What’s the Point of Empowering Women?

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What’s the Point of Empowering Women?[1]
A special guest post from Serene Khader

The story has become almost a cliché. Give a wo. man $70, and her life, her family, and her society will transform. After receiving a microloan, she will start her own business, leave her abusive husband, and declare for the first time that she possesses self-esteem. She may run for office or send her daughter to school. All that is needed to “turn oppression into opportunity,” as the authors of the vaunted Half the Sky put it, is to give individual women the opportunity to see what they can do.

If this story sounds too good to be true, there’s reason to worry that it is.

Without denying that some small-scale development interventions aimed at women have been wild successes, and that many have been moderate ones, the data are mixed to say the least. About the widely-celebrated Grameen Bank alone, the following are just a few outcomes that have been documented: the description of women who were already middle class when they entered the bank as success stories (Karim 2011),women’s use of borrowed money to pay back loans, and even suicides to avoid the humiliation of not being able to pay back the bank (Rahman 2001), large percentages of loans being used for household consumption rather than entrepreneurship (Rahman 2001), husbands appropriating women’s loans while women attend meetings to make it appear that they are primary loan users (Rahman 2001), and husbands forcing women to quit the bank and return to housework and seclusion after paying back loans (Ahmed 2008).

There are clearly a number of nonexclusive explanations for these mixed outcomes—ranging from the fact that some of the problems might be insoluble without changes in the global economy[2] to the fact that responding to deprivation on the ground is an incredibly complex task. What I want to focus on here, however, is a philosophical reason that women’s empowerment programs have sometimes failed to deliver on their promises.

Simply put, development practice has lacked clarity about its aims where women’s empowerment is concerned. It has been motivated by an assumption that improving individual women’s agency would cause gender transformation. One problem with this assumption is its grounding in an inadequate social theory—one that fails to apprehend the relationship between social expectations and welfare under conditions of oppression. This lack of an appropriate social theory has made it difficult to know how to go about effecting women’s empowerment. But the problem is also deeper than this. A second issue is an unclear understanding of what women’s empowerment even is. The existing conversation is ambiguous about whether it is individual women or women as a group who are supposed to be empowered.

Before I explain what is wrong with the expectation that changing individual women’s lives will reduce their oppression, I want to explain why the view is appealing. The reasoning behind it begins in some assumptions about what disempowerment is. Disempowerment, the state women are initially assumed to be in, is a state of reduced agency. Agency is the ability to achieve valuable functionings and make decisions about whether and how one wants to achieve them.[3]

The notion of agency undergirding this idea conceives agency as a property of individual human beings, one with both external and psychological components. The external component is the presence of opportunities to achieve basic welfare—such as access to adequate nutrition and sanitation, freedom from violence, etc. The psychological one includes a person’s sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. Lacks of opportunity are seen to cause deficits of self-worth and self-efficacy; rather than imagining that they cannot accomplish much in life, women and the poor are often responding to genuine lacks of opportunity. On such an understanding of the relationship between the internal and external components of agency, opportunity enhancement should increase a person’s self-worth and self-efficacy. These enhancements in psychological empowerment are in turn supposed to translate into new abilities to change the world, to agitate for even greater opportunities for welfare. Call the idea that enhanced opportunities increase psychological empowerment, which in turn causes the desire to transform social conditions, the “empowerment through individual agency narrative.”

When we expect a poor woman to want to transform gender relations because she now has greater income or better health, we are usually drawing on the empowerment through individual agency narrative. The narrative seems logical enough, so why do some instances of increases in women’s welfare seem not to translate into challenges to prevailing gender norms? One problem with the expectation has to do with an inadequate social theory. Specifically, I think the empowerment through individual agency narrative fails to acknowledge the role social expectations play in mediating access to welfare and self-esteem. Access to the goods constitutive of welfare—food, sanitation, respect, etc.—is often, or even typically, contingent upon meeting certain social expectations. For instance, in capitalist societies, one must do the type of work society values to earn an income.

In some cases, the contingency of welfare on meeting social expectations will be relatively innocuous. But in cases of oppression, the content of the social expectations is, well, oppressive. If I am right that welfare can be contingent on compliance with oppressive social norms, the empowerment as individual agency narrative can break down in the lives of oppressed individuals. One way—often the easiest way—development interventions can increase women’s access to welfare is by increasing their abilities to meet oppressive expectations. They may then experience increased self-esteem and self-efficacy—but on the basis of being better at meeting standards oppressive to their groups. But these increases may not translate into desires to transform the social order, because the intervention may have increased, or simply failed to change, women’s investment in it.

This analysis offers a plausible explanation of what are otherwise puzzling recent outcomes of microcredit interventions. Consider some particularly puzzling findings concerning women and work from economist Naila Kabeer’s research on microcredit in rural Bangladesh. Despite reporting improvements in their lives, many of the women in her study chose to engage in home-based employment—in some cases, even leaving employment outside the home to work in the home. Many went so far as to value microloans precisely because they prevented them from having to venture outside. Clearly, the mechanism of improvement in these women’s lives was not the one imagined by Half the Sky-like narratives, where starting a business opens up a whole new world of imaginative possibilities for women. The idea that leaving the house and violating norms of secluding women was shameful remained strong. “With credit, I got the ability of working within the home, within the bounds of honor” (Kabeer 1998, 66).

Another finding of Kabeer’s was that many women valued the loans, because they decreased the frequency with which their husbands beat them. But again, the mechanism of welfare increase here was not one that encouraged women to challenge oppressive roles. The main mechanism of reductions in domestic violence appeared to be reductions in household scarcity; more money in the household meant less tension—even in cases where women appeared not to have increased their involvement in paid labor as a result of the loans. Some women explained the positive impact of microcredit in their lives thus: their husbands became less violent toward them because they were sources of income. This new belief is distinct from the belief that women should hold a different place in society because they have skills and capacities that make them capable of earning and managing income. One woman offers the following analysis of the effect of loans in her community, “Now husbands think, if we beat up our wives, they won’t give us loans, we won’t survive” (Kabeer 1998, 51). Many NGOs lend exclusively to women. Some men value women because of the fear that they cannot access loans without them. It is not only Kabeer’s study that suggests this; Fauzia Ahmed’s work on masculinity and the Grameen Bank includes men who force their wives to cut ties with the bank the instant they have paid back their loans.

It is difficult for the empowerment through individual agency narrative to have anticipated these outcomes. My understanding of social expectations as conditioning access to welfare helps explain why these outcomes, even if potentially unavoidable, were predictable. Perhaps microcredit allowed women to become better at meeting sexist expectations. Getting better at meeting the sexist (and classist[4]) expectation that women should be secluded improved their lives by causing others to treat them better. Getting better at meeting the sexist expectation that women are points of access to income helped insulate women from violence. After all, the expectation that wives be sources of capital and the association of violence with the failure to provide capital are not new in many South Asian communities—communities with long histories of dowry. There is evidence that has emerged since Kabeer’s study that men view women as something like collateral since the advent of microcredit (Hoffman and Marius-Gnanou 2007, 9). In Elisabeth Hofmann’s and Kamela Marius-Gnanou’s words, we should worry that microcredit is becoming “the new dowry.” Wives that bring in loans may be treated better (Hoffman and Marius-Gnanou 2007, 9).

A second finding of Kabeer’s suggests that it is possible, not only for women to have their investment in the oppressive social order unchanged by development interventions that increase their welfare, but to have it increased. A few of the poorest women in the study withdrew from formal sector work after the intervention. That is, they had worked outside the home before and now abandoned it because microcredit made it unnecessary. The women cited two motivations for this. One was that work in the fields or in others’ homes was arduous and demeaning. Another was that women who are secluded are of higher value. In at least one of the narratives, a woman who seems to have felt pride in challenging norms of seclusion before comes to see herself as more honorable now; “my value has gone up,” she says, now that I “don’t sell milk in the market anymore” (Kabeer 1998, 67). What seems to have happened is that the same intervention that increased some women’s welfare and self-esteem reduced their desire to change society.

Again, the empowerment through individual agency view is not particularly useful in explaining what happened. The narrative is correct that getting better at doing something is likely to increase people’s desire to do that thing and attach their self-worth to it. But what the next result will be depends on what women have actually gotten better at doing. And this is what a social theory that emphasizes the relationship between welfare and social norms can help us see.

It may be objected that I am wrong to conclude that these are examples of women’s empowerment not living up to its promise. These women’s welfare improved, and they are happy about the improvement, so are these not women’s empowerment successes? Indeed, this is Kabeer’s own analysis of these cases.[5] Whether these are cases of success depends on our perception of the goal—that is, what we think women’s empowerment is. If we think women’s empowerment is the same thing as increasing individual women’s agency, then Kabeer is right; these are successes. And there is a commonsense resonance to this idea: empowerment is expansion of agency, and women’s agency is expanded, so women’s empowerment must be happening.

But I think this line of reasoning draws on a basic equivocation. The word “women” may mean “more than one individual woman” or “women as a social group.” Most women’s empowerment theorists, and even the journalists who wrote Half the Sky, seem concerned with ending women’s oppression. This, I submit, is ultimately a concern about the status of women as a group. As Marilyn Frye argues in her classic essay, oppression is a set of relatively pervasive social and institutional practices whose effects disadvantage one group relative to another (Frye 1983). Increasing the welfare of some women is not the same thing as reducing the force of these practices, because oppression is not the same thing as some individual women lacking welfare. This is not to say that increasing individual women’s welfare is not a worthy development goal—only that it is insufficient for reducing oppression.

So, yes, “increasing individual women’s ability to attain welfare” is a plausible reconstruction of the term “women’s empowerment.” But that clearly isn’t the underlying understanding that has produced the widespread disappointment, or at least puzzlement over, interventions that claimed to empower women. This understanding of empowerment also cannot explain the enthusiasm for socially transformative outcomes that typically accompanies the empowerment as individual agency narrative. The popular narratives suggest transformations in gender relations—not just individual women experiencing less violence or having more money.

One way to resolve the conflict between the expectations and reality is to do what Kabeer does and suggest that the enthusiasm itself was misguided. Perhaps we should be more humble and accept that increasing individual women’s welfare is a sufficient goal. Another is to accept that, even if women’s empowerment is difficult to aim at, and that there will sometimes be reasons to prioritize the welfare of individual women, transforming gender expectations is something worth striving for. The Global Goals refuse to stop short at the goals of improving individual women’s lives; goal five is to “achieve gender equality and empower women.” Getting clearer about what the normative goals of interventions are, and how the relationship between oppression and individual welfare structures the contexts in which interventions occur, can be useful in imagining women’s empowerment strategies that come closer to living up to their promise.


Ahmed, F. E. (2008). “Microcredit, Men, and Masculinity.” Feminist Formations 20(2): 122-155.

Frye, M. (1983). “Oppression”. The Politics of Reality. Freedom, CA, The Crossing Press.

Jaggar, A. (2013). “We Fight for Roses, Too: Time Use and Global Gender Justice.” Journal of Global Ethics: 115-129.

Kabeer, N. (1998). “‘Money can’t buy me love’? Re-evaluating Gender, Credit, and Empowerment in Rural Bangladesh”. Sussex, Institute for Development Studies. IDS Discussion Paper 363.

Karim, L. (2011). Microfinance and Its Discontents. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Khader, S. J. (2014). Empowerment Through Self-Subordination: Microcredit and Women’s Self Respect. Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights. D. Meyers. New York, Oxford: 223-249.

Narayan, U. (2005). “Informal Sector Work, Microcredit, and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Overview”. Unpublished work on file with the author.

Rahman, A. (2001). Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh. Boulder, Westview.



[1] I have made these arguments at greater length in Khader, S. J. (2014). Empowerment Through Self-Subordination: Microcredit and Women’s Self Respect. Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights. D. Meyers. New York, Oxford: 223-249.

[2] For discussions of the ways in which global structural barriers impede women’s empowerment, see Jaggar, A. (2013). “We Fight for Roses, Too: Time Use and Global Gender Justice.” Journal of Global Ethics: 115-129. And Narayan, U. (2005). “Informal Sector Work, Microcredit, and Women’s

Empowerment: A Critical Overview”. Unpublished work on file with the author.

[3] There is significant controversy in the development literature on agency about whether agency is the ability to do what one values, what is objectively valuable, or some combination of the two. In this post, I stick to what I take to be the standard usage—that agency is the ability to achieve objectively valuable functionings

[4] Women’s seclusion and nonparticipation in the workforce are signs of class status in a number of societies.

[5] Kabeer’s solution to this particular problem is to not only individualize agency, but also to subjectivize it. Her reasoning that increases in individual women’s welfare constitute women’s empowerment is that they see their own lives as improved. This claim is somewhat inconsistent with claims about empowerment as the presence of strategic life choice that Kabeer makes in other writings.

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