A Comprehensive Approach to Women’s Empowerment

By Tara Cookson

“There is no tool more effective for development than the empowerment of women.” – Kofi Anan

This quote is often cited in development circles, but what does it actually take to achieve women’s empowerment? A clear definition of what empowerment looks like can help guide work that’s both high-impact and sustainable.

Defining Empowerment

Empowerment emerged as a fairly radical concept in development practice in the 1980s with the idea that there needed to be a transformation in the systems that assign women less power than men. Gender equity wouldn’t be achieved through women’s economic independence alone, many believed. Instead, there needed to be an overhaul of the political, economic, legal and social institutions and practices that drive inequality.

Take the case of Janina. Abandoned by her husband and now a single mother of four, Janina lives in the rugged Andean highlands. The nearest health clinic is three hours away by foot, and is often closed due to staff shortages. Janina is illiterate which makes it difficult to access public services, use the bank, and help her children with schoolwork. She lives with her children and brother, who is dependent upon her for care, on a small plot of arable land owned by her husband’s father. While her eldest children are in school, Janina secures her toddler to her back and tends to her crops, a task which in recent years has become more difficult due to persistent water shortages. If her father-in-law were to decide to sell the land, Janina’s future would be uncertain. While disempowerment takes many forms in Janina’s life, her case is far from unique.

Empowerment Today

Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development will be the guiding theme of the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) taking place at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York next month. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are only achievable if we make a “quantum leap” in women’s economic empowerment, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The CSW will host a first-of-its-kind high-level panel focusing specifically on women’s economic empowerment with the goal of providing thought leadership and mobilizing public and private actors to take concrete steps towards removing barriers to women’s economic participation.

The lasting impact of these meetings will largely depend on how empowerment is collectively defined, and how well stakeholders’ respective interventions are woven together as parts of a larger, transformative project.

Let’s return to the case of Janina. If economic empowerment is narrowly defined as simply earning an income, Janina cannot thrive. Cash alone won’t ensure that her health clinic will be open, that her children will receive a quality education, or that she’ll have access to clean water and electricity. Rather, Janina’s story portrays how diverse initiatives can play various roles in increasing women’s empowerment.

Future Directions for Empowerment

A transformative approach to women’s empowerment might look like a piece of cloth, with vertical interventions and horizontal, systems-level efforts woven tightly together. For example, access to safe and affordable family planning tools empower women and their partners to space births according to what they consider appropriate. Likewise, rural women gaining legal access to land provides food security and social status. Basic services like transportation allow women to access markets, and the availability of clean and affordable energy sources saves money and safeguards women’s health. Women’s ability to access financial services also depends on basic literacy – educating girls lays the foundation for future economic empowerment.

A number of Global Washington members work tirelessly to improve the lives of women, allowing them to look toward a brighter future for themselves and their families. Below are descriptions of just a few of these organizations, highlighting current projects. Learn more about these members and others on GlobalWA’s interactive map.

ACT for Congo – ACT for Congo empowers Congolese communities by providing critical support to local Congolese organizations that address the environment, education and health. They do not provide aid in the typical way. Instead, they facilitate. They connect their partners with resources and opportunities that would not be available to them if they did not have a U.S. partner advocating for them. ACT for Congo’s founding partner targets single teen and abandoned mothers in an integrated approach which includes disease prevention, vocational training, peer education and ongoing community support. www.actforcongo.org

Awamaki – Awamaki helps women’s associations in rural Peru start and run their own businesses selling artisan products. Volunteers teach product development, business and technical skills. They also help measure impact, collect stories and guide tourists to visit the artisan in their communities. Awamaki offers Peruvian women access to global markets and an improved quality of life in order to create sustainable development in their communities. www.awamaki.org

Bo M. Karlsson Foundation – Bo M. Karlsson Foundation (BMKF) empowers underprivileged women in Nepal through higher education. Since 2004, BMKF has awarded scholarships to 45 women students representing some of country’s most disadvantaged groups, including caste and ethnic minorities and women with disabilities. Several BMKF alumni rank among the first women in Nepal to work in their fields, including credit union manager Bhim Kumari ’14, electronics engineer Sarita Sharma ’14, medical doctor Sharada Chhetry ’13 and renewable energy expert Grishma Manandha ’11. www.bomkarlsson.com

Days for Girls International – Days for Girls International provides quality feminine hygiene products for girls by assembling and distributing feminine hygiene kits to areas in need. Girls around the world suffer indignities, infections and exploitation trying to stay in school without proper equipment for their menstrual needs. Days for Girls International works to ensure that every girl is safe and dignified with access to the proper information and supplies to stay healthy. www.daysforgirls.org

Global Partnerships – Global Partnerships (GP) is a nonprofit impact investor whose mission is to expand opportunity for people living in poverty. GP partners with organizations in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa and helps them scale their work to reach millions of people living in poverty – the majority of whom are women. In the last 20 years, GP had helped 85 organizations deliver business loans to women entrepreneurs, essential medicines and health screenings to underserved women, solar lights to families living without electricity, and access to markets, technical assistance and financing to rural women farmers. www.globalpartnerships.org

Landesa – Landesa champions women’s land rights as a vital tool to address some of our world’s most persistent development challenges. Women with stronger rights to land experience increased participation in household decision making, which has a profound ripple effect on household nutrition, health, educational gains for children, and access to credit. Through innovative programs in Asia and Africa and the advocacy efforts of the Landesa Center for Women’s Land Rights, Landesa works to ensure that rural women have access to a transformative resource — secure rights to land. www.landesa.org

One By One – One By One partners with communities in Africa to provide life-transforming treatment for women and girls suffering with obstetric fistula, a devastating childbirth injury that causes uncontrollable leaking of urine and/or feces. Local teams carry out intensive rural outreach to educate about fistula and find women suffering in isolation. One By One covers the full cost of holistic treatment that restores a woman’s dignity and allows her to return to a productive life. One By One also works with communities to increase access to safe childbirth for all women. www.fightfistula.org

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands (PPGNHI) – Since 2001, PPGNHI’s Global Programs have improved the quality of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and education in Cameroon, the Dominican Republic (the DR), Ecuador, Laos, Nepal and Vietnam. Partneing with NGOs in the global south to positively impact the lives of women and families, PPGNHI currently focuses on improving youth SRH in the DR and Vietnam where the majority of clients are girls. Overall goals of PPGNHI’s global efforts include increasing access to family planning and other SRH services, empowering young people through education about SRH and rights, and reducing the incidence of unsafe abortion and its consequences. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-great-northwest-hawaiian-islands/international-programs

Spreeha Foundation – Spreeha strives to break the cycle of poverty for underprivileged people. Operating in the urban slums of Bangladesh, Spreeha focuses heavily on women’s health and empowerment. The young women leadership program caters to girls age 8 – 14, educating them about their rights and potential along with providing guidance and extracurricular skills training. The women empowerment and placement program provides professional and technical training to women age 15 – 45, and arranges for job placement once complete. Spreeha healthcare programs offer maternal care and family planning services, on top of wide-ranging medical support to its beneficiaries. www.spreeha.org

Thriive – Thriive provides pay-it-forward loans to ambitious entrepreneurs in developing countries (over half are women) to create jobs and strengthen vulnerable communities. Entrepreneurs repay this ThriiveCapital not in cash or profit, but by donating an equivalent value of staple products and job training to the poorest people in struggling communities. By paying their loans forward, Thriive entrepreneurs are inspiring new cultures of social responsibility and making vulnerable global communities more resilient and self-sufficient. Through providing women entrepreneurs with the affordable capital they need to expand their small businesses, Thriive helps lift more women out of poverty and builds shared prosperity worldwide. www.thriive.org