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Women’s empowerment: what works and why? Image

Promoting Inclusive Markets and Financial Systems

Women’s empowerment: what works and why?

Women’s empowerment: what works and why?


With radical roots in the 1980s, women’s empowerment has now become a mainstream development concern. Harnessed by corporations, global NGOs, development’s philanthropic as well as government donors, multinational agencies and banks, it has become akin to a panacea: empowering girls and women is championed as a means to lift economies, drive growth, improve infant and child health, enhance women’s skills as mothers as well as to open up opportunities for women’s economic and political engagement. Much of the narrative of women’s empowerment in international development focuses on the instrumental gains of empowering women and girls—what they can do for development. Empowerment is treated as a destination that can be reached through development’s equivalent of motorways: fast-track programmes that can be rolled out over any terrain. But in the process the hidden pathways women are travelling in their own individual or collective journeys of empowerment remain out of view. Much can be gained from reversing a focus on empowerment as an outcome and paying closer attention to women’s experiences of travels along diverse pathways of empowerment.

Revisiting foundational feminist work on the concept of empowerment from the 1980s and 1990s, this paper draws on the findings of a multi-country research programme, Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, to explore pathways of positive change in women’s lives, in diverse contexts, and to draw together some lessons for policy and practice. It begins with an account of women’s empowerment in development, tracing some key ideas that have shaped feminist engagement with empowerment in theory and practice. It then introduces the Pathways programme and its methodological approach, before turning to each of Pathways’ themes, exploring key findings from our research and highlighting examples of ‘what works’. It goes on to narrate a series of stories of change that illustrate some of the dynamics and dimensions of change identified in our key conclusions. Drawing out the principal lessons, the paper concludes with reflections on implications for development policy and practice. 

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