Since the late 1970s, the term ‘empowerment’ has been liberally applied by academics and aid workers in the English-speaking world, including in social services, social psychology, public health, adult literacy and community development. The field of international development has also embraced the term enthusiastically and the idea of empowerment features prominently in the current discourse of international development organisations. Today the word is even more in vogue and has entered the worlds of politics and business.
Though a number of intellectuals initially welcomed the term’s adoption, activists and development professionals, it has in recent times become one of the most misused terms.
For example, opening bank accounts or public toilets in the name of women are acts that are immediately labeled as empowering for them without even looking at whether the targeted women would have the choice of spending the drawn money as they wish or it is for the sake of convenience. Likewise, whether the women for whom the toilets are being constructed are allowed to go out of the houses at all! The concept is thus used in an instrumental manner to highlight other achievements, which may in fact be seen as outcomes rather than treating it for its intrinsic value – the empowered women asking for these facilities to be made available to them!
To understand what is meant by ‘empowerment’, we must revisit the concept. Empowerment refers to the ability of individuals and groups to act in order to ensure their own well-being or their right to participate in decision-making that concerns them. While, we have achieved some success in terms of instilling a sense of confidence, esteem, agency and sense of self in women at individual and community levels, we have not really succeeded at the relational level i.e., ability to negotiate, communicate, gather support and ability to defend self-interests or/and maintaining a sense of self in relationships with others – men and women.
The term has been initially used by the non-governmental organisations, particularly to refer to poor, marginalised and oppressed people, but later on the big players such as the World Bank appropriated it.
Another point that I would like to make is that empowerment is an ongoing process and has to be spatially and temporarily contextualised. A woman in some of the northern states in India taking down the address of a stranger who is visiting her house to meet an absentee member may be an empowering act for that women whereas the same act may be a routine in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Quite a few activities that the younger people indulge in these days were taboo for our earlier generations.
It is needless to emphasise that the presence of enabling and supportive structures facilitate and motivate individuals to engage in the empowering processes. And yet it must be recognised that empowerment is self-acquired and comes from within. That is to say nobody can empower nobody unless there is self-motivation.