“It is nearly customary by now to begin a conceptual article on empowerment by lamenting how confused the concept has become over the last decade” - Jay Drydyk (2013)
I have often noticed a repeated cycle of puzzlement, confusion and subsequent attempt at clarification of the meaning of “women’s empowerment” in contemporary development writing. Literature reviews of the empowerment concept have listed over 30 different definitions and over 100 different indicators for its measurement (Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Upadhyay et al., 2014), while researchers and policy-makers periodically call for more research into ‘clarifying’ and ‘improving’ its measurement. I often feel such long lists of definitions and indicators confuse more than they clarify. When authors simply list countless – often mutually incompatible – interpretations, I am left feeling anything can signify empowerment, if one argues sufficiently long and hard.
An egregious example of this is the debate over whether it is ever possible for a person, group or organization of privilege to ‘empower’ an oppressed person or group. Some argue using one’s privilege to ‘help’ an oppressed person is no help at all, only oppressed people can ‘empower’ themselves. Others argue waiting for oppressed people to ‘empower’ themselves is an excuse for relinquishing responsibility. Both groups argue ‘empowerment’ is a problematic term, but for opposite reasons: One group sees the concept as advancing undue interference, another as advocating laissez-faire politics. By failing to clarify what we mean by the term ‘empowerment’, we thus end up talking past each other instead of forging constructive conversations.
It is for this reason that Joanna Morrison, Jolene Skordis-Worrall and I recently published a paper in Social Indicators Research which organizes the various meanings of empowerment along with arguments for and against each meaning into one unified framework. We developed our classification after more than five years of research on women’s empowerment in global health and development, drawing heavily on arguments from feminist and political philosophy. Our modest hope is that future researchers, educators and policy-makers will find our framework useful for making explicit their assumptions when they say are promoting or measuring “women’s empowerment”. By encouraging greater precision in the use of the term ‘empowerment’, we may all move one step closer to talking to each other rather than past each other.
Read Dr Gram's paper, 'Organising Concepts of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ for Measurement: A Typology'.
Drydyk, J. (2013). Empowerment, agency, and power. Journal of Global Ethics, 9, 249-262.
Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. In (pp. 167-198). London: Wiley.
Ibrahim, S. & Alkire, S. (2007). Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for Internationally Comparable Indicators. Oxford development studies, 35, 379-403.
Upadhyay, U. D., Gipson, J. D., Withers, M., Lewis, S., Ciaraldi, E. J., Fraser, A. et al. (2014). Women's empowerment and fertility: A review of the literature. Social Science & Medicine, 115, 111-120.
Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana Press.
A reflection on the 'risk behaviours' that are enforced and encouraged by outdated and rigid masculine constructs in Myanmar and how they lead to poor health outcomes.
A reflection on the Engendering Men's Health event with Grayson Perry on 14th October 2019
When I was barely a few days old, my parents decided to circumcise me – a practice done by a majority of the Muslim population of Malaysia. I didn’t know this was considered wrong by some, or even an anomaly until years later when I joined Medical school in the UK. My family also had no clue that what they’ve done could be perceived as wrong.
Sometimes the summits of mountains may be reached, yet their presence still be beyond the chasms of deep-rooted valleys. In these valleys, the challenges for why we climb live and lurk. Just over a week ago, I sat mesmerised in the front row of an event to congratulate and witness the words of this years ‘Man Booker’ prize, Dr Jokha Alharthi, the first Omani woman to receive her storytelling translated into the English Language. She also holds a PhD in Arab literature.Alongside Jokha on the panel was Professor Marilyn Booth, the translator of 'Celestial Bodies', and Dr Elif Shafak, the most read woman novelist in Turkey and whose writing has created a worldwide phenomenon of speaking stories with power and potency that otherwise would remain crestfallen in silence.