Stop calling for women’s empowerment and start respecting them

By Hannah Proctor, Research Fellow, WIIS Global

March is Women’s History Month and the month of the International Day of the Woman (March 8). It’s an important month to celebrate the often-forgotten contributions of women to society throughout history. This month is also replete with many empty promises and slogans, including those calling for the empowerment of women.

Empowerment has become the catch-all phrase whenever policymakers and activists discuss minority communities, especially women in non-Western states. It is used in all contexts and facets of women’s lives, including economic, social, and political.

Calls for empowerment abound in policy documents. The word “empower” shows up 17 times in the Trump Administration’s 15-page Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. It is used three times in the latest Women, Peace and Security Resolution, the three-page United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2493 (2019). India adopted a National Policy for the Empowerment of Women that, unsurprisingly, mentions empower 15 times.

The use of the word empowerment is not limited to policy. There is even a UN Women campaign simply called Empower Women. There are t-shirts and mugs with the phrase “empowered women empower women.” A CNN article even calls on readers to celebrate Women’s History Month by purchasing gifts to empower the women in their lives. This word is everywhere, everyday.

It is time to stop calling for women’s empowerment and start recognizing and respecting their rights.

The word itself reinforces power hierarchies simply by its definition: “to give power or authority to.” This means that there is an entity or a person already with power that then grants that power to someone without it. Gyalwang Drupka, a Buddhist spiritual leader, eloquently explained the inherent conflict with this dynamic in an interview, saying he “doesn’t like the ‘terminology of empowerment. That actually means that I have the power to empower them.’”

Additionally, the general use of this word often implies that women, especially women of color, need to be externally empowered in order to understand that they have rights. This blanket assumption erases the enormous work of women’s civil society organizations and the individual voices of women that go largely ignored by international organizations and states. Instead, it reframes the conversation in terms of those who already have power.

Many women’s civil society organizations are active and work to dismantle the patriarchy and inequality. During the Liberian civil war, women staged protests for peace, creating the organization Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, forcing the government to engage in peace talks. The Gulabi Gang, or Pink Gang, in India is a vigilante group of women that attacks perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence with sticks. Women’s March protests, took place on every continent in 2017, comprised of women who are fed up with being ignored. Women have consistently been on the receiving end of calls for empowerment, but their actions have been ignored and belittled.

The word ‘empowerment’ has become so overused that it is essentially meaningless. Empowerment has no action steps that can be tracked, no promised resources, and no measurements by which to judge its success. Maybe that is why governments and organizations have become so enamored with its use.

For example, UNSCR 2493 calls on Member States to “commit to the promotion of women and girls’ empowerment in peace and security processes.” Committing to the empowerment of women and girls in these processes sounds promising, but what does it really mean? 20 years on from UNSCR 1325, women represent only 3% of mediators and 13% of negotiators at peace negotiations. What percentage must be reached to define women as empowered? How is that number to be reached? Relying on the word ‘empowerment’ leaves more questions than answers. These commitments must include specifics if they are to have any impact at all.

This is the root of the issue with the over reliance on this word. Without accountability measures, ‘empowerment’ is another empty promise. It is a word that sounds promising and sounds feminist, but is really a way for states and international organizations to make grand promises without having to take any concrete action.

This Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day I ask, as a woman, please stop calling for women to be empowered. Instead, take action and fix inequality. That starts with recognizing the economic and political rights of women, it starts with recognizing the powerful work women are already doing.