Confessions of a gender advisor: Why I avoid the word “empowerment”

Sabine Garbarino is an independent gender and inclusion consultant specialising in economic development programming.

I have a confession: I’ve recently banned colleagues at a private sector development programme in Liberia from using the term empowerment or women’s economic empowerment or WEE.  Here is why (and it’s not just my personal dislike of an unfortunate abbreviation): 

Language matters

Over the last years, I’ve noticed that training programmes have turned into empowerment initiatives, government handouts are now called empowerment grants, and good old gender advisors have been renamed WEE Advisors. Don’t get me wrong: I welcome the increasing focus on women and girls by development actors. However, I’ve also noticed loose usage of the term ‘empowerment’ for all things concerning women and the world of work. This is not just causing unnecessary confusion or alienating potential allies; it wrongly suggests that there is a magic fix (or a quick result) to deeply entrenched gender inequalities. 

Empowerment is going mainstream

A lot of excellent academic and conceptual work has been done to define empowerment (my personal must-read summary is Naila Kabeer’s work). In practice, as empowerment goes mainstream, there is increasingly a gap between this and the reality of many development programmes. On our journey to make the GROW Liberia programme one that is increasingly transformative on the Gender Equality Continuum, we recognised the importance of language and terminology in this process. Responsibility for gender and inclusion is shared across the programme team. Importantly, naming things for what they are helps us to clearly define our activities and objectives, rather than hide behind a vague notion of empowerment. So, when recruiting female Village Coordinators (VCs) to spread agronomic practices on cocoa farming in Northern Liberia, our activities included deliberately engaging male community leaders to ensure the newly recruited female VCs were able to work alongside and not as deputies to the existing male VCs. 

“I’ve noticed loose usage of the term ‘empowerment’ for all things concerning women and the world of work. This is not just causing unnecessary confusion or alienating potential allies; it wrongly suggests that there is a magic fix.”

The term ‘empowerment’ embodies a lot of wishful thinking

At GROW, we are working with agricultural input dealers to better service the needs of their diverse client base, in order to address the input gap female Liberian farmers currently face. Providing separate training for female cocoa farmers allows us to focus on gendered responsibilities along the value chain and increase quality and income of farming households. We have designed competitions to build solar driers – which can reduce the time women spend on drying cocoa – and reinforced use by introducing differentiated pricing that takes moisture into account. We believe these initiatives can have a positive impact on women. However, we need to be careful with making the statement that these promising first steps automatically result in new formal and informal rules which enable women to participate on an equal footing in economies and societies (aka that they’re now empowered women).  

The word ‘empowerment’ can unnecessarily alienate allies

Gender transformative programming in economic development programmes only works if partners share this commitment. Talking to cooperatives trading in cocoa in eastern Liberia, we learnt male leadership has very little interest in empowering women.  We quickly found out why: the cooperative strongly associated the term empowerment with women’s reproductive health and therefore outside their remit. Dropping the term from the conversation, we learned that the cooperative is clearly interested in adopting their outreach and training programmes to target women, who they know play an important part in drying cocoa and ensuring its quality. 

The increasing interest of large parts of the development community is an opportunity for women’s economic empowerment to go mainstream.  More development actors taking an interest in women and their interaction with the world of paid work provides an opportunity to build new and important alliances. A shared and deliberate use of language is an important starting point. So let’s be respectful with the term empowerment and use it only where it is due, namely—using Naila Kabeer’s words—where programmes “not simply […] create more female entrepreneurs, farmers and wage workers but also […] dismantle some of the barriers that perpetuate gender inequality in the economy and the wider society.”  

Featured image: GROW Liberia, author provided.

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11 Responses to “Confessions of a gender advisor: Why I avoid the word “empowerment””
  1. Charles Abani

    While I get the point of linking economic growth and changing norms, to assume that the former (on its own) may not ultimately lead to the latter is also flawed. More money in women’s hands, in all likelihood, WILL lead them to more empowered decision (a theory of change may rightly posit) – even if it takes longer (impact assessments might not reveal this in the short run). For me, this issue is more about how ‘intentionally’ we work on connecting the two dimensions purposefully, while being mindful that ’empowerment’ is also an attractor to various folks to participate (or not). This requires deep analysis and ‘right-fitting’ programmes contextually, rather than just banning the word ’empowerment’

    • Ilse Balstra

      Thanks Charles for your response, I very much agree.
      In addition, while I think language indeed matters and discussions about the words we use are good, I think BANNING colleagues to use a word like “empowerment” does not really portray a workplace environment I would feel happy to work in.

    • Sabine Garbarino

      Dear Charles, thanks for your thoughts. I agree, money in the hands of women can lead to more independent decision-making. This is not necessarily the case though: I have seen plenty of occasions where more money in women’s hands has led to an increase in intra-family tensions and exacerbated violence against women. Intentionally working on connecting the two dimensions purposefully as you say is a great way to put it: for me that would mean, questioning assumptions, actively looking for opportunities to facilitate money indeed leading to empowerment and carefully thinking if interventions unintentionally puts women at risk. To be honest, we haven’t really banned the term “empowerment” – as part of the programme’s commitment to be deliberate in our work, we had an internal conversation when (and with whom) we should use it and when we should not – but the entry for the blog was too good not to use it. Thanks again!

  2. Emily Brown

    Thanks for this Sabine….really aligns with experience and observations too as a gender advisor with Oxfam. A recent AWID report found that despite global increases in spend on “women’s empowerment” globally……. ‘99% of gender-related international aid fails to reach women’s rights and feminist organizations directly.’ This speaks directly to our sectors lack of clarity and transparency (not by accident) on the politics that lie behind our WE work….and on the huuuuuge variance in how WE programmes are defined in terms of the politics and intention of various INGO approaches. The extent/depth of our feminist analysis, partnerships and theories of change. The AWID report is amazing and well worth a read for anyone trying to see how we as a sector can think more seriously about our role as conscious/unconscious supporter – or diverter – of funds to the truely transformative work that’s led by women themselves: AWID Towards a Feminist Funding Ecosystem

    • Sabine Garbarino

      Thanks Emily! I had not seen the AWID report so thanks for sharing. Some tough and important messages. The concerns on the “generic funding” resonates strongly with me. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve had arguing that there is no such thing as gender-neutral and that a business as usual approach is very likely to reinforce existing inequalities – gender or otherwise. Thanks again!

  3. gawain

    I like how the author notes that “The word ‘empowerment’ can unnecessarily alienate allies” in cases where your allies do not, in fact, want to empower women. But good essay. I wish there had been more reflection on the notion of who bestows, or em-powers, whom? There’s a lot of wishful thinking – but also somewhat retrograde thinking in the idea that women can be empowered by external interventions. To paraphrase James Baldwin, power is not something that anybody can be given. power is something people take.

  4. Wanjiru Gichuhi

    I am an old gender advisor. I am involved in empowering women through women groups. Empowering through targetted women projects. The aim is to assist the women to create wealth so that they can undertake roles allocated to them in the Church without resulting to fund raising year in and year out. This has been a journey of one year now. We encounter setbacks, challenges along the way in this transformation journey but we are still afloat. I believe whatever we do to change the status of women in the society through various approaches is ’empowering’ them. I am still sceptical in use of the word ‘transformative’ and i have challenges i applying it because it denotes there is a quick fix in women/girls improving the status of women. I would use empowerment any time.

  5. Couldn’t agree more as having been someone who has used this term. It’s tough when it is the norm but in a recent gender strategy that we worked on, our recommendation was “high-bar, low admission fee.” We talked explicitly about being careful not to overstate but also not to under-reach. How to widen the net beyond the usual suspects?

    We have also found aspects of the Gender Equality Continuum helpful but it still has its own blindspots related to how gender barriers are compounded when gender presentation intersects with other social identities- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, dis/abilities ++. Gender is still presented as a binary of men and women, boys and girls without acknowledging trans and non-binary folks, Hijra, what our First Nations, Metis and Innu in Canada/Turtle Island call Two-spirited. I’m still arriving in my understanding of the nuances and the right language but I look to activists in these spaces and movement organizations like AWID, Femnet who are, yes, grossly underfunded.

    • Sabine Garbarino

      Dear Nancy. Thanks a lot for your thoughts. Very much sympathise with the challenge to deepen gender analysis through the intersection with social identities. It sounds easy on paper (and everyone seems to jump to the term intersectionality very quickly!) but the practice is hard. Any more insights, please do share.
      I like your approach of “being careful not to overstate but also not to under-reach”. It raises the question of depth vs breadth of impact as well. As some funders have started integrating ambitious targets related to reaching women, I’m worried this will incentivise the targeting of women in existing (underpaid and undervalued) roles rather than ‘force’ programmes to address underlying structural inequalities. Thanks again.