On women’s empowerment

On women’s empowerment

THE concept of empowerment is one that appears often in the lexicon of development. It is the ability to make choices for oneself, build confidence and take control over one’s life. To have power over yourself and your circumstances. To make choices that you can turn into a reality.
In the particular case of women, it is to become aware of and to challenge subordination and inequity. A significant part of empowerment work involves building leadership competency – leading self, leading others and leading organisations.

Perhaps the most important of all is leading self. Self-awareness and the necessary insight to manage yourself, your behaviours, attitudes and choices is key. I work in the women’s empowerment space, and in the quest for empowerment, a core part of our programming has evolved to encourage women to focus on the self.

Having done this work over the past few years, it is clear that our approach to empowerment has been as something that we do to others. Indeed, you will often hear us in development-speak going to empower women to do this, that and the other.
The operative word in empowerment is power. Power as the ability to do something, or to enact. Power as exercised in different ways – power to; power over; power with. Empowerment then, is power within.

The essence of the word empowerment means to enable oneself to be able to do something for oneself. Power within. Power within for women to claim and exercise agency, decide over their lives and their bodies, and not leaving it to another to do so.
Looking back, I am not certain we did justice to our empowerment programmes. While our programmes yielded some pleasing results, the premise upon which we executed them was not really geared for a positive outcome.

I say this because the underlying assumptions we held about the women we worked with, was of them having some need to be fulfilled, invariably by us with some noble development intervention.
Whilst there was evidence of basic and strategic needs to be attended to, the women’s agency in addressing these themselves was not articulated and acknowledged enough.

Our programme design did not necessarily bear any ill-will or intention to silence our participants and exercise ‘power over’ them. Our feminist sensibility would not have allowed that. It was more a sense of a process of handing over ‘power to’, which appears flawed to me.
To assume that we were empowered enough to go on to empower others was presumptuous of us. We did not do enough to explore the innate power these women held themselves, that might have led our journey with them to be characterised with a more balanced power relationship, as a partnership where each of us would unleash their power within.

Effective empowerment requires a study in leading self. Empowerment is something we do to ourselves, using tools and resources we may already have on hand or those that we acquire from others. Do we (as development workers) reflect sufficiently on what this empowerment that we promise to deliver really is?

Do we truly believe in the inherent power of the people and communities we work in to do good for themselves. Do we allow space for them to own that power, and with that power support them to forge ahead, transcend obstacles, and continue to be forces of transformation in their lives and communities?

I believe that it is when we begin to recognise this in ourselves and in others, that we will begin to see a shift and progress in the work that we do.
Fast forward a couple of years later where I became a recipient of a leadership fellowship programme that held a lot of promise for one’s empowerment and transformation.

Prior to our departure, we were regaled with tales of the fellowship by former fellows, how awesome the programme was and how transformed people had become as a result of it.

I left for the United States excited and eager, looking forward to have my moment, and to come back empowered.
About three weeks into the programme, my social media timeline was awash with fellow participants expressing just how they had never experienced anything quite like this before, how amazing this was.

I think one of the most profound I had read was some telling how her inner self was finally coming to fruition and that she was being transformed into the phenomenal woman she is meant to be.

I was slightly envious. I complained to a few friends. I asked others how their metamorphosis into a transformed being was going. Mine was struggling to push through. It had not come. As time went by, I conceded it might never come. I had travelled all the way to the US for six weeks and I would return the same. Disappointing!

It did not take me long to realise that I can attend as many training programmes, and all the leadership programmes on the planet, but, if you don’t know or believe that you’ve ‘got it’ then ‘it’ may just pass you by.

My experience in the USA was just that. A recognition of the power within; an acknowledgement of how I have to lead self to attain this empowerment; and a realisation and affirmation of the talents, the glory of who I am.

I did not need to go there to be transformed. I left the continent, whole and deserving of the experience, which served to open my eyes to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

I now carry this insight in my work. I try to be careful with the assumptions I make about others, particularly those we serve, and to be appreciative of the contributions each bring.

While we may be confronted with some disempowering situations at time, they do not erase that power that resides within. It takes some doing to bring it out, but, it is always there.

l Tebello is a gender specialist and researcher, with an interest in governance and policy development in Africa. She works with the Graça Machel Trust in their economic advancement programme for African women, working with networks of women in business, academia and agribusiness.
Her interests are in social policy, African feminisms and women’s empowerment. Currently, she is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Tebello Ralebitso

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