What is Empowerment?

There are many ways to understand empowerment. One definition is not going to capture what this word means to everyone. In business, economics, law, politics, health, gender issues, management – in all of these fields, empowerment has specific meanings and applications. We looked at what others have written (see the resource list at the end of this document if you want to read more) and we asked members of the GRID Network and the people we work with for what it means to them. We also thought about what empowerment is not.
Usually empowerment has these characteristics:

  • Empowerment is about the process that a person or group goes through to be able to use their influence, power, and control to achieve goals that improve quality of life. For example: a person who goes through a training program and then uses the skills acquired to improve quality of life.
  • However, it is not just about “power”. Usually people are not considered “empowered” if they don’t respect or care for others. Someone who just takes power to oppress others or to benefit themselves is not considered empowered.
    For example, a woman or man who uses the administrative skills acquired in school to depreciate female or male subordinates.
  • It is intentional – it does not just happen. Someone (or a group of people) thinks about how empowerment will happen, and takes steps to increase power and control. For example, an organisation intentionally decides to build capacity for persons with disabilities to be able to participate in politics.
  • It is an ongoing process that is never really finished.
    Just like education, no one is sufficiently empowered. It starts, then continues to different levels.
  • It is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights and exploiting one’s full potential.
    For example, the political and social process and steps taken for women to participate in the political life of a country.
  • Empowerment involves reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and on who has power and who doesn’t (and why they don’t), and on how that power is used. It is about relationships and resources. It is about asking questions, sometimes questions that challenge the status quo.
    For instance, Why are more women not involved in politics? How do we empower them to be involved and what does it take? Why I am not involved in politics, and how can I become more involved?
  • The power that a person or group is using can be challenged by those with more power. Empowerment is not fixed and unchangeable.
    For example, a person might feel empowered in one organization, and then dis-empowered in another.
  • One risk of empowerment is that some people who are used to exercising power might feel threatened by those who are becoming empowered.
    Something to consider: People who feel empowered might find it more difficult to follow hierarchies and authority in the ways they did before. What is the impact on those with more power? Why do you think this happens? How can those with more power support people (in an empowerment process) if and when they question hierarchies and authority?
  • Often empowerment is part of social or group actions – the people with less power learn from others and share support with others to gain greater access to and control over resources, and more empowerment happens.

In a Community of Practice people learn from each other and those who did not know certain skills learn from others and grow to have a greater voice.

  • Empowerment cannot be given – it is personal and local. Let’s say that again, because this is a very important point: Empowerment cannot be given. It has to be developed by each person for his or herself. You cannot empower someone else. Empowerment takes place in the here and now, not out there or over there. The conditions can be fostered and barriers removed, but the person who is becoming empowered has to change from the inside, and accept those changes for themselves. For example, for you to become an artist does not only necessitate the development of skills but you have to decide to do it.
  • Empowerment is multi-dimensional – it occurs within political, sociological, psychological, economic, and other dimensions. It is used in many different fields of study to mean different things. So always ask what the person means when they use the term “empowerment”.

Robert Adams says ‘Empowerment is the capacity of individuals, groups and/or communities to take control of their circumstances, exercise power, and achieve their own goals, and the process by which, individually and collectively, they are able to help themselves and others to maximize the quality of their lives.'[Adams, 2008]
In the North West Region, the process of empowerment, and of working with communities to foster empowerment, can involve these actions:

-Making choices to engage in a process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling your own life and claiming your own rights.
– Putting measures in place that are designed to reduce the degree of dependence and to increase autonomy in people and in communities (including people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable and marginalized).
– Providing opportunities for people and communities to develop capacities to be able to act on their own.
– Sharing decision making authority with people who are lower than you in the organizational hierarchy, for example sharing the authority to do something in your name or on your behalf.
– Building capacities to enable people and communities to function in a realm greater than where they were.
– Enabling people with disabilities to face livelihood challenges and succeed in day to day activities – for example, by advocating for inclusive workplaces, and providing high quality rehabilitation and training programs.

In health care, empowerment is related to patient independence. Patients need to be able make decisions on their own behalf. When health care organizations have policies and practices that provide patients opportunities to use their ability to make choices in relation to their treatment options, social activities, care, food and so on, patients can be more empowered. When organizations, and the people working within them, block or discourage decision making, it is dis-empowering.

What do GRID members and colleagues say about empowerment?
What does EMPOWERMENT mean to you?

Empowerment means building self-confidence and self-esteem in people so that they can take control over their lives.”
Wirba Assan
Empowerment is gaining necessary skills and knowledge to manage one’s life to the best sustainable interest of all.”
Andze Cordelia
Empowerment is about people gaining control over their lives, being self-reliant.
Mbuli Clodine.

The EDID Program of the CBCHS empowers children with disabilities by ensuring they gain formal education so as to be more assertive, (seeking admission, paying their school fee and ensuring that they succeed in school), and access healthcare, livelihood and social opportunities.”
Agho Glory
“The SEEPD Program, amongst other things, empowers teachers by providing training on inclusive education to enable them to teach children with disabilities in mainstream schools”
Julius Tangem

So, dear reader, now that you have read all this – Ask yourself:
What does EMPOWERMENT mean to me? Am I empowered? How do I know?

Want to read more?
Adams, Robert. Empowerment, participation and social work. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.xvi
Cbm search their site for “empowerment” http://blog.cbm.org/?s=empowerment
Charlton, J. I. (1998) Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press “The author uses a disability rights standpoint to discuss the international oppression of people with disabilities. He provides a theoretical framework for understanding disability oppression not as something that has come from the attitudes of people without disabilities, but because of systems and structures of oppression from which these attitudes stem. He uses interviews with disability rights activists from around the world to back his argument.” From http://thedisabilitybooks.org/pdf/information-package-on-disability-studies.pdf
Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by M.B. Ramos. New York: Seabury Press.
Rapport, J. (1984). Studies in empowerment: Introduction to the issue. Prevention in Human Services, 3, 1-7.
United Nations Social Development Network http://unsdn.org/tag/empowerment/

Prepared by Lynn Cockburn, Louis Mbibeh, Kenchi Joseph, and Awa Jacques Chirac
October 2017

Click to download PDF.



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