Empowering Women

The term "empowerment" has become one of the most widely used development terms. Women's groups, non-governmental development organizations, activists, politicians, governments and international agencies refer to empowerment as one of their goals. Yet it is one of the least understood in terms of how it is to be measured or observed. It is used precisely because this word has now been one of the fashionable concepts to include in policies/programmes/projects that there is a need to clarify and come up with tentative definitions.

Women constitute more than 50% of the population, undertake most of the work (two thirds) but only receive one tenth of the total income rather than men. The working hours of women are longer than that of men, often 12-16 hours per day. In addition to their domestic responsibilities in child care, women have to be responsible for housework, such as fetching firewood, water and cooking and even hard work as ploughing and raking, planting, transplanting and harvesting. Women have to suffer from continuing under nutrition and two thirds of them are anemic. Rural women lack sex education and have poor health due to frequent pregnancies. The illiterate women especially lack of information on balanced diet, family planning, house cleaning and other information to improve their health and the quality of life. They have lower status and low paid occupations, lower economic positions so they are less conscious and lack self-confidence. They have a few books and a little time to read so they can not appreciate the benefits of reading and have no motivation for reading.

The Concept of Empowerment:

Empowerment has become a widely used word. In spheres as different as management and labor unions, health care and ecology, banking and education, one hears of empowerment taking place. The popular use of the word also means that it has been overextended and applied in circumstances that clearly do not involve much power acquisition beyond some symbolic activity or event. It is also a concept that does not merely concern personal identity but brings out a broader analysis of human rights and social justice.

The term empowerment has been bandied about so much in recent years that there is now a genuine danger of it being co-opted as a 'development buzzword' that will meet the same fate as terms such as 'decentralization', 'people's participation' etc. After attempting a review of literature, Shetty (1992) comes to the conclusion that empowerment is easy to 'intuit' but complex to define. But while it may be difficult to define it, one is able to understand its meaning when one sees the manifestation of what it implies. "Thus an empowered individual would be one who experiences a sense of self-confidence and self-worth; a person who critically analyzes his/her social and political environment; a person who is able to exercise control over decisions that affect his/her life". An attempt is made in this paper to examine how a literacy campaign has brought about women's empowerment. The nature of empowerment renders it difficult to define. On the one hand, it is often referred to as a goal for many development programmes/projects. On the other hand, it can also be conceived as a process that people undergo, which eventually leads to changes. Nelly Stromquist, for instance, defines empowerment as "a process to change the distribution of power both in interpersonal relations and in institutions through out society" while Lucy Lazo describes it as "a process of acquiring, providing, bestowing the resources and the means or enabling the access to a control over such means and resources".

Given the above, the term is therefore more relevant to the marginalized groups the poor, the illiterates, the indigenous communities and of course, cutting across these categories, the women. Namtip Aksornkool looks at the individual level when she cites Paz's definition of empowerment as "the ability to direct and control one's own life". "It is a process in which women gain control over their own lives by knowing and claiming their rights at all levels of society at the international, local, and household levels. Self-empowerment means that women gain autonomy, are able to set their own agenda and are fully involved in the economic, political and social decision-making process."

To add to the already complex nature of empowerment, it was also pointed out that it is difficult to come out with a general definition since it can be somehow determined by the respective cultural contexts. The relativity of empowerment, although in a different sense, is one of the important features discussed in Ms.Lazo's paper. She argues that" empowerment is a moving state; it is continuum that varies in degree of power. It is relative…One can move from an extreme state of absolute lack of power to the other extreme of having absolute power." Empowerment can have four components: cognitive, psychological, economic and political.

According to Ms.Stromquist, the cognitive component would include the 'women are understanding of their conditions of subordination and the causes of such conditions at both micro and macro levels of society. It involves acquiring new knowledge to create a different understanding of gender relations as well as destroying old beliefs that structure powerful gender ideologies". The psychological component, on the other hand, would include the "development of feelings that women can act upon to improve their condition. This means formation of the belief that they can succeed in change efforts."

According to Stromquist The economic component "requires that women can be able to engage in a productive activity that will allow them some degree of autonomy, no matter how small and hard to obtain at the beginning". The case study of Ms.Lazo demonstrates how socio-economic aid (through granting of revolving funds, marketing assistance and product development) has helped in the setting up of micro-enterprises run by women.

The political component would encompass the "ability to organize and mobilize for change. Consequently, an empowerment process must involve not only individual awareness but collective awareness and collective action. The notion of collective action is fundamental to the aim of attaining social transformation" (Stromquist).

It is clear that women can be empowered individually, the feminist vision is one where women are able to articulate a collective voice and demonstrate collective strength. It was also stressed that incorporating the feminist perspective in the concept of empowerment implies a long-term re-designing of societies that will be based on democratic relationships. According to Ms.Dighe talks about empowerment as dealing with strategic rather than practical gender needs.

Indicators of Empowerment:

Understanding that empowerment is a complex issue with varying interpretations in different societal, national and cultural contexts, there is some listing of indicators.

At the level of woman and her household:

. Participation in crucial decision-making processes;

. Extent of sharing of domestic work by men;

. Extent to which a woman takes control of her reproductive functions and decides on family size;

. Extent to which a woman is able to decide where the income she has earned will be channeled to;

.feeling and expression of pride and value in her work;

. Self-confidence and self-esteem; and

. Ability to prevent violence.

At the community / organizational level:

. Existence of women's organizations;

. Allocation of funds to women and women's projects;

. Increased number of women leaders at village, district, state and national levels;

. Involvement of women in the design, development and application of technology;

. Participation in community programmes, productive enterprises, politics and arts;

. Involvement of women in non-traditional tasks;

. Increased training programmes for women; and

. Exercising her legal rights when necessary;

At the national level:

. Awareness of her social and political rights;

. Integration of women in the general national development plan;

. Existence of women's networks and publications;

. Extent to which women are officially visible and recognized; and

. The degree to which the media take on women's issues.

Facilitating and Constraining Factors of Empowerment

Empowerment does not take place in a vacuum. In the same way that Ms.Lazo talks about women's state of powerlessness as a result of "a combination and interaction of environmental factors, "one can also discuss the condition/factors the can hasten or hinder empowerment. As above, the listing is a preliminary one based on the discussions.

Facilitating factors

. Existence of women's organizations;

. Availability of support systems for women;

. Availability of women-specific data and other relevant information;

. Availability of funds

. Feminist leadership;

. Networking;

. Favorable media coverage;

. Favorable policy climate.

Constraining factors :

. Heavy work load of women;

. Isolation of women from each other;.

. Illiteracy;

. Traditional views that limit women's participation;

. No funds;

. Internal strife/militarization/wars;

. Disagreements/conflicts among women's groups;

. Structural adjustment policies;

. Discriminatory policy environment;

. Negative and sensational coverage of media.

Strategies for the Future :

Empowerment through education is ideally seen as a continuous holistic process with cognitive, psychological, economic and political dimensions in order to achieve emancipation. Given the complexity of political, societal and international interrelations, one has to systematically think about the strategies and concrete proposals for future action if one hopes to achieve such a goal.

a) Education

The formal and non-formal education systems would need to be considered. It would be important to analyze the gender content and to ascertain the manner in which it is addressed/not addressed in the educational system. On the basis of the analysis, curriculum changes would need to be brought about. Likewise it would be important to reorient the teachers on gender issues so that overall gender sensitization in the educational system could be brought about. In concrete terms, this would mean ;

. Reorienting and re-educating policy makers;

. Securing equal access for boys and girls in education;

.Holding workshops/seminars for teachers

. Revising teaching materials;

. Producing materials in local languages;

-Implementing special programmes for women in the field of Adult Education;

. Incorporating issues such as tradition, race, ethnicity, gender sensitization, urban and

Rural contexts in the programmes;

. Raising awareness on the necessity for health care;

. To show them how macro level mismanagement is responsible for their loss of jobs

. Focusing on parents as role models

b) Research/Documentation

The importance of doing participatory and action research was underscored. It was considered important to organize workshops to train grass-roots women to conduct participatory research where they could develop skills to critically analyze their existing conditions. This will facilitate their organizing for collective action. The guiding principle, should framed for women in a language and manner that was understandable to them.

Research as a strategy would therefore entitle:

. Disseminating information;

. Producing and disseminating information leaflets regarding women's rights;

. Referring to women in all national and UN statistics;

. Collecting oral history of women;

. Documenting and analyzing successful and failed progrmmes of the women's movements;

. Analyzing successful advocacy cases in order to learn about the arguments that pursued policy makers;

. Collecting cross-cultural caste studies

. Constantly evaluating research; and

.Involving women as agents (instead of objects) of research

c) Campaigns

If one is to have an effect in society, it is important to undertake campaign and lobby activities that will put the issue of gender in the minds of the legislators, policy-makers and the large public. This will therefore mean:

. Pushing for a dialogue between stake holders;

. Raising gender issues within the national policy arena;

. Pressuring to upgrade women's bureaus (which are a result of the UN Decade for Women) into ministries of women's affairs;

. Lobbying for sex-equity and affirmative action legislation;

. Lobbying for "counter structural adjustment policies";

. Organizing pressure groups (like "Greenpeace");

. Using consumer power for boycotts;

. Securing access to information;

. Demanding child care centers; and

. Producing video and CDs, T-Shirts etc.

d) Networking :

Through networking, it would be possible to share experiences and learn from one another. In this manner, understanding and solidarity among women's organizations, development organizations (governmental/non-government) and multilateral agencies could be forged. This would therefore entail networking at the national, regional and international levels. Moreover, at the international level, South-South linkages were considered to be particularly important.

. Organizing at least one meeting year of gender sensitive organizations;

. Bringing together donor agencies, governments and NGOs;

. Setting up a south-south cooperation and exchange;

. Linking women's movements all over the world;

. Establishing alternative credit schemes that offer women access to funds.

e) Training :

In our societies, there is a gender division of labour which dictates the kind of training one acquires. If one talks about women's empowerment, it is important that women hve access to the different training opportunities previously denied them. This therefore means:

. Preparing for jobs that are usually not open to them;

. Providing income-generating projects tht are market-oriented (not welfre-oriented projects); and

. Training capable female leaders at all levels.

f) Media :

Considering the attitudinal barriers in traditional societies and the role which the mass media play in reinforcing them, the following strategies were advanced:

. Organizing mass media campaigns to raise awareness;

. Creating a social climate friendly to women's issues;

. Resisting the tendency to send women back to the kitchen; and

. disseminating information about conferences that will take place in the coming years.

It was pointed out that one of the key determinants of successful programmes is the extent to which they had taken the multiple roles of women into account and how they helped in alleviating the burden.

These are the suggested components for Women Empowerment:

. Promotion of gender awareness

. Lessons on health and nutrition;

. Integration of technical, entrepreneurial, cultural and communal aspects;

. Information and lessons on politics; and

. Provision of planning and thinking skills.

It was also necessary to clarify the goals of women's education. The some more important objectives before us are:

. To eliminate illiteracy;

. To develop self-esteem and self-confidence;

. To have knowledge about their bodies and sexuality;

. To have the ability to make their own decisions and negotiate;

. To raise the women's awareness of their civil rights;

. To provide skills for income generation;

. To make participation in community/society more effective; and

. To prepare them to be good women leaders.

Literacy is a tool that can help women and men understand themselves, their communities and society at large. Literacy involves change because it offers possibilities of new ways of looking and doing things. Crucial to education work are other complementary activities such as those in the areas of legal reform, transformation of international economic and political relations, action-oriented research and networking. It was stressed that it is equally important to convince men that better education of women will be beneficial to the entire family and the society as a whole.


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About the Authors

* N.V.S.Suryanarayana, M.Sc (Chem)., M.Sc (Geo)., M.A (Eng)., M.A (Phil)., M.A (CC&E)., PGDCA., PGDEPM., PGDIPM., CFA., CPFN., CIG., C.Yoga&Con., M.Ed., M.Phil. (Ph.D). Teaching Associate, Department of Education, Andhra University Campus, Vizianagaram, (AP)., India,e-Mail – suryanarayananistala@yahoo.in. ** G. Himabindu, M.A(Pol.)., M.Li.Sc., M.A (Edn.)., B.Ed., M.Phil., (Ph.D). Teaching Associate, Department of Politics., Andhra University Campus, Vizianagaram. (AP)., India e-Mail- gotetihimabindu@yahoo.com N.V.S.Bramaramba M.A(Pol.)., M.A (Edn.)., M.Li.Sc., (Ph.D.). Teacher, APSWER.Jr.College, Tallapalem, Visakhapatnam (AP)., India.