Monday, February 8, 2010

Empowering women - but don't ignore the context

Practitioners and preachers of sustainable development generally adhere to the importance of empowerment. Especially the empowerment of women. Give a poor woman in a village a cow, and she will lift not only herself but her family and many friends and neighbours out of the depths of poverty. If you set up micro finance, set up microfinance with women. Then you will have sustainability.

But what does this really mean? Can we really buy into that common narrative? In different places, empowerment means different things. In Ramallah, Palestine, some women feel that the term 'empowerment' is something they associate with a Western, neo-liberal agenda that seeks to give women material things rather than help them face the inherently inequal, unfair and deprived political situation that keeps them away from land and justice.

Self-determination is impossible - an extra goat won't do a lot of good in dealing with the underlying problems of Israeli occupation.

Other ways of enabling women to be empowered - establishing quotas for women in parliament, for example, can disempower certain groups of women with more radical ideas than 'the system' would allow. Technologies, especially movile phones and the internet, for example, have opened up new worlds and enable them to stretch to new horizons. But technologies can also be seen as sources of moral dangers. Similarly, NGOs, which are 'supposed' to empower civil society, are often far removed from the community and grassroots concerns that people have. In a situation like Palestine, empowerment of women needs to confront Israeli occupation. Which may or may not empower women in Israel - depending on how it is done. Regardless of their Israeli sisters, dealing with the hot political potato of Israeli occupation is something that many many NGOs and their donors are very reluctant to do. Sustainable development may well include empowerment, but empowerment means different things to different people in different contexts. Let's not forget the complecations - and that empowerment means dealing with power, and power means dealing with politics, and sometimes those politics are very complicated and very difficult and not, primarily, about gender.

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