1. To invest with power.
2. To equip or supply with an ability; enable.
At African Initiatives. “We empower people to change their lives” is something we probably say quite a lot when someone asks us the whys and wherefores of our work. But what does it actually mean? And is it actually a positive word at all? I read somewhere quite recently that ‘to empower’ or ‘empowerment’ are “pop psychology” phrases which “reaffirm boundaries of inferiority” between those of differing levels of wealth, of knowledge and of skills.
A simple internet search brought up two definitions, ‘to invest with power’ and ‘to equip or supply with an ability; enable’ (www.freedictionary.com). Yet empowerment means different things to different people; as a study done by our partners the Community Self Reliance Centre (CSRC) in Ghana has shown.
They have been working with Nagbere Community in Bawku West Municipality for the past few years on different women’s rights campaigns around domestic violence, health rights and access to land. In October 2012, a study was done of the impact of the work on the community; including gender relations, women’s access to land and agricultural production (where most families get their income from). One of the things different focus groups were asked was their understanding of empowerment. The ability to take part in decision making was a common denominator in the answers, as was to gain in knowledge and opportunities. For women however empowerment held a very particular meaning; rooted in their own context “the ability to move, speak and cast your vote freely without your husband or others putting limitations on you.”
It is the movement associated with empowerment which is so, well, powerful. Empowerment sets you free, it is a release from a set of chains which have for a variety of reasons rooted you to one spot; but you can be empowered in a number of different ways – through knowledge, through investment, through access to new opportunities to name but a few. The word itself defines a process, not merely one action. Yes, you can invest with power or equip or supply an ability, but actually it is far more than that, and goes far further. Say the members of Nagbere Community: “Empowerment has no end, it is a process that changes according to how society changes.”
So let’s change the definition.
3. A process of positive change, without limits or conclusion.