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It seems to be common knowledge in today’s dialogue around sustainable international development that empowering women and girls in communities and allowing for their participation in the social and political economy will, in the most simplistic terms, save the world.

While the recent political climate of the U.S. reflects a veritable legislative war against women’s choices — as evidenced by the 83 laws passed in 2011 by various states restricting access to reproductive services — the international community continues to have their sights set on women’s empowerment.

The Evidence

The evidence to support this trend can be found in multilateral activities like the creation of UN Women by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, which works exclusively on the unique challenges of gender and women’s empowerment. The third of the eight UN Millenium Development Goals (MDG) seeks to “promote gender equality and empower women.” Other MDGs can also be viewed through the lens of women’s empowerment since their intended outcomes focus on improving health, eradicating poverty, and broadening access to education; all areas in which women can play central roles in their communities. The private sector is catching on as well, as indicated by this recent Forbes article that calls an investment in women powerful.’ Fellow students at Presidio Graduate School are also writing about and advocating the case for investing in women.

Defining “Women’s Empowerment”

Indeed, the terms “women’s empowerment,” “gender equality,” and concepts of “status,” “autonomy,” and “freedom” are used almost interchangeably by key actors in this space. But what happens without a recognized, global consensus on what women’s empowerment actually means? More importantly, how can we measure the success of programs that seek to empower women when at the micro, meso, and macro levels the dimensions of empowerment may be completely different? These are important questions for sustainability change agents to ponder, especially if they want to work in international development that is both culturally relevant and anti-imperialist, or avoiding forcing culture and values onto a group of people in the name of empowerment or progress.

When Initiatives Fail

I attended a panel on gender and ethics this past March at the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) annual conference. A professor from the University of Dayton presented three different case studies of gendered projects in international development. The case studies happened in rural India, Tanzania, and Senegal and each had gender-focused goals. Unfortunately, two out of three of these programs failed miserably. The case in India, a group micro-credit lending model, revealed that the particular strategy employed actually exploited women who had put their houses up for collateral to buy into a silk-reeling scheme. Not only did the women end up losing their homes, but they were also shunned by their families. In the Tanzanian case, women were given dairy cattle to raise but were not provided with the proper education to maintain their newly acquired resources. Perhaps what is most concerning is that it did not seem in either case that women were given the ability to exercise self-efficacy and were not fully engaged as stakeholders in the process.

A review of the academic literature on this subject led me to some promising gains in coming closer to a more universalized recognition of the meaning of empowerment. According to the World Bank, empowerment refers broadly to the expansion of freedom of choice and action. Academics have fleshed out this idea further to include the concepts of process and agency –  that empowerment is a process, not a static or one-time incident that is completely dependent on agency, or allowing for women to act as significant actors in the process of change.

Evolving the Dialogue

At Presidio, I intend to contribute to the evolving dialogue around women’s empowerment in international development by continuing to question the ability to measure success around multidimensional indicators, some of which have yet to be identified and examined cross-culturally. Building the case for investing in women is one thing, but ensuring that those investments actually improve the lives of women and their larger communities is another challenge completely. We must move toward a global toolkit of best practices, lest we end up making a bigger mess of a complex social issue, as seen in some of the case studies.

The anti-women rhetoric of domestic electoral politics has made limiting women’s agency – control over strategic life choices – a major campaign issue. This means it is more important than ever that we make our conversations about the potential for world-saving, transformational outcomes from the true empowerment of women and girls speak louder than divisive and failed policies limiting personal agency.

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About the Author / Judy Brown

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