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

February 27, 2020

     By Maria Faciolince     

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.”