Women’s Empowerment as
a Variable in International
Anju Malhotra and Sidney Ruth Schuler
The empowerment of women has been widely acknowledged as an important goal in international development. But the meanings and terminologies associated with this concept vary, and methods for systematically measuring and tracking changes in levels of empowerment are not well established. A diverse body of literature has emerged regarding the conceptualization and measurement of women’s empowerment and its relationships with other variables of interest in international development. Drawing from a review of theoretical, methodological, and empirical literature on empowerment from the fields of demography, sociology, anthropology, and economics, this chapter attempts to clarify basic definitional and conceptual issues and identifies common threads in the various definitions used. It then discusses some of the key issues to be addressed in measuring women’s empowerment empirically, highlighting points on which important progress has been made as well as challenges that remain.
The World Bank’s Empowerment and Poverty Reduction: A Sourcebook defines empowerment in its broadest sense as the “expansion of freedom of choice and action” (Narayan 2002, xviii). Although this applies to women as well as to other disadvantaged or socially excluded groups, it is important to acknowledge that women’s empowerment encompasses some unique additional elements. First, women are not just one group among various disempowered subsets of society (the poor, ethnic minorities, and so on); they are a cross-cutting category of individuals that overlaps with all these other groups. Second, household and interfamilial relations are a central locus of women’s disempowerment in a way that is not true for other disadvantaged groups.