What does it mean to empower women?

Women are not helpless in face of existing challenges. Around the world they are decision-makers for themselves, their families, villages, businesses, and governments. For societies where this is not the case, people speak of the need for women’s empowerment.

But what does it really mean to empower women? Is it political empowerment? Economic empowerment? Social empowerment? In fact, these categories are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reinforcing.

Women’s political empowerment, usually envisioned as political participation in elections and government, is necessary to give women a voice in the policies that affect their lives. Women’s economic empowerment, which entails that women have the authority to make their own decisions regarding use of their resources, leads to prosperity for families and communities. Social empowerment, often achieved through public policy and education, liberates women from the mistreatment, exploitation, and oppression that inhibit women from reaching their full potential.

Economic empowerment can provide the clout for women to be empowered politically. Political empowerment allows women to take control of the policies that will benefit their economic standing. Social empowerment reinforces the ability to participate economically and politically, which in turn reinforces women’s standing in society. Unfortunately, many women are not empowered in these ways.

With recognition of this problem comes well-intentioned people who want to give power to women. Despite good intent, however, if someone “gives power” to another, then someone else can take it away. That is not the solution to achieve women’s empowerment. To be fully empowered, women have to take power for themselves.

The barriers preventing women’s empowerment extend beyond individuals – there are institutional and systemic reasons why women in some societies cannot participate freely. To break down these barriers, individuals have to work together to reform the laws, social norms, or whichever institutions are inhibiting women’s productivity. Societies must also acknowledge the potential for growth and prosperity that can be achieved when women are included.

Women’s business associations are an example of one vehicle for women to empower themselves. By networking to build better businesses, women gain economic empowerment. By associating with each other in a business association, women become part of civil society and can have a louder voice when advocating policies that will benefit their lives and businesses. When women have both economic and political power, they become full members of society.

Associations are just one way to achieve women’s empowerment. On June 20 and 21, 2011, CIPE will explore others at Democracy that Delivers for Women, an international conference in Washington, DC to explore best practices in maximizing women’s participation in politics, the economy, and society. Attendees will hear from leaders and practitioners such as:

  • Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues
  • Henrietta Holsman Fore, Chairwoman and CEO of Holsman International and former Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and the Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Center on Foreign Relations

To learn more and receive email updates about the conference, visit www.democracythatdelivers.org. Until then, let us use International Women’s Day 2011 to reflect on the progress women have already made for themselves, and the potential they have for the future.