Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global/Local World

By Jane L. Parpart; Shirin M. Rai et al. | Go to book overview
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Engaging politics
Beyond official empowerment discourse
Kathleen Staudt

Women winners. Empowered, encouraged, enriched 'e-[m]n' words.

Replace the word women above with another phrase about the disempowered or dispossessed, and you tap late twentieth-century political formulaic rhetoric for new initiatives with the promise to facilitate and accomplish transformations. Whether discussing women, displaced workers, ghetto dwellers or youth, the language is the same. Large-scale, macro-level structures have set the stage that disempowers people, and yet staff from some of those same structures revisit the stage with empowerment language. In this process, do women and other marginalized people acquire power to shift power relations?

In this chapter, I discuss the origins and meanings of the term women's empowerment, arguing that it must be viewed in both process and outcome terms. Women's empowerment involves a process of shifting the (gender) power imbalance within public and private society. Public society is the focus of this chapter, although I recognize that the two cannot be entirely separated. Necessarily, this shift involves power with others in politics: people organized to engage official state and international agencies and/or other organizations. Women's empowerment is also an outcome that can be documented with economic, budgetary and concrete achievements. In this discussion, I thread examples of official international and bilateral technical assistance agencies, examining what they say they do (rhetoric that must be examined critically) versus what they do, with whatever exists as evidence in documents and transparent indicators. Finally, I discuss official empowerment language in the late twentieth-century USA, bipartisan rhetoric that belies an overall context of economic, budgetary and spatial outcomes that have not transformed unequal relations. In so doing, I aim to bridge the global to local of the US–Mexico borderlands, making the bottom-line argument that women's organized and critical political voices and justice agendas empower women. Top-down institutional rhetoric can translate into resources, commitments, legitimacy and policy/legal principles that foster justice outcomes.

By official institutions, I refer to public agencies that generate financial support from tax-paying citizens and residents (including immigrants) in (multiple) states. I focus especially on those agencies that claim to foster


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