Choosing words with care: Shifting meanings of women’s empowerment in international development

Published on 1 June 2009

Women’s empowerment’ is a fuzzy concept as used by international development organisations. Historical textual analysis and interviews with officials in development agencies reveal its adaptability and capacity to carry multiple meanings that variously wax and wane in their discursive influence.

Today a privileging of instrumentalist meanings of empowerment associated with efficiency and growth are crowding out other more socially transformative meanings associated with rights and collective action. In their efforts to make headway in what has become an unfavourable policy environment those officials in development agencies with a commitment to a broader social change agenda juggle with these different meanings, strategically exploiting the concept’s polysemic nature to keep that agenda alive. With this in mind, we argue for a politics of solidarity between such officials and feminist activists. We encourage the latter to challenge the prevailing instrumentalist discourse of empowerment with a clear well articulated call for social transformation, while alerting them to how those with the same agenda within international development agencies may well be choosing their words with care, even if what they say appears fuzzy.


Rosalind Eyben

Emeritus Fellow

Publication details

published by
Taylor and Francis
Eyben, R. with Napier-Moore, R.
Third World Quarterly, volume 30, issue 2


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