The process through which women acquire individual and collective awareness, which enables them to increase their self-confidence, self-esteem, participation in processes of decision-making and gaining access to the exercise of power, and their capacity to influence the transformation of the structures that produce subordination
The word empowerment is not new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it appears in texts during the second half of the seventeenth century. However, it has acquired a new meaning when used to refer to women’s empowerment, since this is a resignification that has emerged from the practice of the women’s social movement and feminism, where the term empowerment has undergone the greatest theoretical development (Murgialday et al. 2000). The feminist use of the word has its roots in the black power strategy in the fight for civil rights by the African-American population of the United States (Stromquist 1995), in the Popular Education Movement that developed from the 1970s onward in Latin America based on the proposals of Freire (1970), and the conceptions of Foucault (2001), which saw power as a changing and always present relationship that is found at all levels – intimate or institutional – of society. These developments opened the way to a new conception of power that departs from its traditional meaning of domination and obedience and instead becomes a force that generates autonomy and strength.
The distinction made by Jo Rowlands (1995, 1997) between “power over,” “power to,” “power from within,” and “power with” enables us to clarify the difference between power and empowerment and to define the latter term. Riaño and Okali (2008) rightly observe that for Rowlands (1997), collective empowerment occurs when a group addresses a problem as a group and becomes conscious that total capacities are more than the sum of individual capacities. This can motivate a process that transforms them into conscious social agents and influences the strategic interests that enable them to modify their position in society (Young 1993). Rowlands herself (1995:2) affirms that we are indebted to feminism for the understanding that empowerment “must include processes that lead people to perceive themselves as able and entitled to occupy that decision-making space,” which we usually call power. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) defines empowerment as the “process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices” (EIGE 2019).
Empowerment is contraposed to traditional notions of power, understood in terms of domination and oppression. Similarly, it runs counter to the female identitarian construction that materializes the incorporation of patriarchal oppression in subjectivity and defines women socially as “beings-for-others” (Lagarde 2011: 813), destined to dedicate their vital energies to the development of others at the expense of themselves, in the role that Moser calls reproductive (Moser 1989, 1993). It is similarly contrary to the consideration of women as subaltern or “inessential” (De Beauvoir 2000: 50) and to their reification, that is, their position as an object in diverse fields.
In addition to the idea of gaining strength (Martínez 2016) and autonomy – understood as internal power that makes transformation possible (Stromquist 1995) – the concept of empowerment is related to different notions, including the construction of personal and collective self-esteem from a feminist perspective, which leads each woman to visualize her abilities, strengthen them, and share them with others (Lagarde 2000); sorority, which means political solidarity among women, rooted in the struggle against the patriarchy (hooks 2014); “cognitive praxis” (Amorós and De Miguel 2005: 59), namely, the subversion of patriarchal codes; and, finally, women’s agency, their necessary role as protagonists of change (Murgialday 2013). In short, for women empowerment means that they become “beings-for-themselves in the world” (Lagarde 1996: 62), individuals who are subjects in their lives, in society, and in history.
Numerous theoreticians agree that empowerment is a polyhedral process that expresses itself in diverse scenarios (León 1997) and that it includes both individual change and collective action (Young 1993). Following this line of argument, Stromquist (1995) refers to facets, cognitive, psychological, political, and economic, of empowerment; Longwe and Clarke (1994) refer to a cycle of different levels of the acquisition of power, wellbeing, access to resources, acquiring awareness, participation in decision-making, and control over resources and benefits; Wieringa (1997) refers to a matrix of spheres, physical, sociocultural, religious, political, legal, and economic, and levels that vary from the personal to the global; and, finally, Rowlands (1997) refers to diverse dimensions, personal, proximate, and collective relations. For its part, EIGE (2019) mentions five components: women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally. All these rights were brought together in the Beijing Declaration of 1995, which according to UN Women (2019) signified a clear program in favor of women’s empowerment.
Empowerment has different implications for women depending on inequalities of class, ethnic group, sexual orientation, and age, whose intersections with gender are relevant in women’s lives (Crenshaw 1989) and shape unique and qualitatively distinct situations (structural intersectionality). Women’s greater dedication to the work of caring over the course of their life cycle, together with other factors like inequalities in employment and public policies, translates into higher rates of poverty for the female collective in old age (Pateman 1988; Benhabib 2004) – rates that are aggravated for women who are racialized or from the working class. On the other hand, unpaid care work, which increases in the case of impoverished women in particular due to the scarcity of public services, has a negative effect on their health and reduces their educational, political, and economic opportunities (Oxfam 2019).
Key Research Findings
Studies in cooperation for development, which have played a pioneering role in this field, confirm the multiple social benefits of investment in women’s education, health, and employment (Murgialday 2013). The latter increases their autonomy, in both economic and general terms (Stromquist 1995; UN Women 2019), which is indispensable for maintaining deep subjective changes, but is not always enough for overcoming other forms of oppression such as male control over their bodies (Murgialday 2013) or violence against women (Batliwala 1993). On the other hand, empowerment has been used as a strategy of social intervention (Bacqué and Biewener 2016) in cases of gender violence, among others, as it increases women’s self-confidence and improves their sense of personal agency (Donaldson 2014).
The process of empowerment can take on different meanings according to different periods of life. Aging thus influences women’s empowerment. Now, aging is not merely a biological process, instead it is a social and cultural construction – we are aged by culture (Gullette 2004, 2008). The hegemonic western representation tends to relate it to decline and deterioration. In the case of women, starting in middle age, the medicalization of the menopause, its treatment as a disease, the negation of their capacity for sexual pleasure, as well as aesthetic imperatives and the concern about beauty (Banner 2005) can constitute limits and obstacles to their empowerment. Nonetheless, as Gullette (2003: 72) observes: “in the right circumstances aging-into-the-middle-years could bring increasing confidence, smarts, and empathy,” which to be achieved requires a resignification of the idea of aging and active, individual and group opposition to the social imaginary that relates aging with ageism (Gullete 2018).
The empowerment of older women is closely related to their degree of personal and economic autonomy. Growing older does not signify a drastic change in the degrees of one’s personal empowerment, “we grow old as we have lived” (Freixas and Luque 2009: 194), but it does usually involve having more time available for oneself, which is not time that has been conquered but liberated (Emakunde 2012). Older women have contributed more to the gradual consolidation of the process of empowerment in other generations than in their own. This is a socialization of empowerment, a generational and gender legacy of the first order (Emakunde 2012), without forgetting that there is also an intergenerational apprenticeship that favors adaptation to social changes (Freixas 2002).
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