Misuse of the term ‘empowerment’ in daily conversations
In a world where ‘gender integration’ or ‘gender mainstreaming’ is prioritised and practiced, actors from different backgrounds come together in a ‘marriage’ arrangement of sorts, aimed at a joint objective. One outcome of this endeavor is that participants start learning new words from other disciplines. The new terms learnt in this process can become exciting and they easily permeate daily conversations. These cross discipline interactions can also lead to formation of new terms and acronyms. It is not uncommon to attend a workshop and think speakers are not even speaking in ‘English’ – especially in global partnerships like the CGIAR, where acronyms get formed and used until they become familiar terms in daily conversations.
Some of new terms are only ‘known and understood’ in the small working teams where they are used often, but others have evolved to be internationally accepted terms that most people know, understand and use often. For example, as a gender scientist working in agriculture and specifically in crop breeding programs, I start learning about breeding terms like ‘traits,’ ‘trait preferences,’ and ‘hereditability.’ Soon these terms start emerging in my conversations when I talk to my colleagues, when I present my work and when I bargain for different roles. Does the ‘deeper meaning’ of such terms remains the same whenever it is used? In some cases, perhaps, but every time it is used across disciplines is another game all together.
One term that caught my attention during the customised GREAT-TLIII training in Makerere is the term ‘empowerment’. Since this was the first time the training was being implemented, the topic ‘Women’s empowerment: Introduction and issues in agricultural development’ was not on the initial program. As the 9-country teams of social scientist and breeders in attendance worked on their assignment, by day 3, it was evident that most of them were ‘working towards empowerment.’ The term was floating in the room and in many of the discussions and country plans. The contexts were different, the approaches were different and even the use of the term was different every time it was mentioned. In my mind, I could see almost 30 differently positioned interpretations of the term every time it was mentioned, as each person (facilitators and participants) in the room interpreted the use of the term from their own perspective and experiences. During the breaks, the focus on the term was a running theme by the facilitators of the training, as well as the participants in the training.
Prof. Margaret Mangheni and Dr. Brenda Boonabaana agreed that it was time to create a session on empowerment in the rolling program. Going back to the basics. In my mind I thought, ‘Oh, we know this term – maybe we should focus on tougher things like ‘the breeding strategies, product profiles, customer segments’ – all the amazing terms were engaged with during the week.’ But deferring to the wisdom of the GREAT trainers, the session was agreed on and delivered; and it made me laugh and appreciate the new learning even more.
Dr. Boonabaana introduced the topic and went through all the usual matters, It was when she began talking about the ‘Reach, Benefit, Empowerment framework: clarifying gender strategies of development projects’ by IFPRI team (that I would recommend for all to read) that my understanding of the term ‘empowerment’ was challenged.
The framework identifies a need for projects and programs to distinguish between approaches that ‘reach’ women as participants, those that actually ‘benefit’ women and finally those that ‘empower’ them. These terms refer not only to the ‘objectives’ of a project or a program but also the set of activities the project undertakes and the way impact of those activities is measured. Reaching women does not ensure they will benefit from a project and even if women benefit from a project, that does not ensure that they will be empowered if we take the definition ‘empowerment is the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such ability and transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes’ (Kabeer 1999 and Narayan 2015).
Sharing examples of life situations, Dr Boonabaana drove a point home that led to all of us appreciating that in some of the programs we have been involved in, we have not always offered insight into what changes we intended, how we attempted to achieve those changes and how those changes were measured. We had misused the term empowerment, and in doing so, we lost sight of what we were actually trying to achieve. This is why we should use words wisely. If we are not careful and get caught up in the excitement of learning something new, we may not realize that we are no longer speaking ‘English’ too. New terms are useful for framing new ideas, but we should not focus on the term at the expense of appreciating its meaning and achieving the objective of our work.
As we got into group activities for the next exercise, course facilitators were questioning their use of the term empowerment in programs they were involved in; where the goals and achievement on ‘reaching’ or ‘benefiting’ but were presented as ‘empowerment programs’. The participants were editing their ‘empowerment’ statements in their country plans and I found myself questioning my daily use of the term as well. I, too, realised how often we misused the term empowerment, both in our conversations, in explaining the theory of change of our projects, and in strategizing in our program activities. I am positive that our teams will incorporate this knowledge and other lessons in the GREAT course into our activities to become better as we go forward.
Author: Esther Njuguna-Mungai, Gender Scientist, ICRISAT