You will not follow a feminist activist on Instagram, march at a female-rights rally or attend an event at the CSW without hearing it; albeit, more often than not, the word "empowered" goes undefined. Thursday, four of the five sessions I attended had “empower” in their titles or included it in the event’s description, yet during the events themselves, the word did not come up more than once.
Empowerment is employed as both a catchy slogan and meaningful subtext.
“Empower” frequently flows as part of a cascade of feminist rhetoric. We employ the word as an attention-grabber or reflex, without pondering it further or delving into its implications. Considering we use the word we so often, it requires greater attention.
What does it mean to be empowered?
The online dictionary defines “empower” as either “giv[ing] (someone) the authority or power to do something,” or “mak[ing] (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” However, from a feminist standpoint, these definitions are unsatisfactory. The former assumes someone does not already possess “power” and that power is gifted — it becomes a handout rather than something innate, earned, or rightful. The latter occurs by one person acting upon another, giving the power to the person doing the “empowering” rather than the individual who becomes “empowered.” Furthermore, it places the onus on the individual to claim their rights and control their life, deflecting responsibility from the systems of oppression that restrict women’s access to these rights. By these definitions, “empowerment” doesn’t seem very empowering.
The word “empower” can still hold immense value in modern discourse: its current definition simply needs refinement. Today’s events helped to shed light on what I believe this revised understanding of empowerment could entail.
Zimbabwe’s session, “Community-Based Initiatives for Building Resilience and Social Security for Women,” discussed the “robust” infrastructure and services the government has developed to empower its women and girls. According to the President of their Senate, Zimbabwe actively promotes an internal lending and saving system which allows communities to put together “group funds.” In essence, these are community-driven social safety nets, enabling women to draw on these funds as needed, “empowering themselves” in a highly organized fashion. The government also offers training to women to maximize the efficiency of these funds and agricultural production more broadly.
When it came time for questions, a European woman asked whether the government was making any effort to help women access more advanced education, so that they can go on to have careers as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. This well-intentioned question was met with an impassioned response. A Zimbabwean woman rose up from the audience—her voice filling the room with the resonance of steadfast conviction — affirming, “Being a farmer is one of the most honorable professions you can have. Let’s not forget our African connection to the soil. Do not ever feel like a second-class citizen. We are rich in spirit and colonialists are poor in morality.” Tumultuous applause met her comments, serving as a reminder that “empowerment” has many faces.
You cannot trace the portrait of an empowered woman. Albeit, you can provide her with options and support so that she can plow her own future. Furthermore, agriculture itself can be empowering to women, but we can also see women’s empowerment through the lens of agriculture. If a woman is a seed, empowerment is enabled by the state of the environment she is sown into.
With my mind framed by this new understanding of empowerment, I trekked upstairs to a panel titled “Sierra Leone’s Pathway to Women’s Empowerment.” A representative from UN women stated that “Sierra Leone is crying.” She said the country has been “marked by tragedies” but the “tenacity” of its “people is unrivaled;” particularly women, who are “at the centre of getting up, moving on, and picking up the pieces” of this shattered nation.
In Sierra Leone, female genital mutilation, rape, child marriage, poor health, and extreme poverty, are all chief perpetrators of the suppression of girls’ and women’s potential. Fortunately, with the help of UN Women, the government is seeking to improve these conditions. The country has declared sexual violence as a “national emergency” and its First Lady spoke about her “Hands-Off-Our-Girls” campaign, which targets these atrocities. I realized that in all of the other sessions I attended, governments focused on their strides forward, not their setbacks. This event was different. The panelists spoke with unparalleled candor — and listening to them was emotionally challenging: I can still feel the gravity of the subject matter weighing on me.
A seed is encoded with a natural life trajectory. It carries certain biological features that make its probability of becoming a plant high but not guaranteed. In this way, a seed has a kind of “destiny;” but the full realization of this destiny depends on the seed’s environmental conditions. People are the same. Girls are encoded with potential. Whether or not this potential is fully realized, is strongly influenced by the conditions in which they grow up. The next session I attended, “Journalism and the Empowerment of Women: New Challenges in the Digital World,” confirmed the importance of the conditions that surround us.
It is a turbulent time for journalism but female journalists tend to bear the worst of it. Social media is the ultimate double-edged sword. It can be wielded as a weapon in the fight for our freedom of expression, but it also can cut us up inside. The panel, composed of one French and three American female journalists, shared their war-stories of sexism, discrimination, and harassment. For them, every day is a fight to have their professional voice heard and respected. One of the speakers, who is a political reporter, shared that she has repeatedly had her face pasted onto pornographic images and received threats of rape over Twitter. Another shared that her parents had received death threats directed at her.
Recent statistics show that two out of three female journalists have been harassed online. The panelists fear that these harsh conditions will dissuade girls from considering journalism as a career, which puts democracy itself at risk because “the press cannot be free without equal representation of women.” To protect themselves and their families, female journalists must keep their private and professional lives completely separate. They cannot wait for their governments to act in their defense; for the sake of their own safety, they must take security measures into their own hands. They must rely on positive self-talk and a strong belief in themselves and their work, to shield themselves from the hate that bombards their digital feeds. They must empower themselves. But is self-protection truly empowerment? Is it not still a response to patriarchy rather than an autonomous action? Should female journalists have to bear this burden?
But they do.
The seed — the person — is not the problem: she does not need to be changed. However, the soil, water, and climate she is subject to must be changed to support her growth. My final session at the CSW, about Denmark’s “Inclusive Early Education,Work-Life Balance and Women’s Empowerment,” is proof that such conditions are possible.
Denmark has implemented a world-class daycare and parental leave program. Every child over six months has a legal “right” to affordable daycare. Daycare is offered fifty hours a week and the government covers at least 75 percent of its costs. The programs are designed to reflect current psychological research on optimal child development and are facilitated by highly-trained, highly-valued professionals. Consequently, 97 percent of children between ages three and five are enrolled in a daycare program. As for parental leave, every family of a newborn child is permitted 52 weeks of paid time-off, which can be split between two parents. The government strongly encourages maternal and paternal leave so that both women and men can play active roles in child-rearing and the labor market. These programs empower men and women, giving them options to balance their work and home lives to fit the specific needs of their family. Moreover, these programs empower young children by offering them the educational support and relational bonds needed to thrive.
If you delve into its roots, “empower” can be broken down into two parts: “em” and “power.” “Em” means to “put in or into, bring to a certain state;” whilepower refers to the capacity to hold influence or control over a particular entity. I believe that this analysis provides a more satisfactory definition than the most common current ones: to empower is to cultivate the external conditions that allow someone to bring themselves to a state of power.
Such a definition of empowerment shifts at least some of the responsibility off individuals, placing it on society on a number of fronts. It operates with the understanding that each of us possesses the innate capacity for power and for self-actualization — these qualities just need to be nourished.
When we empower women and girls — whether through social protection, education, kindness, employment, or equal treatment — we create the conditions for them to flourish, for them to power themselves. When we empower a woman or a girl, we remove systems of oppression and fertilize a safe, supportive environment, so that she can grow into the fullness of her own potential. Her power comes from within. The unrestrained ability to use that power to its fullest extent comes from the intervention of outside forces.
When we empower a woman or a girl, the winds of change take her unique seeds — her traits, her skills, her priorities, and her dreams — carrying them to new places, where they will enrich and moisten the soil, creating an entire ecosystem that is most conducive to continuous growth.