also a source of disempowerment for nurses and midwives compared to doctors, to name just one example.

3) Most men are also disempowered in multiple ways, even though they may contribute to the disempowerment of women as well.

This makes any effort to empower girls and women as a matter of public policy a far more complex issue than it is perceived to be in most public policies today.

Next month’s edition of RHM has a paper by Theresa McGovern which looks at what gender equality advocates call the “gender equality machinery” in place both in UN conventions, other international policies, and at country level through case studies of Bangladesh and South Africa. Her paper shows that all these policies and the endless advocacy efforts and discussions that have led to them have indeed improved matters for women to a certain extent and in certain ways, but that many of the barriers are as strong as ever. Let me list the global policies because the number alone is instructive:

• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)
• Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing Platform for Action (1995),
• 23rd Special Session of the UN General Assembly (2000)
• Millennium Summit (2000) and MDG 3 on gender equality
• Monterrey Consensus (2002) which recognized the importance of a holistic approach to development financing and stressed the need to reinforce national capacity-building efforts for gender budgeting
• Commission on the Status of Women (2006)
• Accra Agenda for Action (2008) which proclaimed gender equality as a cornerstone of development , adopted and extended at the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (2011)
• Gender Equality Survey which was added to the Paris Declaration’s monitoring and evaluation activities, also in 2011, and
• Gender Equality Architecture Reform Campaign in 2008 of over 300 women’s organizations which led to setting up of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (usually called UN Women) in 2010.

However, what about the money to fund all this? McGovern finds that UN Women’s budget is only US $235 million per year compared to UNFPA with $934 million and UNDP with $4.8 billion… Moreover, she says, the commitment to investing in women and girls has not been matched by investment in women’s rights or advocacy work. In spite of verbal support for the empowerment of women and girls, with women acknowledged as essential to economic development and societal advancement, women’s rights work is still grossly underfunded. An Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) survey in 2011 of over 1,000 women’s organizations found that only 7% had budgets in 2010 of over half a million US$, 48% had not received core funding, and 52% did not receive multi-year funding. An exception that deserves mention is the Netherlands Ministry of Development Cooperation’s MDG 3 fund that awarded €82 million to 45 gender equality projects over four years, which focused on political involvement, preventing violence against women, and economic empowerment.

Indicators of disempowerment of women
Two of the most important indicators of disempowerment of women are, in my opinion:

1) violence against women and girls, including sexual violence and abuse, which remain almost unchecked all over the world. Violence is grossly disempowering at many levels. In my opinion, as long as girls and women are not safe from violence, their lives can never be considered to be in their own hands.
2) lack of access to safe, legal abortion, which is a form of state violence that prevents women having autonomy over their ability to reproduce and therefore over their own bodies. In the 1970s, we talked about the right to have an abortion as the cornerstone of women’s liberation.

Even violence is not merely a women’s problem, however, because in fact more men suffer from violence than women do. The difference is that men are not just violent towards each other individually, as they are towards women, which one might put down to higher testosterone levels, but also through the structural promotion of and use of violence by states and other organised groups, in war and other forms of armed conflict, in assassinations, mass murder, and so on. In many of these forms of violence, most of the men involved may themselves be disempowered, foot soldiers sent to kill and be killed by leaders who use them to obtain power.

As far as I am aware, those working on violence against women rarely connect this more structural form of violence with gender-based violence. Yet I believe they are connected, just as the practice and experience of violence are connected and handed down from one generation to the next, and until violence can be stopped between and against men, especially young men involved in conflict, and individual violence which brutalises and abuses men as both children and adults, as much as women, in my opinion women and girls haven’t got a chance of seeing an end to gender-based violence.

The terminology of empowerment
Let me talk about the terminology of empowerment now, and being an editor and linguistically particular, examine the verb “to empower”. This verb means “giving power to” which implies someone giving women power. Someone else? If so, who? Men? Families? Male partners? The state? Or can and do women empower themselves, let’s say to the point where being a woman isn’t a barrier any longer – or not? What makes change happen?

This is an important political problem because the answer should influence the content and form of programmes whose aim is empowerment of women and girls.

Let me add still another facet to the problem: The word “empowerment” in relation to women is used in such a way that the true nature of power (as in the “will to power”) is somehow veiled, or made more feminine and benign, and given only a positive connotation, i.e. increased self-confidence, or knowledge as power for doing good, or to be able to work and be independent, because it is for women. And women are always good and doing good, right? Except Margaret Thatcher, of course.

However, by its very nature, power is rarely shared or handed over willingly, or in fact without a fight, often a fight to the death. Sometimes that fight can last hundreds of years, or perhaps as in this case, as I see it, probably forever. No matter how far back in history you go, you will find women who are powerless over the events of their lives, and who are fighting against that power being exercised over them because they are women. You will also find misogyny – hatred of women – then as now. Misogyny is frightening. It is also an under-studied phenomenon, which deserves far more attention with regard to gender equality and women’s empowerment, because it explains a lot.

Coming back to linguistics, in the 1970s, we talked about women’s liberation, not women’s empowerment. This notion was, first and foremost, about women’s liberation from oppression. It wasn’t about obtaining power but about obtaining freedom. “Empowerment” does not carry the same sense as seeking freedom. I never use it. On balance, I prefer “women’s liberation” but it is impossible to use those words or words like “oppression” today. They sound very old-fashioned, as they have a whiff of socialism, and nobody is a socialist these days. Even so, they remain absolutely relevant concepts.

Finally, if “women’s empowerment” remains the order of the day, it is important to ask:
• whether all women want power, or to be empowered,
• whether there is a difference between these two,
• what kind of power – or empowerment – women want, and
• for what ends?

Women in the UK stood for Parliament under Tony Blair and there was a joyous photo of them all, with him standing in the middle, at the beginning of his term as PM. However, many were subjected to ridicule and sexist remarks when they tried to speak, especially on topics of concern to them which the men in the Parliament looked down on.

An early study of why women joined the anti-abortion movement in the US in the 1970s-80s, by Kristin Luker, in a book called Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, was that the women did not want women as a group (or themselves personally) to have the possibility of going beyond the roles of wife, mother and homemaker. Luker shows from these interviews clearly how and why women sought to disempower other women, just as men did. Yet the irony she also discovered was that by becoming active in that movement, anti-abortion women made themselves into more than wives, mothers and homemakers, and didn’t even see it. This is true regarding far more than abortion.

I will conclude by saying that as long as empowerment is linked only or mainly to gender equality, it is reduced to an issue of women’s relationships to men, both individually and at a familial and societal level. I have tried to argue that as important as gender equality is, it is not the only issue involved, but is about many more structural issues and aspects of power and oppression to which most men, as well as most women, are subjected.

Empowerment and inclusion of all
Let me close with a paragraph from the Montevideo consensus from the Latin America & the Caribbean regional meeting on population and development, August 2013:

Affirming that freedom, capacities and the right to take informed decisions, empower persons to develop their potential and participate fully in the economic and social spheres; that the realization of human potential and innovation depend on guaranteed human rights, physical integrity and protection against violence and that the right to health, education, housing and a livelihood ensures full empowerment and inclusion of all…

This is a description of empowerment that I can support.

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