What does it mean to empower women?
by Lauren Citrome
Women are not helpless in face of existing challenges. Around the world they are decision-makers for themselves, their families, villages, businesses, and governments. For societies where this is not the case, people speak of the need for women’s empowerment.
But what does it really mean to empower women? Is it political empowerment? Economic empowerment? Social empowerment? In fact, these categories are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reinforcing.
Women’s political empowerment, usually envisioned as political participation in elections and government, is necessary to give women a voice in the policies that affect their lives. Women’s economic empowerment, which entails that women have the authority to make their own decisions regarding use of their resources, leads to prosperity for families and communities. Social empowerment, often achieved through public policy and education, liberates women from the mistreatment, exploitation, and oppression that inhibit women from reaching their full potential.
Economic empowerment can provide the clout for women to be empowered politically. Political empowerment allows women to take control of the policies that will benefit their economic standing. Social empowerment reinforces the ability to participate economically and politically, which in turn reinforces women’s standing in society. Unfortunately, many women are not empowered in these ways.
With recognition of this problem comes well-intentioned people who want to give power to women. Despite good intent, however, if someone “gives power” to another, then someone else can take it away. That is not the solution to achieve women’s empowerment. To be fully empowered, women have to take power for themselves.
The barriers preventing women’s empowerment extend beyond individuals – there are institutional and systemic reasons why women in some societies cannot participate freely. To break down these barriers, individuals have to work together to reform the laws, social norms, or whichever institutions are inhibiting women’s productivity. Societies must also acknowledge the potential for growth and prosperity that can be achieved when women are included.
Women’s business associations are an example of one vehicle for women to empower themselves. By networking to build better businesses, women gain economic empowerment. By associating with each other in a business association, women become part of civil society and can have a louder voice when advocating policies that will benefit their lives and businesses. When women have both economic and political power, they become full members of society.
Associations are just one way to achieve women’s empowerment. On June 20 and 21, 2011, CIPE will explore others at Democracy that Delivers for Women, an international conference in Washington, DC to explore best practices in maximizing women’s participation in politics, the economy, and society. Attendees will hear from leaders and practitioners such as:
Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues
Henrietta Holsman Fore, Chairwoman and CEO of Holsman International and former Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and the Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Center on Foreign Relations
Since its creation in 1983, CIPE has been working with business associations, chambers of commerce and economic think tanks around the world to promote institutional reforms and advance economic and political empowerment.
Women business associations are one type of business associations that CIPE has partnered with in order to support the economic empowerment of women. Recognizing the unique role such organizations play, CIPE has focused on strengthening women business associations and thus empowering women to become entrepreneurs and leaders in their local communities and countries.
For instance, CIPE recently cooperated with the International Labour Organization with the view to provide technical assistance for women economic empowerment to a group of Somali business support organizations. An exciting component of this initiative in which I have been involved is assisting with the establishment of a women’s chamber of commerce in Somaliland. This assistance has come also in the form of sharing examples, experiences and best practices from women organizations and especially women’s chambers of commerce around the world.
Some of these examples and experiences are presented in this month’s Economic Reform Feature Service article, in which I examine the creation and operation of women’s chambers of commerce around the world, as well as their programming.
While there are many differences among countries in terms of legal framework, economic and social conditions and cultural norms, typically women chambers of commerce provide their members and potential members with a wide range of programs and services that include: nformation and training on how to formalize a business, thus helping women entrepreneurs enjoy the protection granted by the law and access to funding;
Training and education opportunities, in the form of workshops, conferences, mentorships, and internships
Recognition and awareness – building programs
Linkages with new customers and markets through fairs, trade missions and investment forums
Representation of their business interests by identifying business constraints, promoting policy proposals and eliminating obstacles to women’s economic participation.
To learn more about the characteristics of women’s chambers of commerce, and how they were created and operate, read the latest Economic Reform Feature Service article.
Carmen Stanila is a Senior Consultant at CIPE.