Since the early 1980s, feminists in Latin America have engaged in a range of programmes and activities aimed at promoting women’s empowerment, but have yet to produce frameworks to analyse this process at work.
Tracing and reflecting upon the impressive advancements of feminist activism throughout the region has been a major focus for feminist analysis (Sternbach et al. 1992; Lavrin 1998). However, little thinking has gone into depicting how the flow of power/empowerment travels between individuals, groups and institutions, and thus towards linking gains at the macroinstitutional level with real changes in the everyday lives of women in different social contexts. Feminist thinking in the region still lacks concerted analysis of the linkages and discontinuities between individual agency, collective action and structural transformation, and how they operate in the process of women’s empowerment and the eradication of patriarchal domination.
Although ‘empowerment’ (‘empoderamento’) is a term considered new and foreign in Brazil, it has come to be as widely used and to carry as many different meanings as in English. This constitutes a major difficulty in working with this concept. As Srilatha Batliwala notes: ‘It is one of the most loosely used terms in the development lexicon, meaning different things to different people – or, more dangerously, all things to all people’ (1994: 1). As a consequence, there is a lot of mistrust in relation to empowerment on the part of Latin American feminists, as the term has been appropriated by mainstream organisations and by governments to legitimise policies and practices that, from a feminist perspective, are far from empowering for women. The notion of empowerment that has been propagated by mainstream development agencies and organisations differs considerably from its original meaning in feminist thinking. There are ambivalences, contradictions and paradoxes in the uses of the concept, as it is often used as a substitute to integration, participation, identity, development and planning, and hardly ever in reference to its emancipating origins (León 1997). In this article, I reflect on different ways of defining and conceiving women’s empowerment from a Latin American feminist perspective.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.6 (2008) Liberal vs. Liberating Empowerment: A Latin American Feminist Perspective on Conceptualising Women’s Empowerment