Rethinking em(power)ment, gender and development
Jane L. Parpart, Shirin M. Rai and Kathleen Staudt
Empowerment has become a popular, largely unquestioned 'good' aspired to by such diverse and contradictory institutions as the World Bank, Oxfam and many more radical non-government organizations (NGOs). Initially, the term was most commonly associated with alternative approaches to development, with their concern for local, grassroots community-based movements and initiatives, and their growing disenchantment with mainstream, top-down approaches to development. More recently, empowerment has been adopted by mainstream development agencies as well, albeit more to improve productivity within the status quo than to foster social transformation. Empowerment has thus become a 'motherhood' term, comfortable and unquestionable, something very different institutions and practices seem to be able to agree on. Yet this very agreement raises important questions. Why is empowerment acceptable to such disparate bedfellows? What can empowerment mean if it is the watchword of such different and often conflicting development approaches and institutions? How can such a fluid, poorly defined term address issues of women's empowerment in a still largely male dominated world?
We are not the only scholars raising these questions. Empowerment, especially for women, has been on the minds of a number of scholars and practitioners, most notably Haleh Afshar (1998), Jo Rowlands (1997), Naila Kabeer (1994) and Srilatha Batliwala (1994). However, most interrogations of the term have focused on ways to improve its effectiveness at the local level. The emphasis has been on grassroots, participatory methods and their empowerment potential for the 'poorest of the poor' (especially women). While a welcome antidote to the development community's long-standing preference for state-led, top-down development, we believe this focus on the local also has profound limitations. In particular, it tends to underplay or ignore the impact of global and national forces on prospects for poor people's (especially women's) empowerment, and encourages a rather romantic equation between empowerment, inclusion and voice that papers over the complexities of em(power)ment, both as a process and a goal.
We propose a new approach to women's empowerment, focusing on four issues. First, since even the most marginalized, impoverished communities are affected by global and national forces, we believe empowerment must be