Empowerment: A Buzzword that Needs Revisiting

By: Saraswati Raju
Women’s empowerment, the often used concept in the contemporary discourse on development, needs revisiting. The empowering processes have to embrace men as well to address gender-biased structures, frameworks and rigid mind-sets for effective transformation.
Gender Justice Life

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, and 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. Associated with alternative approaches to development questioning the top-down model of development, the term has been initially used by the non-governmental organisations, particularly to refer to poor, marginalised and oppressed people. Later on, however, the big players such as the World Bank appropriated it. Today the word is even more in vogue and has entered the worlds of politics and business.

Though the term’s adoption by international institutions was initially welcomed by a number of intellectuals, activists and development professionals, it has now become one of the most misused terms in recent times. For example, opening bank accounts or public toilets in the name of women are acts that are immediately labelled as empowering for them without even looking at whether the targeted women would have the choice of spending the drawn money as they wish. 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— where the ‘empowered’ women ask for these facilities to be made available to them—rather than treating them for its intrinsic value.

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.

Frankly speaking, Indian government has instituted a plethora of schemes for the well-being of women and the empowering process is an integral part of such schemes without really unravelling the socio-cultural constructs within which women continue to be framed even now. Despite the fact that women of the younger generation are pursuing their dreams much ardently as compared to the women of the earlier decades, I want to argue that withholding the glamour and an invoked sense of articulate modernity (Tara and Ilavarasan,  2011), women, even in new generation jobs such as IT and BPO sectors, continue to operate within ‘this far and no further’ paradigm; the ‘no further’ limit being (re)constituted by persistent gendered constructs that encode women’s primary place within domesticity even as the confining vocabulary undergoes some cosmetic changes. The potentially liberating notion of women thus does not work in its entirety in empowering processes.

In furthering my arguments, I borrow from Kagitcibasi’s concept of the ‘autonomous-relational’ self (Kagitcibas, 2005). Seeing autonomy and agency being used extensively and frequently interchangeably, Kagitcibasi questions the often posed separation of autonomy/agency and their intersections with relatedness. According to him, the separation between agency and relatedness has a root in the Euro-American cultural context with its ideological emphasis on individualism. For him, autonomy and heteronomy—the condition of being under the domination of an outside authority—are two opposites of the same spectrum. A somewhat moderate version would be relatedness of oneself with the others. An individual can have interdependent as also independent self in a ‘dialectic mutuality’ or ‘coexistence of opposites’. Thus, education and paid work status can impart a certain sense of individuate identity and yet such identity can still be circumscribed by self-efficacy and negation vis-à-vis the presence of relational self with the familial other.

What it means, in simpler words is that in the Indian context it is problematic to concentrate on ‘women only’ constituency without embracing the ‘familial other’, mainly men. It is essentially because of the asymmetrical power dynamics between women and men that often culminate into the relatively marginalised as well as oppressed positions of women. I am reminded of an event—there was to be a meeting of the stakeholders to discuss the issues surrounding adverse chid sex ratios including the incidents of sex-selective abortions etc. On being asked, how the meeting was, the organisers proudly told me, “great success, the hall was almost full”. There was a confused silence to my next question, “how many men”. “Why men, it is the woman who aborts the foetus,” somebody blurted. “Yes, it is the woman because she is the one who is carrying the foetus—she has to go if it is to be aborted. But who takes the decision is the question, one needs to pose,”was my interjection. Indeed who takes the decision? Would she be able to take such a decision in the presence of a firm ‘no’ from the male counterparts?  Let us assume that older women of the households or the mother of the unborn child had taken the call. But then there has to be deeper probe as to why a mother, who is supposedly the best ally of the child would take such a step? It is an age-old exposure to the societal norms that women internalise—in this case the overwhelmingly strong preference for sons, and adopt a complying position with authoritative strictures.

Involving men is a complex issue, no doubt. It has been pointed out that having men in the women’s orbit may jeopardise and/or hijack the hard-earned spaces that women have created in order to gain autonomy and agency. There are ways to overcome such pitfalls—it is with the consensus amongst women that men can be incorporated in joint programmes (Raju and Leonard, 2000). There are other issues such as domestic violence against women where men are the primary perpetrators. There are conceptual and theoretical claims and counterclaims concerning the causes behind such happenings. However, there is an emerging plea that domestic violence cannot be curtailed only by women taking the corrective measures and precautionary steps. Given the enormity and regularity with which such crimes are being committed, often undifferentiated across the age-cohorts, it has been increasingly emphasised by the civil society organisations and experts in the field that men and boys need to be part of the solution. This is because it is about breaking down entrenched gender-biased structures and frameworks skewed often in favour of men, confronting rigid mindsets and attitudes which need to be addressed from early on in one’s lifetime.

Efforts in this direction are on way by several institutions and civil society actors. For example, in August 2016, the Asia Foundation and the Centre for Social Research (CSR) signed a charter for men on preventing violence against women which will soon be placed in offices, educational institutions, and public spaces across India. Most participants were men from men’s groups, youth leaders, government representatives, the police, lawyers and experts, reiterating the need to include more men and boys in the discourse of women’s empowerment, which has often been aimed at women only. Such essentialising leaves the questioning and realigning the domain of asymmetrical power dynamics between women and men unattended.

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 should be remembered that empowerment is an ongoing process which takes place in diverse institutional, material and discursive settings. The structural contexts in a given region have a normative frame within which women are located letting them exercise or restrain their choices. Empowering processes have, therefore, 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 woman whereas the same act may be a routine in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. It means that ‘one size fits all’ paradigm cannot work in as diverse a country as India.

End Note

Empowerment has become a buzzword in developmental discourses. However, in the patriarchal structural framework of India, men have to be an integral part of the concept for its effective implementation.


  • Kagitcibasi, C. 2005. Autonomy and relatedness in cultural context: Implications for self and family. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 36 (4): 403-422.
  • Raju, S. and A. Leonard. 2000. Men as Supportive Partners in Reproductive Health: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality.
  • Tara, S. and P. V. Ilavarasan. 2011. Work: A Qualitative Study of Unmarried Women Call Center Agents in India. Marriage & Family Review, 47: 197–212.

The author was formerly at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. saraswati_raju@hotmail.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *