Empowerment – A Transformative Process

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2740


From radical roots in the late 1980s, the empowerment approach emerged from the shortcomings of ‘Gender and Development’ as a bottom-up strategy for gender equality. Originating in the Global South, empowerment emphasised transformative action through grassroots movements to challenge the deepest structures of social power (Batliwala, 2007). A similar shift in thinking  was also taking place in a broad development context known as ‘alternative development’,  where different approaches to development shared an intention to rethink the role of the states,  markets and civil societies and increase the participation of local people and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the development process (Dittmar, 2008).

Empowerment rose to recognise inequalities in power relations, by asserting the right to have rights and acting to bring about structural change for gender equality (Batliwala, 1993; Kabeer,  1994; Rowlands, 1997; Sen, 1997; Cornwall, 2016). Key factors that are widely deemed to influence empowerment are gender, age, marital status, nationality, social role, economic activity, intra-household distribution, health, and participation in economic activities (Sen,  1992; Kabeer, 1994; Sen, 1999 and Sell & Minot, 2017). Awareness-building, capacity-building and increased decision-making were identified as essential components for women to be empowered; emphasising that for development to be achieved, women could no longer remain  passive recipients of aid and their full participation is necessary throughout the entire project  cycle (Karl, 1985).


Empowerment as ‘power to’ is the enabler of access that largely supports activities to increase women’s control over resources and their participation in economic activities. Microfinance interventions became a popular tool to give ‘power to’ women, based on the belief that  enhanced economic power and the development of self-sustaining participation will then be  translated into improvements in women and children’s wellbeing and enable women to initiate  the social and political changes required for development and self-fulfillment (Pearson, 2005).  Microfinance programming became a major strategy for women’s empowerment, viewed as a pro-poor intervention that could specifically address the centrality of gender equality to poverty reduction. Targeting the poorest populations of women, the general consensus of microfinance is to lend small sums of money to individuals as members of groups, rely on group liability to ensure repayments, subsidize administrative costs rather than interest rates, and request repayments in weekly instalments (Kabeer, 2001).

According to Mayoux (1998:235), microfinance creates an “attractive vision” for financially, self-sustainable development programmes aimed at masses of women, making a significant contribution to global poverty alleviation and initiates an “upward virtuous spiral of women’s economic, social and political empowerment”. In her paper ‘Women’s empowerment and  microfinance programmes: strategies for increasing impact’, Mayoux (1998) identifies three  approaches to utilise microfinance, 1) the financial sustainability approach: where  empowerment is defined in economic terms based on the assumption that women can use  microfinance to increase their incomes without “explicit strategies for redistributing resources  or for challenging gender subordination” 2) the integrated community development approach:  where empowerment is defined in terms of community self-reliance and decreased  vulnerability, using microfinance to provide an entry point for community mobilisation and in  turn, women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation can be achieved without domestic or  community conflict, and 3) the feminist empowerment approach: where empowerment  represents a transformation in gender and class relations, using microfinance as an entry point  for feminist mobilisation.

Each approach demonstrates a different method of empowerment; the first being ‘power to’, the second ‘power with’ and the third ‘power from within’. Nevertheless, it is realistic to  condense the reality of microfinance programmes to empowerment in the form of ‘power to’,  relating solely to economic empowerment and raising the question of how far this method can  truly empower women.

On the one hand, case studies demonstrate that exposure to microfinance can have a positive impact for women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation and the social status of women.  Morduch & Hayley (2002) argue that microfinance is proven to be an effective and powerful tool for poverty reduction based on an “overwhelming amount of evidence” substantiating a positive impact on increased incomes and reductions in vulnerability (UNICEF, 1997; Wright, 2000). Drawing upon a case study of two microfinance institutions in Sri Lanka, Herath et al.  (2015) found that microfinance gives access to income-generating activities for women; who then benefitted at an individual level, as their self-confidence and self-worth increased, at a family level as their opportunities were broadened beyond their traditional household role, at a business level through improving their social capital, and at a community level by recognising  that they could have an active role in community-led activities. On the surface, the assumption of microfinancing is logical on the basis that if a woman receives a loan, this will give her the ‘power to’ utilise the money and increase her income, empowering her economically and strengthening her position in the household.

On the other hand, evidence suggests that microfinance is limited as a means to empowerment, postulating that although programmes may enable women to generate additional income, they may also “perpetuate inequalities and reconfirm a gender-specific division of labour” (Haile et al., 2012:256). The assumption that microfinance is a tool to give  ‘power to’ women is arguably shallow as there is no monitoring of whether the sum credited  remains in the control of the woman, or rather once received it is instead utilised by their  husband (Sen, 1990; Goetz and Gupta, 1996; Kothari, 2005). Goetz and Gupta (1996) carried  out a case study in Bangladesh to assess the degree of control that women maintained over  their credit once it had been paid out by using a five-point index of “managerial control”: at one  end are women who had no knowledge of how their loans were used, in comparison at the  other were those whom exercised full control, having participated in all stages of the funded  activity. The study found that the majority of women, particularly those who are married, exercised little or no control over their loans and suggested that high degrees of male control can “potentially undermine household survival strategies where men invest loans badly, forcing women to mobilize repayment funds from resources which would otherwise be used for  consumption or savings purposes” (Goetz and Gupta, 1996:61). In addition, microfinance allowed women to become a target for high interest credit which often led to them being further impoverished through the unrealistic requirements of meeting the repayments (Mayoux, 2006).

Kabeer (2001:63) questioned how such “diametrically opposed” claims can be made about the  same, or very similar microfinance programmes, as part of a paper designed to explore the  question of empowerment through an analysis of both “positive” and “negative” evaluations.  Kabeer (2001:83) concluded that it was the focus on ‘empowerment’ as the desired result of microfinancing programmes that attracted negative evaluations and:

“If purposive interventions can help to direct resources to women, thereby overcoming past barriers which have led to the suppression of their entrepreneurial potential, then they must be welcomed on grounds of efficiency and equity. If greater efficiency and equity help to lay the grounds for women to tackle other aspects of injustice in their lives, then we will have found a different and perhaps more sustainable route to women’s empowerment.”

The assumption that microfinance empowers women remains controversial. As stated by Kabeer (2001), it is better to establish such programmes to incite efficiency and equity for women, which in turn will support a route to empowerment. The preference of microfinancing programmes by global development actors is likely to be because of the way they align with neoliberal initiatives. It is clear that resources alone cannot empower women, and the entire notion of empowerment is void without a woman’s ability to recognise and utilise such resources in their own interests. The structures of constraint in family systems are a central component when shaping gender relations (Kabeer, 2011). Empowerment stimulated by the notion of ‘power to’ is evidently not enough to singularly challenge patriarchal household  structures, however when combined with ‘power with’ could provide a comprehensive strategy.


The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is a trade union widely recognised for its role in empowering rural women in India. Rooted by a Gandhian philosophy of truth and nonviolence, SEWA describes itself as a movement for social change rather than a worker’s organisation. SEWA successfully manipulated the concept of a trade union by expanding its portfolio to work with women across multiple occupations, increasing the potential for its size and influence and providing an alternative structure for small producers to better combat  monopoly influences in the market (Schuler et al., 1995). SEWA’s strategies amalgamate trade union, cooperatives and women’s movements to articulate the specificity of gender subordination in Indian society, prioritising the problems and concerns of women as a critical  component to poverty alleviation.

SEWA’s trade union strategy was the original initiative for the association, closely affiliated with the Textile Labour Association (TLA) who bargained between mill workers and owners.  What became apparent to SEWA was the level of self-employed women without a representative for their needs, who were mostly poor, illiterate, and invisible contributors to the economy. Becoming the voice for these women, SEWA persisted through government  resistance to form a union accepted by officials on the basis that they will improve the lives of  workers in general, rather than representing the ‘employed’ as traditionally expected for such  a purpose. Through doing so, SEWA became a union for workers, which required social, economic and political organisation and mobilisation to effectively represent poor and illiterate female populations (Datta, 2003).

SEWA’s cooperative strategy was conceived because of the reality that in rural areas, there is often an excess supply of labour reducing self-employed women’s bargaining position. To overcome this obstacle, SEWA (1998) concluded that the only viable empowerment strategy is to create more job opportunities and eliminate women’s vulnerabilities. In her analysis of SEWA and empowerment, Datta (2003) identified that the majority of income for rural women in the union is generated from agriculture, livestock and handicrafts. SEWA supported each venture by providing entrepreneurial guidance to generate profit, diversifying employment opportunities to minimise seasonal limitations to income, and creating resolutions to reduce social security problems such as domestic violence. They introduced cooperatives for milk, childcare and health, greenhouses, handicrafts, and credit saving groups; with the aim to support women to “find a voice of their own through collective struggle” (Datta, 2003:356).  Managed independently, SEWAs cooperatives focus on employment, financial and care services alongside the union that supports engagement to establish a collective voice.

To enhance their efforts towards empowerment, SEWA established its own bank, the Shri Mahila Sew Sahakari Bank (also known as the SEWA bank), to provide its own means of credit and fight the exploitation as earlier described that is often associated with microfinancing  programmes. When the bank was formed, each of SEWA’s members contributed RS. 10 each, pooling their resources to provide credit to members. Through this simple principle, SEWA  effectively gave power to women by 1) providing them with accessible credit to increase  economic activity 2) setting their own terms for sanctioning loans (since they lend their own  money, they do not easily write them off) and 3) inviting them to share the bank’s success by  having their own stake.

By combining an asset building platform, a trade union organisation, leading cooperatives and  social security measures, SEWA embraces Rowlands (1995) ‘power to’ process of  empowerment by opening the doors to increased human abilities via a ‘power with’ model that  enables the women to achieve what they could not achieve alone. SEWA’s grassroots conscientisation and mobilisation engages disadvantaged women to make sense of their  realities, creating a consciousness towards their relationships, their assumptions and beliefs,  and their practices and values to drive transformational change (Batliwala, 1993; Kabeer,  1994; Cornwall, 2016).


From the perspective of ‘power with’ and ‘power from within’, empowerment encompasses an “unfolding, iterative process” to shift power relations and build a critical consciousness that defies internalised oppression (Rowlands, 1998; Cornwall, 2016). Cornwall’s (2016) article ‘Women’s Empowerment: What Works?’ views empowerment as a pathway for women to travel individually and/or collectively to be empowered. She emphasises the importance of “individual consciousness” to enlighten each woman to their own possibilities and critical recognition of the societal dimensions in the obstacles they face:

“It is when women recognise their ‘power within’ and act together with  other women to exercise ‘power with’, that they gain ‘power to’ act as  agents: when they act in concert to tackle injustice and inequalities, this  becomes ‘power for’ social change.” (Cornwall, 2016:356)


This concludes a theoretical exploration into the concept women’s empowerment and its meaning: a textured process that requires a multitude of layers in order for progress to be made. The three-dimensional concept of empowerment – ‘power to’, ‘power with’ and ‘power from within’ – needs to be the focus for development actors when working with female beneficiaries if empowerment is to be reached. From the 1970s to 2015, the road to gender equality and women’s empowerment has been slow. The SDGs have accelerated efforts towards achieving these goals, yet further research is required to determine whether they have brought about real change.

One consistent aspect throughout each feminist attempt is the barrier created by men that restricts the level of progress that can be made. An understanding of male perspectives towards gender equality has been absent throughout feminist development approaches that  have so far been covered, and it is worth considering that paying more attention to this and  incorporating ways to directly address patriarchal resistance might eliminate men as a barrier  to women becoming empowered.

Reference List

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Batliwala, S., 2007. Taking the power out of empowerment – an experiential account. Development in Practice, 17(4-5), pp.557-565.

Cornwall, A., 2016. Women’s Empowerment: What Works?. Journal of International Development,  28(3), pp.342-359.

Datta, R., 2003. From Development to Empowerment: The Self-Employed Women’s Association in  India. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 16(3), pp.351-358.

Dittmar, C., 2008. The so called ‘impasse of development theory’ and the alternatives proposed to move beyond it. University of Manchester.

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Mayoux, L., 1998. Women’s Empowerment and Micro-Finance Programmes: Strategies for  Increasing Impact. Development in Practice, 8(2), pp.235-241.

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