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This White Paper defines empowerment of women and girls as 'the expansion of choice and strengthening of voice through the transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control over their lives and futures'. Empowerment is both a process and an outcome. This White Paper presents a conceptual model on women and girls' empowerment, and has been developed by KIT Gender for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The model is informed by existing empowerment frameworks and approaches. It builds on the long history of theory and practice in women and girls’ empowerment, existing operational frameworks and critical reflections on how these frameworks have been operationalised over the past 20 years and what can be learnt from this wealth of experience. The model asserts that expanding women and girls’ choice and voice engages directly with how power operates as a force in their lives; empowerment challenges disempowerment and the systemic constraints on women’s and girls’ choice and voice. These constraints are due to gender relations and how they intersect with age, class, ethnicity, caste, religion, sexual orientation, race and other social markers. Transformation of power relations occurs through women and girls exercising agency and taking action. It entails a redistribution of resources towards women and girls and a shift in the institutional structures that shape their choices and voice. Women and girls’ decision-making, leadership and collective action are central to empowerment processes. Additionally advancing gender equality and empowerment of women and girls also calls for the active engagement of men and boys.
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A Conceptual Model of
March 2017
Anouka van Eerdewijk – Franz Wong – Chloe Vaast - Julie Newton - Marcelo Tyszler - Amy Pennington
This publication should be cited as:
Anouka van Eerdewijk, Franz Wong, Chloe Vaast, Julie Newton,
Marcelo Tyszler & Amy Pennington (2017).
White Paper: A Conceptual Model of Women and Girls’ Empowerment.
Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).
Design: Alike Creative (
Text editing: Margaret Ruth Griffiths
Cover photo: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Mulugeta Ayene
KIT Gender
KIT Gender facilitates and documents critical reflection and gender knowledge development.
It supports the development of policies and strategies that focus on gender equality outcomes
together with partners and clients.
KIT Gender is an international team of gender specialists that focuses on gender and rights
analysis, integration, capacity development and action research. We work on both stand-alone
women’s rights initiatives and addressing gender and rights issues within programs related to
health, and social and economic development. We advise and support management to address
gender concerns in all aspects of their organization. KIT Gender also conducts independent
evaluations and assessments such as gender audits.
Over the last 20 years, KIT Gender has built a strong network of Southern-based organizations
and experts to work with. Partners appreciate KIT’s practical grounded approach and
theoretically based knowledge on gender and rights. Together, we help you make sense of
gender for your organization and programs to bring positive and equitable change in people’s
everyday lives.
For more information:
Feel free to contact Anouka van Eerdewijk, or Franz Wong,
March 2017
Anouka van Eerdewijk – Franz Wong – Chloe Vaast - Julie Newton - Marcelo Tyszler - Amy Pennington
A Conceptual Model of
Acknowledgements 7
1. Why this white paper? 8
1.1 Gender intentional planning 8
1.2 What is the problem? 9
1.3 Why this White Paper? 10
1.4 Review methodology 11
1.5 Outline of the White Paper 12
2. Overview of the model: 13
the critical components
2.1 Elements of empowerment 14
2.2 Intersectionality, and engaging men and boys 15
2.3 Dynamics of transformative change 16
3. Choice, voice and power 17
3.1 Process and outcome 17
3.2 Choice and voice 18
Qualifying choice 19
Qualifying voice 19
3.3 Power 21
Gender as relations of power 21
Transformation of power relations 22
How power works 23
4. Agency 25
4.1 Decision-making 26
Autonomy 27
Bargaining power and joint decision-making 28
4.2 Leadership 29
4.3 Collective action 32
5. Institutional structures 35
5.1 Arenas 37
5.2 Formal laws and policies 38
5.3 Norms 40
5.4 Relations 42
6. Resources 43
6.1 Critical consciousness 45
6.2 Bodily Integrity 47
Health 47
Safety and security 49
6.3 Assets 50
Financial and productive Assets 50
Knowledge and skills 52
Time 52
Social Capital 54
7. Intersectionality and 56
engaging men and boys
7.1 Intersectionality 56
Life cycle perspective 58
Critical life stage: adolescence 58
Intergenerational effects 60
7.2 Men and boys 61
8. Dynamics of transformative change 64
8.1 Empowerment as transformative change 65
8.2 Unpredictable and non-linear 66
pathways of change
8.3 Facilitating change in a non-prescriptive way 66
References 70
Annex I – Building Blocks 74
Annex II - Summary of selected 77
frameworks and measures
List of acronyms
AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
AWARD African Women in Agricultural Research and Development
AWSEM African Women in Science Empowerment Model
CEDAW Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
CRC Convention of Rights of the Child
DAW Division for the Advancement of Women
FP Family Planning
FSP Financial Services for the Poor
GAP Girls Achieve Power
GBV Gender-based Violence
GEAS Global Early Adolescent Study
HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus
ICRW International Center for Research on Women
IFPRI International Food Policy Research Institute
KIT Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam
LGBT Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender
MNCH Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health
NGO Non-Governmental Organization
OECD Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
PST Program Strategy Team
SDG Sustainable Development Goal
SHG Self-help Group
SHINE Sanitation Hygiene Infant Nutrition Efficacy
UNFPA United Nations Population Fund
WGCD Putting Women and Girls at the Center of Development (Grand Challenge)
WASH Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
WEAI Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index
WHO World Health Organization
VAWG Violence Against Women and Girls
This White Paper has been developed in partnership with
and for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the
product of close collaboration between KIT Gender, the
foundation Gender Equality team, and program staff and
key partners of the foundation.
We would like to extend our highest appreciation to
the members of the core group of foundation program
staff who have accompanied us on the journey of
developing this White Paper and conceptual model on
empowerment of women and girls. We would like to
thank Sohail Agha, Dipika Ailani, Yamini Atmavilas, Radu
Ban, Gina Dallabetta, Catherine Goode, Katherine Hay,
Krishna Jafa, Liz Kellison, Chiara Kovarik, Clarissa Lord
Brundage, Lee Pyne-Mercier, Ritu Shroff, Kate Somers,
and Vicki Wilde. Their thoughtful inputs and suggestions,
and careful and close reading of the different versions of
the key deliverables have been of great value.
Several moments provided important opportunities
for close interactions with the foundation staff and
partners. During the inception visit (October 2015) the
KIT team benefitted from the meetings and interactions
with over 40 program staff. The set of five webinars
(February 2016) provided an excellent opportunity
for continued conversation with 30 foundation staff
members. During the convening of the Women and
Girls in the Centre of Development Grand Challenge
in Nairobi (February 2016), the KIT team benefitted
from the impressive work and in-depth conversations
with over 30 partner organizations and more than 20
foundation staff members.
The in-depth reflections on the draft White Paper during
the convening in Seattle (June 2016) was a key moment
for critical inputs and suggestions from fourteen external
experts and partners, and seventeen foundation program
staff. We are grateful to all external participants of this
convening: Aluísio Barros (International Center for Equity
in Health, Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil); Doris
Bartel (CARE USA); Sarah Henry (Stanford University);
Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg (Agricultural Research and
Development, AWARD); Brad Kerner (Save the Children);
Alex Munive (Plan International); Apollo Nwako (Africa
Women in Agricultural Research and Development,
AWARD); Sian Phillips (Australian Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade); Suzanne Petroni (International Center
for Research on Women, ICRW); Emily Courey Pryor
(UN Foundation); Lucero Quiroga (independent); Anita
Raj (University of California, San Diego); Sean Singh
(Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
We would like to especially extend our appreciation
for thoughtful feedback at the June 2016 convening
to Srilatha Batliwala (CREA, Creating Resources for
Empowerment in Action), Andrea Cornwall (Institute
of Development Studies, Sussex), and Jeni Klugman
(Harvard Kennedy School). The convening was also a
success as a result to the participation of core team
members and other foundation staff.
The Gender Equality team of the foundation has been
a true partner in co-creating this White Paper. Special
thanks go to Sarah Hendriks for her close partnership
and deep involvement in this process. Kristin Envarli
has also been a great support at key moments in our
journey, along with Sarah Henry and Lucero Quiroga as
consultants for the Gender Equality Team.
The KIT team developing this White Paper consists
of Anouka van Eerdewijk, Franz Wong, Chloe Vaast,
Julie Newton and Marcelo Tyszler. We would like to
thank Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay, Coosje Hoogendoorn
and Katrine Danielsen for their valuable support and
feedback on earlier versions of this White Paper.
Gratitude goes to Margaret Ruth Griffiths for the careful
language editing. Much appreciation goes to Stephen
Tierney of Alike Creative for the design of the visual
model and the design and lay-out of this White Paper.
1. Why this White Paper?
1.1 Gender Intentional Planning
“The development field needs to be more serious about gender inequities and women’s
empowerment. By ignoring gender inequities, many development projects fail to
achieve their objective. And when development organizations do not focus on women’s
empowerment, they neglect the fact that empowered women have the potential to
transform their societies” (Gates, 2014, p. 1273).
This was the key message of Melinda Gates’ Commentary
in Science in 2014. She argued, “No society can achieve
its potential with half of its population marginalized and
disempowered.” And that by not intentionally putting
women and girls at the centre of global development, we
have “lost opportunities to maximize our impact across
all of the arenas in which we work” (p. 1273).
Women and girls’ empowerment is gaining a more
prominent place in the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation. In addition to exciting and innovative work
across the Program Strategy Teams (PSTs), the foundation
in 2014 launched a Grand Challenge, Putting Women and
Girls at the Center of Development (WGCD). This calls for
transformative and innovate ideas that can sustainably
change the lives and futures of women and girls.1
1. The Grand Challenge call for proposals yielded 1,742 Letters of Interest from 128 countries across the world—the highest recorded response for a Grand Challenge to date.
Nineteen proposals, working across a range of programme areas in the foundation, were selected, totalling $24 million in funding.
Empowerment of women and girls is also firmly embedded
in the international development agenda, and in the
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As Sarah
Hendriks, Director of Gender Equality at the foundation,
argues in her Medium blog, ‘Yes, the World Really Can
Eliminate Gender Inequality’, “We now have before us the
ideal confluence of momentum, interest and leadership,
with a spotlight on the deep structural causes of inequality
and exclusion as never before.
Across the foundation, different threads of work on
empowerment of women and girls have been emerging
and taking shape over the past 15 years. This work
is based on three related motivations: investing in
empowerment of women and girls as a goal in itself; as a
means to better development and health outcomes; and
to reduce unintended negative outcomes.
“For the very first time, governments across the world have agreed that in order to reduce global
poverty we must empower women and girls and remove one of the biggest barriers to progress:
gender inequality. Furthermore, they’ve agreed to do so by 2030. By signing on to support the
Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, governments committed to not only tackle the
symptoms of gender inequality but also to drive a stake through the root causes. I call this the ‘tough
stuff’ of development work: addressing the complex power dynamics and harmful social norms,
including gender-based discrimination and violence, which have kept women and girls ‘in their
place’ for far too long.
“Over the past 15 years, we have seen gains for women and girls in some important, albeit limited,
areas, showing what can be accomplished when governments and citizens lean in. Progress remains
slow because the deeper context that underpins how women and girls are valued in society has
remained firmly intact. Today, 20 years after the Beijing Platform for Action, women and girls still
earn less, learn less, and have far fewer assets, and even less economic agency, than their male
counterparts. They face unique constraints to accessing health services, owning a bank account
or finding decent work. The work of gender equality remains unfinished and urgently necessary”
(Hendriks, 2016).
Women and girls’ empowerment is of critical relevance,
because women and girls in today’s world lack
control over their lives and futures in many ways.
Acknowledgement of and concern for the gender
inequities, exclusion and marginalisation they face are
reflected in the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Women’s
equality and empowerment is reflected in targets across
the recently agreed SDGs, including those on poverty,
health and education. SDG5 is the stand-alone goal for
achieving gender equality and empowering all women
and girls.
While there has been some progress on gender
equality since 1995, it has been slow and uneven.
Women and girls’ health is at risk, and they often
experience gender-based violence (GBV). Women
and girls are less likely to enrol in and complete
schooling. Their work is often not recognised (e.g.
care and household work), not equitably paid (e.g.
it is unpaid or there is a gender pay gap) or carried
out under vulnerable conditions. Women and girls
also own less property and resources. They face
inequalities in the law, and their rights are jeopardised
by weak enforcement and implementation. Despite
their participation in economic and political arenas,
they are underrepresented in decision-making
positions and bodies. Inequalities are persistent
in all sectors and domains, although considerable
differences exist between and within countries. These
disadvantages and inequalities in women and girls’
lives arise as a result of unequal gender relations.
They call for empowerment of women and girls, and
the transformation of patriarchal power hierarchies.
(Clinton Foundation, 2015)
1.2 What is the problem?
1.3 Why this White Paper?
This whitepaper responds to the growing interest
in gender equality by the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation, and takes existing initiatives a step further
by articulating what empowerment of women and girls
means for the foundation. It presents a conceptual
model for empowerment of women and girls that is
informed by existing empowerment frameworks and
approaches and tailored to foundation policies and
The aims of the White Paper are:
To provide conceptual clarity on what empowerment
of women and girls means for the foundation;
To provide a common language for the foundation,
its staff and its grantees for use in their work on
empowerment of women and girls; and
To stimulate ownership and buy-in of foundation staff
at different levels
GE/GWE: Gender Equality and Girls’ and Women’s Empowerment + | 0 Benefit / Neutral
This conceptual model builds on the case made for
gender-intentional planning in the Science commentary
in which Melinda Gates differentiates between
development and health outcomes on the one hand and
gender equality and women’s empowerment outcomes
on the other (see figure below, from Taukobong et al.
2016). The two can be linked but only by applying a
gender lens to explicitly identify and intentionally engage
with gender inequalities. If this is done well, then it will
be possible to achieve both positive sector and gender
equality outcomes.
The conceptual model in this White Paper offers a lens
to help better unpack the outcomes and processes of
women and girls’ empowerment, and their feedback
loops with other development outcomes. It is a lens to
understand what change is needed and how it takes
place. The model can be used to analyse contexts and
to intentionally design interventions and approaches
that can meaningfully facilitate and contribute to women
and girls’ empowerment. It can also be used to inform
monitoring and measurement, so interventions can
flexibly adapt to setbacks and changing circumstances
and push forward the process of empowerment.
This model builds on the long history of theory and
practice in women and girls’ empowerment, existing
operational frameworks and critical reflections on how
these frameworks have been operationalised over the
past 20 years and what can be learnt from this wealth of
This White Paper is part of a larger project with the
Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), that seeks to improve how
the empowerment of women and girls is measured
within the work of the foundation. This project was
launched after the publication of Melinda Gates’
commentary and the WGCD Grand Challenge call for
proposals. The model developed and presented in this
White Paper will also be published in a shorter Brief
(forthcoming). A Methods Note on measuring women
and girls’ empowerment is also being developed. An
Annotated Bibliography of resources and a Directory of
Experts on empowerment frameworks, concepts and
models will accompany all of these.
“Empowerment is one of the best examples of the distortion of good ideas and innovative
practices as they are lifted out of the political and historical context in which they evolved
and rendered into formulas that are ‘mainstreamed’. This usually involves divesting the
idea of its cultural specificity, its political content, and generalizing it into a series of rituals
and steps that simulate its original elements, but lacking the transformative power of the
real thing. Thus good ideas – evolved to address the specific development challenges – are
altered into universally applicable panaceas” (Batliwala, 2007, p. 80).
1.4 Review Methodology
The conceptual model of women and girls’ empowerment
presented in this White Paper is based on insights from
an extensive review of frameworks, thinking and practice
on the topic. This review covers over 115 resources
from development agencies, knowledge and research
institutes, women’s rights organisations, development
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multi and
bilateral donors. These were identified in three steps:
Step 1: Identification of existing efforts on the
empowerment of women and girls at the foundation;
Step 2: Search of operational frameworks from over
55 purposively selected organisations (hand search
of websites) that are key actors in the field, cross-
referenced against foundation partners and grantees
identified in the internal mapping; and
Step 3: Selective search of most influential
publications and overviews/reviews of empowerment
frameworks and concepts.
These steps produced a long list of conceptual
frameworks and models on women and girls’
empowerment, which was narrowed down to the final
sample. This sampling took place in consultation
with foundation representatives, and was based on
relevance for the development of a conceptual model
for the foundation and connection with PST themes and
sectors. The sampled materials were coded, using Atlas.
ti software, to enable the comprehensive and systematic
analysis of key concepts and elements to be considered
for the conceptual model.
In addition to the analysis of the sampled written
resources, this White Paper is informed by conversations
with foundation staff (October–December 2015) and
a set of webinars (February 2016) sharing key ideas
on empowerment, as presented in the Building Blocks
document (see summary in Annex I). The conceptual
framework has also highly benefitted from a convening
held in Seattle (June 2016) and the insightful feedback
from and discussions with foundation staff and external
partners and experts.
1.5 Outline of the White Paper
This White Paper starts in Chapter 2 with a concise
presentation of the conceptual model. Chapter 3 follows
this with a more in-depth definition of empowerment,
and its qualification in terms of choice, voice and power.
The subsequent chapters present the core elements of
the conceptual model in more detail: expressions of
agency (Chapter 4), institutional structures (Chapter 5)
and different types of resources (Chapter 6). Chapter
7 highlights the importance of intersectionality and of
engaging men and boys. The final chapter addresses
interactions between agency, resources and institutional
structures, and qualifies the empowerment of women
and girls as a process of transformative change.
Each chapter starts with definitions of selected key
concepts. The chapters also contain selected quotes
from key organisations or thinkers that provide important
insights into the conversation about women and girls’
empowerment. Boxes provide illustrative examples
drawn from the foundation’s existing grants and efforts.
Some show how foundation investments apply aspects
of the model. Others show how aspects of the model
are measured. A third type of box illustrates how other
organisations are addressing aspects of empowerment.
2. Overview of the Model: The Critical Components
The expansion of choice concerns the ability of women
and girls to make and influence choices that affect their
lives and futures. This entails:
An expanding repertoire of options and opportunities
to choose from;
Imagining possible choices that were previously
unimaginable; and
Transforming choices into actions and outcomes.
The strengthening of women and girls’ voice concerns
the capacity of women and girls to speak up and be
heard, and to shape and share in discussions and
decisions—in public and private domains—that affect
their lives and futures. This entails:
Establishing a presence and participating in,
negotiating with and influencing decision-making
processes in household, community, market and state
arenas; and
Enabling women and girls to voice their demand for
change, through leadership and collective organising,
to pursue the interests and needs of women and girls.
Expanding women and girls’ choice and voice engages
directly with how power operates as a force in their
lives. This action seeks to challenge and transform
the constraints to women and girls’ control over their
lives. Disempowerment and gender inequality manifest
themselves in unequal distribution of resources and
women and girls’ lack of control over their bodies
and low self-esteem, combined with biased laws and
policies and discriminatory gender norms and practices.
Women and girls’ lack of control over their lives arises
as a result of gender relations of power that are based
in patriarchal hierarchies and gender ideologies of male
dominance and privilege. Gender ideologies point to
gender and sex as organising principles in societies.
Patriarchy is one specific form of male domination,
and hence one form of gender ideology (also see
Rubin, 1975). The term ‘ideologies’ is of specific value
to underline that gendered power operates not only
materially but ideationally—that is, via identities,
norms, values and beliefs. Empowerment challenges
disempowerment, and entails a transformation of power
relations. It tackles systemic constraints on women and
girls’ choice and voice because, for empowerment to be
sustainable and significant, a transformation of power
relations is needed.
Empowerment of women and girls is the expansion of choice and strengthening of voice
through the transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control over
their lives and futures. It is both a process and an outcome.
2.1 Elements of Empowerment
Empowerment is contingent on the interaction between
three key elements: agency, institutional structures and
• Agency is the capacity for purposive action, the ability
to pursue goals, express voice and influence and
make decisions free from violence and retribution.
It is at the heart of empowerment.
The model highlights three specific expressions of
agency: decision-making, leadership and collective
• Institutional structures are the social arrangements of
formal and informal rules and practices. They shape
and influence the expressions of agency as well as
women and girls’ control over resources.
Institutional structures can be found in the arenas of
the family, community, market and state.
They comprise formal laws and policies, the norms
that underpin them, and the ways these are practiced
in the context of human relations.
• Resources are tangible and intangible capital and
sources of power that women and girls have, own
or use individually or collectively in the exercise of
Resources include women and girls’ critical
consciousness3, bodily integrity (health; safety and
security) and assets (financial and productive assets;
knowledge and skills; time; social capital).
Empowerment of women and girls is a dynamic and
transformative process of change. Transformation of power
relations occurs through women and girls exercising
agency and taking action, through the redistribution of
resources towards women and girls and through shifting
the institutional structures that shape women and girls’
choice and voice, and ultimately their lives and futures.
2. The three elements of the proposed model—agency, assets and institutional structures—are inspired by Naila Kabeer’s conceptualisation of empowerment in terms
of resources, agency and achievement (Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b; Kabeer & Subrahmanian, 1996; Martinez & Wu, 2009), the Empowerment in Practice framework of the
World Bank (Alsop, Bertelsen, & Holland, 2006) and the CARE Empowerment framework highlighting agency, structures and relations.
3. Critical consciousness is women and girls identifying and questioning how inequality in power operates in their lives and asserting and affirming their sense of self
and their entitlements. This concept is further explored in Chapter 6.
2.2 Intersectionality, and
engaging men and boys
Women and girls experience gender (in)equality and
(dis)empowerment differently depending on their social
background and context. This relates to the way gender
relations intersect with class, ethnicity, caste, religion,
sexual orientation, race and other social markers.
Strengthening the voice and choice of women and girls
requires challenging gender inequalities as well as other
power inequalities that intersect with gender relations.
Specific attention to the compounding constraints facing
marginalised women and girls is needed.
Age is a critical factor that shapes how women and
girls experience gender inequalities. A life-cycle
approach takes into account how the intersection of
age with gender shapes the expansion of choice and
strengthening of voice of women and girls. It is therefore
important to acknowledge:
That the extent to which women and girls can express
their voice and choice varies across stages of their
That adolescence is a critical life stage in which the
opportunities and constraints girls face are shaped
for their present and also for their future lives as adult
The importance of intergenerational linkages: the
empowerment of women and girls not only benefits
them directly but also affects the well-being of others
in their lives, such as their children and relatives.
Additionally, advancing gender equality and women and
girls’ empowerment calls for the active engagement of
men and boys. They can make critical contributions to
expanding the choice and voice of women and girls, and
are present in the lives of women and girls across all
institutional arenas.
Dominant forms of masculinities not only benefits men
but also restricts them in terms of supporting gender
equality and women and girls’ empowerment. Innovative
interventions emphasise how men and boys can be
empowered to speak out and act to confront gender
inequality and disempowerment. Men and boys can
positively contribute to gender equality and women
and girls’ empowerment through their position as
peers, partners, role models, and mentors, and also in
positions of authority.
Empowerment is a transformative process of change,
multilevel and multidimensional, that connects inner,
individual change with systemic, structural change.
Enhancing choice and voice entails change in access to
and control over a range of resources, across different
arenas, and explicitly engages with structural barriers.
Women and girls’ agency is at the heart of these
transformative processes.
Empowerment is contingent on the interaction between
resources, agency and institutional structures. The
dynamism between these elements can be mutually
reinforcing, and as such, when engaged with explicitly
and intentionally, offers entry points for interventions.
However, how the elements interact is context-specific,
and cannot be assumed or easily predicted.
Empowerment is a bottom-up process grounded in
women and girls’ own experiences and agendas.
Therefore, interventions can facilitate and contribute
to empowerment as long as they do so in a facilitative
and non-prescriptive manner. Participation of and
accountability to women and girls are key.
There are no blueprints for empowerment, and pathways
towards it can have different entry points, using different
types of resources, engaging with different expressions
of agency or challenging different aspects or arenas
of institutional structures. Pathways are iterative and
non-linear and often involve setbacks and reversals.
Interventions therefore require flexibility in their
design to allow for adaptations, as well as continuous
monitoring and a long-term engagement.
laws & policies
2.3 Dynamics of
transformative change
Empowerment The expansion of choice and the strengthening of voice through the
transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control
over their lives and futures
Choice The ability of women and girls to make and influence choices that affect
their lives and futures
Voice The capacity of women and girls to speak up and be heard and to shape and
share in discussions and decisions—in public and private domains—
that affect their lives
Power • Power can enable and constrain action and agency
• Power operates in visible, invisible and hidden terms
Expressions • Power can be expressed as ‘power-over’, but can also be a positive
of power and generative force
• Power-to (a woman or girl’s ability to act and to shape her life)
• Power-within (a woman or girl’s sense of self-worth, self-knowledge and
• Power-with (collaborative power)
Transformation Empowerment is transformative when it challenges systemic constraints to the
of power relations agency of women and girls in multilevel and multidimensional processes of change
in social relations (not just individual change)
3. Choice, Voice and Power
3.1 Process and Outcome
Empowerment of women and girls is the expansion
of choice and the strengthening of voice through the
transformation of power relations so women and girls
have more control over their lives and futures. It refers
to both an outcome and a process. As an outcome, it
concerns the degree of freedom women and girls have
to control and influence their lives and futures. As a
process, it highlights the change that is required for
empowerment to be a reality. It is through experiencing,
undertaking and directing empowerment processes that
women and girls expand their aspirations, strengthen
their voice, exercise more choice and take more control
over their lives and futures.
Empowerment as an on-going process, rather than a final
goal, is a defining feature, and is therefore valuable in
and of itself. Empowerment processes are dialectical,
and can be like a dance, with the actors involved
taking two steps forward and three steps back. And it
is not only women and girls who change during this
process, but also the people around them, as well as
the environments and institutional structures that shape
their lives and futures. Empowerment as a process is
also about the critical significance of participation in
decision-making processes, in the arenas of households,
communities, markets, states and beyond (DAW, 2001;
Kabeer, 1999b; Malhotra, Schuler, & Boender, 2002;
Mosedale, 2005; Narayan, 2002; Oxaal & Baden, 1997;
Pereznieto & Taylor, 2014; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
Two steps forward …
“When you work for women’s interests, it’s two steps forward – if you’re really smart
and very lucky! – and at least one step back. In fact, it’s often two or three steps back!
And those steps back are, ironically, often evidence of your effectiveness; because they
represent [how] power structures attempt to push you back” (Sheela Patel).4
3.2 Choice and Voice
Expansion of choice is prominent in many mainstream
development approaches to women and girls’
empowerment. This is especially true where change at
the individual level is emphasised, for example through
entrepreneurship. Though not explicitly articulated in many
mainstream development approaches, the strengthening
of voice also merits a central place in defining
empowerment. It captures the collective and social change
that is part and parcel of processes of women and girls’
empowerment (Goetz & Musembi, 2008; Oxaal & Baden,
1997). In addition, voice captures the importance of
women and girls articulating and defining their interests
and needs, and underlines the bottom-up essence of
empowerment (Oxaal & Baden, 1997). Both choice and
voice therefore feature prominently in the definition of
empowerment in this model.
Consciousness, choice and voice
“Women’s empowerment happens when individuals and organised groups are able to
imagine their world differently and to realise that vision by changing the relations of power
that have kept them in poverty, restricted their voice and deprived them of their autonomy”
(Eyben, 2011, p. 2).
4. Cited in Batliwala & Pittman, 2010, p. 7
Qualifying Choice
The expansion of choice concerns the ability of women
and girls to make and influence choices that affect their
lives and futures. This can entail the capacity of both
individuals and collective groups to make and influence
choices (Alsop et al., 2006, p. 10). Empowerment refers
to the processes by means of which those who have
been denied the ability to make choices acquire such an
ability (Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b).
For choice to be empowering, several points need to be
taken into consideration:
1. Having freedom to choose is central in expanding
choice. Thus, empowerment is about an array of
opportunities from which women and girls can choose:
an expanded repertoire of choice. It is also about women
and girls discovering new options and possibilities
(Batliwala, 1993, 2013; Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007;
Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b). For example, with respect to
contraceptive use, empowerment refers to the ability
of women and girls to make voluntary and informed
choices, from a range of options. The conditions of
choosing are critical for the freedom to choose.
2. Not all choices are of equal value. The interest is to
expand the strategic life choices of women and girls.
These include choices about if, when and whom
to marry, whether and how many children to have,
freedom of movement, and friends or livelihood
(Kabeer, 1999a, pp. 3, 10).5
3. Expansion of choice is closely linked to imagining
what was previously unimaginable. It is about
women and girls redefining what it is possible to be
and to do, and envisaging new horizons (Batliwala,
1993; Cornwall, 2014, p. 20; Kabeer, 1999b;
Mosedale, 2005; Rowlands, 1997).
4. Empowerment is concerned with choices that challenge
social inequalities, not those that reproduce them
(Kabeer, 1999b). Development of critical consciousness
is especially important for expanding choice when
women and girls have internalised their lower social
status and make choices that reinforce this.6
5. For empowerment to happen, choices need to be
transformed into actions and outcomes. A distinction
can be made between:
Existence of choice: whether an opportunity to make
a choice exists;
Use of choice: whether a person or group actually
uses the opportunity to choose;
Achievement of choice: whether the choice brings
about the desired result.
For example, with respect to women’s political
participation, this entails, first, whether elections are
being held; second, whether women attempt to vote; and
third, whether women actually vote (Alsop et al., 2006, p.
17; Batliwala, 1993; Mosedale, 2005; Rowlands, 1997)
Qualifying Voice
Voice is a shorthand for people expressing their interests
and articulating their opinions. Voice concerns the
capacity of women and girls to speak up and be heard
and to shape and share in discussions and decisions that
affect their lives and futures, in both the public and the
private domain. Amplifying the voice of women and girls
to demand the realisation of their rights and social change
is a core feature of empowerment (Goetz & Musembi,
2008; Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007; Klugman et al., 2014, p.
xv; Narayan, 2002; Pillsbury, Maynard-Tucker, & Nguyen,
2000; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).7
5. “First order choices are those strategic life choices - choice of livelihood, where to live, who to marry, whether to marry, whether to have children, how many children to have,
who has rights over children, freedom of movement and choice of friends - that are critical for people to live the lives they want. These strategic life choices help to frame other,
less consequential choices that may be important for the quality of one’s life but do not constitute its defining parameters” (Kabeer, 1999a, p. 3)
6. “Women’s acceptance of their secondary claims on household resources, their acquiescence to violence at the hands of their husbands, their willingness to bear children
to the detriment of their own health and survival to satisfy their own or their husbands preference for sons, are all examples of behaviour by women which undermine their
own well-being” (Kabeer, 1999a, pp. 440-441). In a similar vein, women can accept their higher workload or lack of influence on decision-making as just, because they have
internalised their subordinate status.
7. For this reason, voice features prominently in frameworks of empowerment that emphasise social change, decision-making and accountability. The World Bank publication
Measuring Empowerment: Cross-disciplinary Perspective presents an empowerment framework towards poverty reduction and development in which empowerment is defined
as “the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives”
(Narayan, 2005, p. 5).
Power relations often constrain women and girls’
voice. Women’s capacities to express their interests
are constrained by formal rules and informal norms
concerning their participation and their mobility (within
and beyond the family), and this limits the spheres of life
they are ‘allowed’ to have a say in. Be it in parliaments,
in board rooms, at work, at home, in the street, in school,
at the police or with a doctor, in many contexts women
and girls may be expected not to speak loudly, or not to
attract attention to themselves, their experiences or their
concerns (Goetz & Musembi, 2008, p. 10; Mukhopadhyay,
Hunter, Quintero, & Milward, 2013).
Women and girls can voice their interest and opinions
individually as well as collectively. Their numerical
presence in decision-making is one aspect of voice;
substantive representation of their practical and strategic
interests is equally important. The bargaining, influencing
and negotiating that are inherent in decision-making and
accountability are expressions of voice. Voice goes beyond
capacity to speak; it must be listened to and acted upon.
(Gammage, Kabeer, & van der Meulen Rodgers, 2016,
p. 7; Narayan, 2002).
Voice is important as part of empowerment processes
in at least four ways:
1. In the participation and representation of women
and girls in political and economic decision-making
institutions and platforms, in terms of both numerical
and substantive representation. This can be in national
parliaments, agricultural cooperatives, school boards,
patient associations, community groups and many
other decision-making spaces.
2. In the ability to organise collectively in favour of
gender equality and justice and women and girls’
empowerment. This can manifest itself in savings and
credit associations at the community level or in social
movement organisations that seek justice in cases of
violence against women, child marriage or other issues
critical for women and girls. It may also relate to the
strengthening of self-help groups (SHGs), associations
of women entrepreneurs or other platforms of
collectivisation and mobilisation.
3. In the strengthening of women’s and girls’ leadership,
both individually and collectively, to pursue their
interests and needs. This entails women in leadership
positions in political arenas, private companies, the
police and legal courts, schools, hospitals, civil society,
universities and so on.
4. In demanding change and holding institutions
accountable, as part of processes to influence policies
and services, in order to ensure they are implemented
in a responsive and just way.
Understanding voice and empowerment
“‘Voice’ is a metaphor for powerful speech, and this is most often associated with acts or
arguments that influence public decisions. […] Voice is thought to help determine whether
women can attain a range of empowerment-linked outcomes, such as policy and services to
support women’s economic activity, to guarantee their physical integrity and reproductive
rights, to improve their and their children’s access to education, health care, and social
protection, among other benefits” (Goetz & Musembi, 2008, p. 4).
CARE: Fulfilling our vision
“The valuable contributions that our projects make to women’s lives – the health, security,
economic or political gains that we help women to achieve – may be wiped away without
deeper changes in the rules and power relations that define how a society allocates
resources among citizens. CARE must seize the opportunity to turn valuable short-term
gains into long-term change by helping communities build more equitable structures and
relationships” (Wu, 2009, p. 1).
3.3 Power
Expanding women and girls’ choice and voice engages
directly with how power operates in their lives. It is not
possible to talk about empowerment without talking
about power. Power relations shape disempowerment
and disadvantage of women and girls, as well as their
opportunities and well-being. The transformation of
power relations is, therefore, the third core feature of
empowerment. Empowerment requires the transformation
of unequal power relations between individuals, groups,
sexes, classes, races, ethnic groups or nations, so that
women and girls gain more control over their lives and
futures (Alsop et al., 2006; Batliwala, 2007; Kabeer,
1999a, p. 2; Luttrell & Quiroz, 2009; Mosedale, 2005;
VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
Gender as relations of power
Unequal gender relations are the root causes of the
disempowerment of women and girls; these gender
relations are relations of power. Where the term ‘sex’
refers to biological differences between women and men,
the concept of ‘gender’ points to socially constructed
differences.8 Women and girls’ empowerment is
concerned with gender as a social relation. The systemic
disadvantage women face in exercising choice and voice
is located in these gender relations. Gender as a social
relation steps away from considering women and men
as isolated categories and looks at how unequal social
relations are produced and reproduced (Mosedale,
2005; Whitehead, 2006).
This calls for a notion of gender relations as power
structures—in Sarah Hendriks’ words “the tough
stuff” of development work (see section 1.1).
Unequal gender relations are grounded in patriarchal
societies. Patriarchy is a social system in which men
hold primary power, in political leadership, moral
authority, social privilege, and control of property (US
Department of State & USAID, 2016). In its earlier use,
patriarchy refers to the rule and authority of the male
head of the family over his wife, children and property.
Later use expanded the notion of male domination and
privilege to the private and public arenas, to include
a variety of economic, political and social domains.
In patriarchal hierarchies, women and girls face
subordination, marginalisation and discrimination.
Their choices and voices are constrained in the arenas
of the family, community, market and state. Patriarchal
hierarchies manifest themselves in women and girls’
lack of control over their bodies, unequal distribution
of material resources and knowledge, unequal and
biased laws and policies and discriminatory or
exclusionary practices.
8. The concept of gender emphasises that differences in the position of women and men are the result of the social relations between them. These gender
relations are not derived from biology but rather are socially constituted. Gender identities, aspects of masculinity and femininity and the relations between
women and men are social products rather than biological facts (e.g. Whitehead, 2006).
Patriarchal inequalities are based on and maintained
by gender ideologies that portray gender hierarchies
and differences as natural and normal.9 Socialisation,
indoctrination, moral policing, penalties and violence
are mechanisms through which ideologies sustain power
inequalities. Gender ideologies justify hierarchies and
male privilege and normalise the disempowerment of
women and girls. Gender ideologies and patriarchy do
not operate in isolation but intersect with caste, class,
hetero-normativity, age, poverty and religious doctrine
(Risman, 2004; Risman & Davis, 2013; Rubin, 1975;
Walby, 1990; Whitehead, 2006).
Transformations of power relations
Empowerment needs to address these root causes of
the marginalisation and disempowerment of women
and girls. For outcomes to be sustainable, deeper
changes in economic, political and social relations
at the levels of households, community, the market
and the state are required. Transformation of power
relations occurs when women and girls exercise
agency and take action, through the redistribution of
resources towards women and girls and by shifting
the institutional structures that shape their choice and
voice and ultimately their lives and futures (Alsop et
al., 2006; Luttrell & Quiroz, 2009; VeneKlasen & Miller,
2002; Wu, 2009).
Empowerment is transformative when it challenges
constraints to agency and tackles systemic constraints
to women and girls’ ability to exercise choice
and voice. It is a social rather than an individual
process of change, seeking to establish and sustain
more desirable social arrangements in the family,
community, market and state arenas. Transformation
implies the redistribution of resources, combined with
recognition of women and girls as entitled to choice
and voice. Both recognition and redistribution are
gained in the interplay between shifts in laws, policies,
norms and relations with men and boys, as well as
within and between women gaining self-consciousness
and expressing agency. These deeper changes are key
to sustainably and significantly enhancing women’s
choice and voice. Men and boys, who are also affected
by patriarchal masculinity, can be important allies
in the transformation of power relations and the
empowerment of women and girls (Alkire, 2005, p.
2; Alsop et al., 2006, p. 15; Cornwall, 2014; Fraser,
2010; Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b; Kantor & Apgar, 2013;
Krug, Mercy, Dahlberg, & Zwi, 2002; Morgan, 2014;
Mosedale, 2005, pp. 252-255; Samman & Santos,
2009, p. 10; Wu, 2009).
Empowerment is transformative in at least three ways:
1. Transforming power relations to strengthen the
choice and voice of women and girls; this entails a
redistribution of resources and a shift in institutional
2. Transforming the ways in which women and girls
express power; this entails the strengthening of
agency in expanded choice and voice;
3. Transforming the way we think about social change.
Empowerment is not about replacing one form of
power or domination with another. Strengthening
the choice and voice of women and girls should not
restrict the rights of others or reproduce hierarchies
and inequalities (Batliwala, 1993, 2013; Luttrell &
Quiroz, 2009).
In order to capture a transformation in which women and
girls express power, and in power relations, the three
main elements of the model of empowerment proposed
in this White Paper are agency, institutional structures
and resources. For empowerment to happen, shifts need
to occur within and across these three elements. The
next sub-section articulates the conceptualisation of
power on which the model is based.
9. Patriarchy and gender ideologies are conceptually different terms. Gender ideologies point to gender and sex as organising principles in societies. Patriarchy is one specific
form of male domination, and hence one form of gender ideology (also see Rubin, 1975). The term ‘ideologies’ is of specific value to underline that gendered power operates
not only materially but ideationally—that is, via identities, norms, values and beliefs.
How Power works
Power works as both an enabling and a constraining
force. This means there is a need to understand power
as being exercised, rather than as a resource that can be
possessed. Power is by definition not a finite resource,
and women and girls can gain power without other
people necessarily losing it. Power can be oppressive but
also a positive and generative force. This is conveyed in
liberating and alternative expressions of power, such as
‘power-to’, ‘power-within’ and ‘power-with’ (see Box 2).
This paper’s model on the empowerment of women and
girls emphasises how women and girls express power by
placing agency at its heart. Three expressions of agency
are highlighted: collective action, decision-making and
leadership. All three encompass, and often combine,
women and girls expressing power-to, power-within and
The exercise of power arises from the control of
individuals and groups over resources. These resources
can be tangible and intangible, and include money,
• Power-to is a woman or girl’s ability to act and to
shape her life and world (VeneKlasen & Miller,
2002). It entails a realisation that she can “shape
[her] circumstances to achieve a situation that
is more favourable to [her] interests […and…]
to negotiate and influence the nature of a
relationship and the decisions made within it”
(Alsop et al., 2006, p. 232). It can also refer to
the ability to change existing hierarchies, either
individually or collectively (Luttrell & Quiroz,
2009, p. 6).
• Power-within concerns a woman or girl’s sense
of self-worth, self-knowledge and increased
individual consciousness of potential (Rowlands,
1997). This entails a process where women
“perceive themselves as able and entitled to
occupy […] decision-making space [… and] come
to see themselves as having the capacity and the
right to act and have influence” (Rowlands, 1997,
p. 87 cited in Cornwall, 2014, p. 2).
• Power-with is collaborative power (VeneKlasen
& Miller, 2002) recognising that “more can be
achieved by a group acting together than by
individuals alone” (Mosedale, 2005, p. 250). It is
often derived from collective action, and comes
with social mobilisation, building alliances and
coalitions (Oxaal & Baden, 1997). Power-with
requires people to become conscious of the unfair
and oppressive aspects of their lives and their
own and collective interests. Accordingly, power-
with can benefit the power-within and power-to of
individual women (Pathways, 2011).
Box 1. Expressions of power in empowerment
land, labour, knowledge, information, networks and
so on. Power also arises from inner resources: from
a woman or girl’s sense of self-respect, dignity, self-
confidence and self-awareness. This also includes her
critical consciousness, and the capacity to see as well as
challenge the constraints, inequalities and hierarchies
that emerge from ideologies. The paper’s model of
empowerment identifies resources as a core element in
women and girls’ empowerment and their expression of
agency. It distinguishes three main sets of resources: the
body (health; safety and security), critical consciousness
and assets (including financial and productive assets;
knowledge and skills; time; social capital).
Finally, there is a need to understand how power
enables and constrains women’s choice and voice. Both
expressions of agency and control over resources are
affected by how power operates in women and girls’
lives in direct but also subtle ways. Power can work in
visible, hidden and invisible ways (see Box 3) (Gaventa,
2006; Luttrell & Quiroz, 2009; Oxaal & Baden, 1997;
VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002; Wu, 2009).
Box 2. Power at work as
constraining or enabling factor
• Visible power is expressed in observable
decision-making, be it in households, formal
politics, community meetings, economic
negotiations, company budgets or employment
regulations. This form of power can be seen in
rules and procedures in formal authorities and
institutions. This can be in election laws, health
policies, employment regulations and land
rights, as well as in decision-making spaces
and positions.
• Hidden power refers to how vested interests set
the agenda and shape arenas so that issues
do not even come up, or how some actors are
excluded from deliberations and decision-
making. It is a form of ‘backstage’ power,
and can occur in families (when health care
needs of certain family members cannot be
addressed), in communities (where members of
a certain age, sex or social status cannot speak
in public meetings) or the state (when domestic
violence and rape within marriage does not
make it onto the legal agenda).
• Invisible power goes even further, and is
expressed in how ideologies, values and norms
shape choices and voices. This is power that
is taken for granted and makes the way things
are appear normal and natural. Invisible power
can make inequalities appear unchangeable
and dominance remain unquestioned. It
enforces compliance when individuals avoid
transgression to avoid repercussions. It
operates through engineered consensus,
where women and girls have internalised a
subordinate position and make choices in
compliance with it (Alsop et al., 2006; Kabeer,
1999a, 1999b; Malhotra et al., 2002). This
is a type of silent power that hides issues
and inequalities not only from the table (as
hidden power) but also from the minds and
consciousness of the people.
The three forms of power in Box 2 are expressions of
power-over. They are about dependence and control,
and can imply conflict and confrontation. Power-over
is not by definition negative and constraining, and can
also work to enable women and girls’ choice and voice.
Power-over, however, also risks being an expression of
power at the expense of others: power as domination
and subordination. This is most explicit in acts or threats
of violence, intimidation or coercion.
In order to capture the visible, hidden and invisible
ways power operates in the lives of women and girls,
one of the model’s key elements relates to institutional
structures. These institutional structures encompass
both formal laws and policies (visible power) and norms
and attitudes (invisible power). Also, institutional
structures are considered in how they are practised
(hidden power), as are the key actors involved.
Empowerment of women and girls occurs when women
and girls exercise agency and have more control over
resources and when institutional structures are more
enabling to their choice and voice, and ultimately their
lives and futures. Transformation of power relations is
not by definition a harmonious process. Social change
in the deeper roots of inequality and empowerment
does not always advance progressively or in linear
way; it is prone to setbacks and can meet resistance.
If empowerment is indeed ‘two steps forward one step
back’, then reversals, discomfort and backlash are
unavoidable parts of the process. Hard-won gains need
to be defended. In fact, resistance and setbacks may be
signs that power relations are indeed being challenged,
and that the process is working—because it is generating
a response. For instance, it has been observed that male
earners in the household may take more control over
women’s incomes and that some women report more
violence (Batliwala & Pittman, 2010, pp. 12-13; Rai,
2003; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
Agency Women and girls pursuing goals, expressing voice and influencing and making
decisions free from violence and retribution
Decision-making Women and girls influencing and making decisions, and establishing and
acting on goals
Leadership Women and girls leading, inspiring social change and effectively participating
in governance
Collective action Women and girls gaining solidarity and taking action collectively on their interests,
to enhance their position and expand the realm of what is possible
4. Agency
The next three chapters describe the three main
elements of the model of empowerment of women and
girls: agency, institutional structures and resources.
In this chapter, we look at agency. Agency is at the
heart of empowerment processes and is hence the
first element of the model. Agency is the ability
to pursue goals, express voice and influence and
make decisions free from violence and retribution. It
captures observable action as well as the meaning,
motivations and purpose individuals bring to their
actions (Gammage et al., 2016, p. 6; Klugman, 2014, p.
1; Kabeer, 1999b, p. 438). The model highlights three
expressions of agency: decision-making, leadership
and collective action. All three are defined in more
detail and illustrated with examples. For each, the
rationale for including them in the model is also
explained, with reference to both the importance
attached to it in empowerment thinking and practice
and its relevance to the foundation’s work.
Decision-making, leadership and collective action
are not ingredients for agency: they are constitutive
of the process and their absence can be considered
a lack of agency. Which expressions of agency
are most critical will differ across settings and
times, with more emphasis on decision-making
or leadership in some instances and collective
action more vital in others (Malhotra et al., 2002;
Mosedale, 2005). Decision-making, leadership and
collective action influence each other. Enhanced
decision-making can inspire collective action and
lead to enhanced collective decision-making.
Leadership can lead to enhanced decision-making
in, for instance, public spheres, and can also
contribute to collective action. The interplays
between the three widen processes of change
and make transformations more significant and
sustainable. Expression of agency occurs in the
interplay with resources and institutional structures.
4.1 Decision-Making
Decision-making encompasses influencing and making
decisions, and also being able to act on them. It is an
expression of agency as it is the determined use of
resources in and through decisions, rather than mere
access to them. Decision-making takes place in public
and private spheres and can be at the individual level,
in relationships or collectively in the state, markets or
community. It entails choice, as well as women and
girls voicing their interests and concerns. And yet it
is not just about exercising choice, but also entails
making informed decisions. Informed decisions imply
information, and also awareness in the sense of
imagining the previously unimaginable (FHI 360, 2012;
Fortune-Greeley et al., 2014; Gammage et al., 2016; Girl
Effect, 2012; Mosedale, 2005; Narayan, 2002).
Decision-making epitomises women and girls’ expression
of agency and embodies the act of assuming control
over one’s life and future. Moreover, it features across
the work of the foundation. In Agriculture, this concerns
decisions on what crops are grown, what land is used for
food or cash crops, how money from sales is used or who
can access which agricultural inputs. Financial Services
for the Poor (FSP) looks at women’s decision-making on
the use of financial resources, and is interested in how
this benefits the family. Family Planning (FP), Nutrition
and Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) are
concerned with decisions on women and girls’ bodies
and reproductive health (for example, see Box 3), and
this is also prominent in the cross-cutting work on
adolescent health and development. These include
decisions on use of contraceptives, desired number of
children and pregnancies, birth spacing and delaying
of pregnancies, timing and frequency of sex and when
and how to feed one’s children. For younger women
and girls, personal decisions on what to wear or eat
and whether to go out with a friend, go to school or
participate in a sport or youth association may be key.
Major decisions for younger women and girls entail
whether and whom to marry, when and with whom to
have sex and how to protect oneself from unwanted
pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. All these
types of decisions are strongly affected by gender and
age, often in intersections with other social markers
such as socioeconomic status, sexual orientation,
ethnicity, race or caste.
Empowered decision-making can be approached from
two angles: exercising autonomy over different parts of
one’s life (UNFPA, 2007) and negotiating, influencing
and bargaining in decision-making processes (Gammage
et al., 2016).
Empowered decision-making takes an important
place in the Gates Foundation FP theory of
change. This places empowered decision-
making as the critical connection between an
enabling environment, encompassing national
and community-level factors, and women and
girls’ intent to use modern contraception. Actual
contraceptive use is further mediated by quality
and accessible commodities, services and
Box 3. Family Planning theory of change
Autonomy in decision-making refers to the level of self-
determination of an individual. Autonomous decisions
are motivated by the values and interests of a woman or
girl rather than influenced by external pressure, social
approval, punishment or guilt (Alkire, 2005, pp. 16-17).10
Autonomy is a key concern in bodily integrity and features
prominently in work on family planning, HIV, sexual
and reproductive health and rights and GBV. Relative
autonomy in decision-making is an indication of power-
to, and points to making decisions free of discrimination,
coercion and violence (Pillsbury et al., 2000; UNFPA,
10. Autonomy can exist in both individualistic and more collective settings. It thus does not equal individualism. When a person acts within rules set by law, social norms or,
for instance, parents, and that person endorses those rules, one can speak of autonomy and agency. Alternatively, one could be acting in the same way but feeling utterly
coerced and oppressed by the parent, the social group or the law. In this second instance, autonomy is compromised (Alkire, 2005, p. 16).
FP Theory of Change
Changing FP norms
Enabling environment
Global Enabling Environment
Community FP Norms
Quality, Accessible
15 – 24
25 – 49
Notes: Indicators in italics are a selected subset of FP2020 core indicators.
Adolescent Birth Rate
Healthy Birth Spacing
Intent to Use
Intent to Use Modern
Quality, Accessible
Share of Method Mix
(Modern): Short Term
Stockouts: 3+ Modern
Methods Available at SDP
Quality, Accessible
Informaon at Visit
Method Informaon Index
Empowered FP
Decision Making
Decision Autonomy
Naonal Composite Index
for Family Planning (NCIFP)
Polical Will
Disconnuaon w/out Switching
Addional User
Addt’l Users
Unmet Need
2007). In the health sector, it also concerns who can
touch your body, either as a sexual or marital partner
or as a health care professional. In the agricultural
field, the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index
(WEAI) refers to autonomy in production, which it has
introduced as an indicator next to joint or individual
decision-making, to capture the extent to which
decisions reflect a woman’s values and interests (Alkire
et al., 2013, p. 74). Women’s autonomy also features
in the foundation’s MNCH work, in particular in the
framework of the Sanitation Hygiene Infant Nutrition
Efficacy (SHINE) project, as Box 4 illustrates.
11. If a woman or girl wants to be part of a particular decision, then joint may be better; a woman or girl can also be empowered if she prefers
not to be involved in a given decision.
Women’s decision-making autonomy is one
of the constructs of ‘caregiver capabilities’
in the framework of the SHINE study. SHINE
hypothesises that the caregiver capabilities
of women who are mothers affect the health
outcomes of their children. The primary goals are
to reduce stunting and anaemia in children up to
18 months.
Caregiver capabilities are “the skills and
attributes of a caregiver that determine
their ability to care for a young child in ways
that produce positive nutrition, health and
development outcomes” (Matare, Mbuya, Pelto,
Dickin, & Stoltzfus, 2015, p. 746). One of the
seven elements is decision-making autonomy,
which emphasises a woman’s “capacity to
manipulate one’s environment through control
over resources and information, so that she can
make decisions that reflect her own concerns or
those of her children or relatives” (Matare et al.,
2015, p. 747).
Box 4. Autonomy in the
Sanitation Hygiene Infant
Nutrition Efficacy study
Bargaining power and joint decision-making
Decisions are often carried out between two or
more people. Agency is expressed not only in the
actual decisions but also in resistance, bargaining,
negotiation and reflection. Participating, influencing
and making final decisions are interrelated but distinct
parts of decision-making. Yet simply participating in
decision-making processes is different from controlling
them (Longwe, 1991; van den Bold, Quisumbing
R, & Gillespie, 2013, p. 4). Decision-making is thus
concerned with bargaining power, and entails:
Power-to: her ability to make decisions and act,
particularly in shaping her life and world, and possibly
affecting that of others
Power-within: making choices and taking action with
self-confidence and on her own behalf.
Joint decision-making recognises that women and
men in households can both share and disagree on
their interests. The household is a unit of ‘cooperative
conflict’, where resources and benefits are both
pooled and divided. Members of the household
contribute differently to household assets, and have
different control and decision-making power over, for
instance, income or care work. Bargaining power is
affected by the extent to women and girls’ interests
as well as their contributions to the household are
recognised (by relatives and themselves), and also by
their circumstances in case the relationship breaks
down (e.g. divorce) (Gammage et al., 2016; Jackson,
2013; Sen & Grown, 1987). This means critical
consciousness, norms as well as formal laws, women’s
social capital and the relations in different institutional
arenas shape bargaining power.
Bargaining may not be explicit, however. Silence or
apparent consent may indicate low voice and bargaining
power but also a strategic decision, given the perceived
‘costs of protest’ (Gammage et al., 2016, p. 3).
Caution is needed in determining whether joint or
sole decision-making on a given decision indicates
empowerment, as this also depends on her situation
and aspirations.11 Decision-making and bargaining are
strongly represented in the WEAI (Box 5). This index
considers indicators of decision-making and autonomy
at ‘adequate’ levels when an individual has had at least
some input or participation in decisions (Alkire et al.,
2013, pp. 73-74)
The WEAI covers five domains of empowerment:
production, resources, income, leadership and
time. Decision-making is considered in relation
to agricultural production, credit and income. The
WEAI makes “no judgement on whether sole or joint
decision-making better reflects greater empowerment”
(Alkire et al., 2013, p. 73).
The following indicators on decision-making and
bargaining are included:
Decision-making on agricultural production:
whether the woman or man has sole or joint input
into decisions about food crop farming, cash crop
farming, livestock raising and fish culture;
Autonomy in agricultural production: whether the
woman or man can make her or his own decisions
regarding agricultural production, which inputs to
buy, which types of crops to grow for agricultural
production, when to take or who would take crops
to the market and whether to engage in livestock
Decisions about land and productive assets: who
participates, or can participate, in the decision to
buy, sell or transfer an asset that is owned by the
Decisions about credit: whether a woman or a man
participated in a decision about obtaining or using
credit (can be from various resources); and
Control over use of income: the input a woman or
man has into decisions about the use of income
from productive and income-generating activities;
and the extent to which a woman or man feels she
or he can make her or his own decisions regarding
wage or salary employment.
Box 5. Decision-making and autonomy
in the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index
4.2 Leadership
Women and girls’ leadership concerns their ability to lead
and inspire social change and to effectively participate
in governance. Leadership is closely related to collective
organising and mobilising but is also distinct from it.
Formal leadership is concerned with formal authority,
such as women’s political participation or representation
in leadership and management positions in private
companies. Women and girls can also exercise informal
leadership—that is, the ability to “inspire and guide
others in order to bring about change or to address a
complex problem” (Debebe, 2007, p. 2). Leadership as
an expression of agency can manifest itself in individual
and collective leadership. These can be related, such as
in the case of collective action with individual women
leading women’s organisations.
Women and girls’ leadership strengthens their voice
through speaking up and being heard, and expands
their choice through having interests acted on for the
benefit of other women and girls as well as themselves.
Understanding leadership as women’s voice and choice
positions women as change agents and actors, rather
than focusing on disadvantages and inequalities.
Leadership encompasses power-over, and also
facilitates power-within and power-to. In the case of
leadership through collective action, it also embodies
power-with (Cornwall, 2014; O’Neil & Domingo, 2016).
“Leadership is first and foremost about power – it is about holding power, exercising power,
and changing the distribution and relations of power, in multiple forms and settings. Feminist
leadership means functioning with a greater consciousness not only of others’ but one’s
own power. [It is about] women with a feminist perspective and vision of social justice,
individually and collectively transforming themselves to use their power, resources and skills
in non-oppressive, inclusive structures and processes to mobilize others – especially other
women – around a shared agenda of social, cultural, economic and political transformation
for equality and the realization of human rights for all” (Batliwala, 2011, pp. 33, 29) .
12. This indicator in the WEAI uncovers whether an individual (woman or man) is comfortable and at ease speaking up in public on at least one of the following issues: decisions on
construction of infrastructure (roads, small wells), in ensuring payment of wages for public work or programmes and to protest the misbehaviour of authorities (Alkire et al., 2013, p. 74).
13. Women also gain leadership capacity from working with social movements and in professional life. Women and girl leaders can benefit from being brought up in a politically active
family or having supportive partners and relatives. The political and social environment can open up opportunities for girls and women to lead, and political transitions, post-conflict
peace processes and constitutional reforms can be critical moments for women to renegotiate space (O’Neil & Domingo, 2016, p. 11).
14. The Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing recognises the importance of adolescent leadership and engagement. “Adolescents and youth should be supported
and empowered to contribute to designing, implementing and assessing policies, programs and systems that contribute to their health and wellbeing” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 2462).
The presumption that adults always know best needs to shift towards becoming an understanding of engagement as youth working in partnership with adults. This requires the
promotion of youth participation and leadership, and training of adults’ responses. For this partnership to be effective, youth need resources (e.g. training, mentorship, financial)
and platforms, which are not always available. The socio-cultural, economic and political contexts shape and can limit the opportunities for youth leadership and how it is supported.
Generally speaking, the more control and decision-making power youth have, the greater the effectiveness of the engagement in relation to personal and peer health outcomes.
Women’s and girls’ leadership has symbolic power and
can be transformative, because it “challenges widespread
beliefs that men are leaders and women’s place is in the
home” (O’Neil & Domingo, 2016, p. 11). The WEAI, for
instance, incorporates an indicator on speaking up in
public as an expression of leadership.12 While women
leaders can and do advance women’s interests more
generally, for instance through legal and policy reform,
this is not automatically because they are women.
“Feminine presence” does not necessarily translate to
“feminist activism in politics” (Goetz, 2002, p. 5). Feminist
leadership captures not only that women and girls hold
leadership positions and power but also how they do it in
an empowering and transformative way (for example, see
Box 6). This underlines how women and girls’ leadership
is both an expression of voice and choice and a means to
enable empowerment and larger control of women and
girls over their lives.
Women and girls are challenged by double standards
on leadership qualities. Women leaders often face a
double bind of not being assertive enough (not leader
enough), and not being feminine enough. When they
exhibit similar leadership qualities to men, such
as being vocal, they face resistance and backlash.
Accordingly, cultivating women and girls’ leadership
requires enabling them to overcome barriers that
limit their effectiveness (Debebe, 2007). Common
elements of strengthening women’s leadership include
strengthening ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills, networking and
mentoring.13 With mainstream organisations, strategic
alliances with men as gatekeepers as well as among
women themselves are needed. Youth leadership
also merits specific attention, and young women in
particular face specific challenges in leadership, given
how being a woman and being young intersect. Youth
leadership has been emphasised as important for
adolescent health and well-being.14
Leadership and career development of African women
agricultural scientists is at the core of the AWARD
programme. AWARD is determined to empower
individual fellows in multiple ways, cultivating a
growing pool of top women scientists across sub-
Saharan Africa. AWARD seeks to “help close the
gender gap in agriculture by preparing more women
to compete for influential positions in agricultural
research institutions and organizations in sub-Saharan
Africa” (AWARD, 2015, p. 3). These African women
scientists are “technically competent to generate
innovations needed by rural smallholders, most of
whom are women”, and they contribute to making
these organisations and their work “responsive
to gender issues in the service of women, without
excluding men” (Ibid.).
The AWARD programme consists of three
complementary components: fostering mentoring
partnerships between fellows and respected senior
scientists in their field; building science skills through
a range of courses and conferences; and developing
leadership capacity, combining leadership courses
with role modelling events.
Box 6. Leadership and career development in the African Women
in Agricultural Research and Development programme
AWARD’s African Women in Science Empowerment Model (its acronym AWSEM is pronounced ‘awesome’)
recognises five expressions of power, linked to ‘5 Cs’ critical to the leadership and empowerment of African
women scientists:
Power ‘from within’ (change): increasing her inner strength to contribute, excel, lead and inspire others
Power ‘to do’ (choice): increasing her capability to contribute, excel, lead and inspire others
Power ‘over’ (control): generating opportunities to overcome underlying resource and
power constraints in order to contribute, excel, lead and inspire others
Power ‘with’ (community): generating collaboration, crossing boundaries and joining forces with
others for better contributions to science and society
Power ‘to empower’ (champion): generating numbers and initiatives, going beyond being motivated to actually
inspiring and igniting others and sharing forward, multiplying opportunities
for the next generations of women and girls
4.3 Collective Action
Collective action concerns women and girls gaining
solidarity and taking action collectively on their
interests, to enhance their position and expand the
realm of what is possible. It mobilises and strengthens
women and girls’ collective power. Coming together
around common goals and interests can enable women
and girls to have more influence than when they act
individually and in isolation. It manifests itself in
women’s organisations, cooperatives or SHGs; around
themes such as agriculture or marketing or water
management; when mobilising against GBV or in favour
of women’s rights to land and inheritance; or when
demanding legal change (Alkire et al., 2013; Gammage
et al., 2016; Mosedale, 2005).
Women’s deliberate organising and collective action
takes place on many levels, vis-à-vis the market as well
as the state. It can entail group formation and action at
community level, as in SHGs, women’s groups or savings
and credit groups. At national and also the international
level, women and girl activists and organisations
act collectively to promote women’s empowerment,
advocate for change and hold institutions accountable.
Collective action can take place formally or informally,
and can be induced from the outside or emerge and
evolve from below (Evans & Nambiar, 2013).
Collective action develops power-with: women and
girls gain solidarity, mutual support and a shared
sense of identity and confidence from working
together. Enhanced voice contributes to individual
and collective influence on decision-making processes
(choice), both within the group and as part of the
group’s action (Klugman et al., 2014; Markel &
Jones, 2014; UNFPA, 2007). Collective action is also
inextricably linked to power-within, in the sense of
women and girls coming together and changing their
perceptions of power inequalities and their sense of
self, and power-to, by amplifying voice and exercising
choice in decision-making processes. Power-with
and power-within can be of specific significance to
marginalised groups of women, such as LGBT women,
female sex workers, women with disabilities, low-
caste women or indigenous women. Men and boys can
contribute to or be part of women and girls’ collective
action, as supportive allies and by being part of the
shifts in institutional structures that are required.
Women’s deliberate organising and collective action
has a long history in the women’s movement. It is
indispensable to social transformation and fundamental
to women and girls’ empowerment. Individual women
and girls alone cannot address the structural inequalities
underlying the disempowerment and marginalisation
of women and girls. Women and girls’ collective power,
mobilised through and in collective organising and
action, is critical to “creating the conditions for change
and in reducing the costs for the individual” (Kabeer,
1999b, p. 457). Collective action hence entails a
process in which women and girls come together and
can mobilise a broad constituency to challenge power
relations and hierarchies that lead to disempowerment,
not only theirs but also that of other marginalised groups,
as well as men and boys.
Collective organising and action entails finding a
collective voice and expressing that voice and being
heard. It has instrumental value—as a means to expand
and enhance women’s decision-making power and
challenge unequal and disempowering institutional
“Individual women can, and do, act against
the norm, but their impact on the situation
of women in general is likely to be limited
and they may have to pay a high price for
their autonomy. The project of women’s
empowerment is dependent on collective
solidarity in the public arena as well as
individual assertiveness in the private
(Kabeer, 1999b, p. 457).
15. Government action in response to GBV has been uneven, with some countries adopting comprehensive policies and others responding slowly. Htun & Weldon (2012) have
analysed an original dataset of social movements and GBV policies in 70 countries over four decades, and show “that feminist mobilization in civil society—not intra-legislative
political phenomena such as leftist parties or women in government or economic factors like national wealth—accounts for variation in policy development” (p. 548). The
impact on GBV policy of these autonomous movements also endures through the institutionalisation of feminist ideas in international norms.
Self Help Groups are “small voluntary groups that are
formed by people related by an affinity for a specific
purpose who provide support for each other.” (Brody
et al., 2015, p.9). The groups can vary in terms
of access to external capital (e.g. bank accounts,
commercial credit lines), heterogeneity of composition,
nature of formation (externally or community-
facilitated) and so on.
SHGs in India have known a long history, and have
been formed by both civil society and the government.
They aim at a range of objectives, including “poverty
reduction through improving women’s credit access
(largely government), promoting livelihoods, economic
and social security, access to entitlements, women’s
SHGs contribute to:
Greater participation and influence of women in
decision-making, especially in the household and
on production and use of income;
Greater participation of women in local governance,
and women voicing their public and personal
interests; and
Improved group cohesion and solidarity, through
strengthened cooperation and trust among group
For SHGs to be effective vehicles of empowerment in
a transformative way, key principles include starting
with women’s immediate needs, supporting women
to consider long-term goals, mobilising at a pace that
matches women’s realities and linking women with
networks and associations with shared goals (Agrawal,
2001; Brody et al., 2015; Kabeer, 2011; Markel &
Jones, 2014; Samman & Santos, 2009).
Box 7. Self Help Groups (Gates Foundation India Country Office)
structures, or in enabling women and girls access to
and control over resources otherwise not attainable. The
mobilising and associating of collectivisation also has
intrinsic value (Evans & Nambiar, 2013). Collectivisation
is empowering as a process of sharing experiences,
collective learning and developing a shared sense of
identity and confidence. Group formation among women
and girls can build their social capital and strengthen
solidarity, social cohesion and resilience. For collective
action to be empowering, group formation needs to go
beyond a single focus only (e.g. credit) and engage with
women’s voice and challenge inequalities.
Campaigning and activism at national and international
levels seeks to challenge violations of women’s rights
and restrictive gender norms. It demands legal and
policy change and accountability of governments,
companies and religious leaders to women and girls.
Women’s movements have organised and acted on a
myriad of issues, including violence against women,
restrictions on women’s mobility, unequal pay and
indecent work and working conditions, rights to
land and natural resources and the entitlement to
speak and be heard in community meetings or formal
policy processes in the government arena. Women’s
organisations and mobilisations have proven to be
key factors in transforming institutional structures, for
instance in the adoption of comprehensive policies
against GBV (Htun & Weldon, 2012).15 Apart from
collectivisation among women, building alliances
with critical others is also key to advancing change
(Batliwala, 2013; Cornwall & Edwards, 2014; Edwards,
2015; Gammage et al., 2016; Goetz & Musembi,
2008; Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b; Malhotra et al., 2002;
Mosedale, 2005). See boxes 7 and 8 for examples from
the foundation.
The Avahan initiative was a community mobilisation
programme that aimed to address HIV/AIDS prevention
for high-risk populations in six Indian states. The
populations specifically targeted included female
sex workers, high-risk men who have sex with men,
transgender people and injecting drug users. Three
stages of community mobilization processes were
identified in Avahan:
Stage 1: Identification with others. Creating a safe
space (both physical and social) for sex workers
contributes to increasing self-confidence as they
identify with a larger community of sex workers.
Stage 2: Collectivisation. The recognition of shared
identities contributes to identifying shared needs. Sex
workers were supported to collaborate and identify
issues they could address together as a group,
influencing the larger community.
Stage 3: Ownership. Support was provided to formalise
community groups and networks owned by sex workers
themselves. Ownership is crucial in increasing the
influence sex workers have in mobilising and engaging
communities towards HIV prevention.
The approach led to the identification of barriers
to condom use and health care services, including
violence, self-confidence and debt. As a consequence,
structural interventions were included in the
programmes, including crisis response, legal literacy
and sensitising the police force. The community
mobilisation approach allowed for sustainable change
on a large scale.
Characteristic of the Avahan initiative was the
flexible management of the programme, allowing
for micro-planning, structural interventions
and community organisational development.
The Common Minimum Programme was a living
document that offered a baseline of effective
activities, with updates and adaptations based
on successful practices in implementation. The
flexibility made the programme adaptable to
the local context and the variety of communities
(Galavotti et al., 2012; Wheeler et al., 2012).
Box 8. The Avahan initiative in India
Institutional structures The social arrangements of formal and informal rules and practices that
enable and constrain the agency of women and girls, and govern the
distribution of resources
Formal laws and Formally recognised rules of conduct or procedures established by nation
Policies states, international treaties and conventions, or local governance authorities,
that govern the rights and entitlements of women and girls
Norms Collectively held expectations and beliefs of how women, men, girls and
boys should behave and interact in specific social settings and during
different stage of their lives
Relations The interactions and relations with key actors that women and girls
experience in their daily lives
5. Institutional Structures
This chapter presents the second element of the
empowerment model: the institutional structures that
enable and constrain women and girls’ agency. Women,
girls, men and boys pursue their interests and live their
lives in the context of institutional structures—that is,
the social arrangements of formal and informal rules
and practices that govern behaviour and expressions of
agency, as well as distribution and control of resources
(Alkire, 2005; Alsop et al., 2006; Samman & Santos,
2009). Institutional structures matter because the “roots
of individual inequalities of power” are structural (Kabeer,
1999a, p. 10). Change in the lives of women and girls “is
not possible without changing the underlying structures
of constraint” (Edwards, 2015, p. 5).
“Discriminatory social institutions are formal and informal laws, social norms and practices
that restrict or exclude women and consequently curtail their access to rights, resources and
empowerment opportunities.”
“Reducing and eliminating the gender gaps in social institutions is critical for establishing
an environment that enables women and girls to fully benefit from social and economic
empowerment opportunities. Gender gaps in social institutions translate into gender gaps in
development outcomes” (OECD, 2014b, p. 6).
Institutional structures can both enable and constrain
women and girls’ choice and voice, through the working
of visible, hidden and invisible power (Alkire, 2005;
Alsop et al., 2006; Samman & Santos, 2009). A woman
or girl’s control over her life is strongly shaped by how
institutional structures affect her freedom to choose;
these especially govern what options and choices are
available to women and girls, and the conditions under
which they make choices. Institutional structures are
also key factors constraining or strengthening women
and girls’ voice, and strongly affect whether they can
speak and be heard.
Institutional structures enable and constrain women
and girls’ agency, in decision-making, leadership and
collective action. This happens directly, for instance
through laws or norms that govern women’s political or
economic leadership or shape women’s decision-making
power in the household or the market. It also works
indirectly, because institutional structures govern how
resources are distributed and which resources women
and girls can access, control and use in the exercise
of their agency. Because of this, empowerment is a
multilevel process of change.
In turn, women’s decision-making, leadership and
collective action can challenge institutional structures;
this can lead to a redistribution of resources and
recognition of women and girls’ entitlements and set
in motion transformational change. Hence, there is
a potentially mutually reinforcing interrelationship
between changes in agency, resources and
institutional structures. Empowerment at one level,
however, does not mean change at others or to the
same degree. The links can also vary from context to
context. Moreover, empowering conditions may exist
in one institutional arena, for example the household,
but not another, such as the market or the state (Alsop
et al., 2006; DAW, 2001).
Institutions are considered here in terms of four arenas
and three sub-elements (Kabeer & Subrahmanian,
1996; Klugman et al., 2014; Markel & Jones, 2014;
Scott, 2008):
1. Institutions can be located in four arenas: state,
market, community and family.
2. Institutional structures are made up of three key
elements: formal laws and policies, norms and
laws & policies
5.1 Arenas
Institutions are social arrangements that operate in
different arenas (Alsop et al., 2006, pp. 19-21; Kabeer &
Subrahmanian, 1996, p. 17). Four major arenas relevant
to empowerment of women and girls are:
• Family comprises both the household and wider
kinship relations, such as extended families and
lineage groupings. Institutional arrangements in this
arena include marriage and divorce, the relationships
between parents and children (both at a young age
and as adults) and relationships with in-laws or
extended family relatives. Rules related to families
comprise formal elements, such as marriage or
inheritance law, and informal dimensions, including
social obligations between spouses or between
parents and children. In patriarchal societies,
women’s and girls’ relationships with the father,
husband or brothers are critical, as these men are
assigned authority and privilege vis-à-vis women and
girls. Other important family relations can be with
children, sisters, in-laws, grandparents, co-wives,
aunts or uncles.
• Community consists of supra-family arrangements
in the village, neighbourhood, town or city in which
women and girls live. It includes the array of social
groups and organisations in civil society, such as
NGOs, community-based organisations, religious
institutions (mosques, churches, etc.), political
parties and women’s rights organisations. Important
rules in the community are customary laws regarding
marriage, land ownership or community decision-
making. Informal rules can relate to women and
girls’ mobility, or religious principles and beliefs
that shape their lives. The community can also offer
important relationships with women leaders from
women’s rights organisations or community-based
organisations, or linkages with political parties.
The state is the legal, administrative and military
centre of a country. It is the political organisation
of a centralised government with a bureaucratic
administration, which also includes regional and local
governance bodies. Important sub-arenas are political
governance and decision-making, justice and rule of
law and public service delivery. The state sets rules
with respect to political representation of women in
parliaments or city councils, or legal frameworks for
inheritance, citizenship or GBV. The state is also key
for the empowerment of women and girls as a provider
of formal education and health care, and includes
publicly funded research institutes.
The market is the economic arena, incorporating
firms, businesses and corporations and sites of
production, exchange, trade and related activities.
Important sub-arenas include the labour market,
goods markets and trade (value chains), financial
markets, private service delivery and privately funded
research institutes. The market is important for women
and girls, for example for its financial and banking
rules and mechanisms, how inclusive value chains
and markets are and the job opportunities it provides
(formally or informally) and under what conditions
(decent work and pay).
Each of these arenas has its own rules and practices and
its own mechanisms and actors. Women and girls’ choice
and voice is at stake in each. Their empowerment is not
confined to community and the family, but also relates to
modern institutions including the state and the market.
Each arena, in its own way, affects women and girls’
decision-making power, leadership or collective action,
and their control over resources.
The arenas co-exist and are often linked to each other.
State laws and policies affecting the functioning of
markets, as well as family and marriage relations;
religious institutions have an effect on state policies as
well as family relations. Depending on the context, the
arenas and their sub-arenas might be further refined, or
new ones added when relevant. Ethnic groups or caste
may be relevant sub-arenas for the community in certain
countries; the military, the police or local governance
bodies, can be important sub-arenas of the state.
The arenas are not to be understood as only ‘local
contexts’; they operate across different scales. National,
regional and international factors are at play in most
of them and strongly shape the control women and
girls, and men and boys for that matter, have over their
lives. Global economic, political and cultural processes
play out at most local levels, affecting the distribution
of resources—for instance ownership of land, access
to clean water, tax revenues of national governments
and access to education or health care. International
and global forces intersect with local contexts to shape
economic opportunities, markets and labour and the
political arena. Included in this are democratic spaces
where women and girls can express their voices and
demand an end to violence against women and girls,
control over resources, decent work and equal pay or
access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Empowerment of women and girls requires changes in
institutional structures at multiple levels, ranging from
the local to the national and international.
Each of the four arenas is shaped by three sub-elements,
presented in more detail below. Visible power is at play in
formal laws and policies, and hidden and invisible power in
norms and in the relationships among people.
5.2 Formal Laws and Policies
Formal laws and policies are established by the nation
state but can also come from international treaties and
conventions or local governance authorities. Laws are
formally recognised rules of conduct or procedures that
are binding and enforced by a controlling legal authority.
Policies outline the goals of a ministry and the methods,
principles and planned activities to achieve these.
Policies might require a legal framework to be put in
place to achieve their aims (Markel & Jones, 2014, p. 4).
Laws and policies are important for women and girls’
empowerment in terms of what is put on paper, but it
is also necessary to look at what happens in practice.
To what extent and how are they implemented and
reinforced? And what factors affect weak implementation
and reinforcement: lack of political will and recognition?
Capacity shortages or weaknesses in the public sector?
Lack of sufficient resources allocated to implementation?
Relevant laws for gender equality include a national
constitution; family law (including marriage and divorce
law); property and inheritance law; laws on violence
against women or domestic violence; and citizenship,
governance or election laws. Policies with clear gender
implications are employment policies, tax regulations,
educational policies, health and reproductive health
policies and agricultural policies. In some countries
plural legal systems exist—for instance when national
legislation recognises customary law.
Many laws and policies affect who has access to which
resources and opportunities, and under what conditions.
They define who can get married to whom, and under
what conditions a marriage can be ended. Laws define
what constitutes violence between spouses, and also
who can own or inherit property. They outline rights to
health and education, as well as labour rights or political
rights such as the right to convene, vote or protest. Laws
and policies are often articulated at different levels.
Rights enshrined in a national constitution may not
always be translated into national laws, or into more
concrete policies and regulations.
States have also signed and ratified international
treaties and conventions. Their domestication and
implementation can be uneven or lag behind. “Legal
guarantees of gender equality have expanded over
the last two decades—but rights on paper too often go
unenforced in practice” (Clinton Foundation, 2015,
p. 5). Important international conventions, treaties and
agreements that offer universally accepted benchmarks
for gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW 1979);
The Convention of Rights of the Child (CRC 1990);
The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against
Women (1993);
The Beijing Platform of Action (1995, Fourth World
Conference on Women);
The Cairo Programme for Action (1994, International
Conference on Population and Development); and
Several UN Security Council Resolutions (1325 and
later resolutions on women, peace and security).
At regional level, treaties and protocols have also been
adopted, such as the Maputo Protocol on the rights of
women in Africa.
To make it possible to grasp the effect of institutional
structures on the empowerment of women and girls,
these need to be understood as dynamic arrangements
of rules. Legal, policy and normative systems are most
often plural rather than single. Multiple legal systems
and laws can exist in specific countries and contexts.
The WORLD Policy Analysis Centre of UCLA is
working with foundation partners to map laws and
policies that support more equitable outcomes
for women and girls in key foundation programme
areas. It looks specifically at laws and policies
that affect the development and health outcomes
of women and girls. Drawing on existing evidence
and data, the project seeks to distil a framework
for determining which policies and laws are key to
decreasing inequalities. With a special focus on
India, it is exploring opportunities to improve the
implementation of existing laws and the adoption of
new laws to improve these outcomes. This framework
can then be used by the foundation in strategies and
investments seeking to improve gender equality and
to accelerate equitable outcomes for women and girls.
Box 9. Leveraging policies and laws that are pro-women and girls
Plural legal systems can include statutory, customary
or religious law, and legal systems of indigenous
people. Moreover, legal systems are pluralistic when
dual ideologies of law are operating, especially when
formal written law exists alongside informal use of
the law in practice. The dynamic and possibly plural
nature of legal, policy and normative systems means
it is necessary to take into account how laws, policies
and regulations align but can also be inconsistent
with each other.
Formal rules can also be reinforced or contradicted
by gender norms (Brikci, 2013; Clinton Foundation,
2015). With respect to women and men’s work, for
example, expectations that women will engage in care
and household work are examples of gender norms
in numerous societies. These can be reinforced by tax
policies and regulations that define the man as the
household head and breadwinner, or national health
policies that require the permission of a male partner
when a woman seeks to use a contraceptive method
(Langer et al., 2015, p. 9). Contradictions between
different types of rules occur, for instance, when a
country’s legal framework provides land titles to couples
or women to inherit property but community-level
norms prioritise men’s ownership of land or inheritance.
Tensions can also occur between laws that ban violence
against women and policy and law enforcement agencies
that do not implement these legal provisions properly.
They can be at odds with attitudes and values of men,
as well as women, that normalise wife-beating or rape
within marriage as acceptable conduct. Norms are
discussed in the next section.
5.3 Norms
Norms refer to those expectations and beliefs as to how
women, men, girls and boys should behave and interact
in specific social settings and during different stages
of their lives (Edström, Hassink, Shahrokh, & Stern,
2015). Gender norms and attitudes are key aspects of
institutional structures that shape the empowerment
of women and girls. They are a specific set of social
norms that constitute gender relations and patriarchal
hierarchies. In their simplest form, norms are collectively
(rather than individually) held definitions of socially
approved behaviour. They are more informal, implicit
and decentralised than formal rules, and deeply
engrained in our identities and sense of self. Norms can
refer to “values, attitudes, preferences, conventions,
assumptions, ideologies, traditions, customs, culture,
rules, laws, beliefs or even rights” (Gammage et al.,
2016, p. 5). They are present in all segments of social life:
in modern organisations including the state, the market
and private companies, as well as in traditions, customs
and religion and in families and communities (Pearse &
Connell, 2016).
Norms influence women and girls’ empowerment
in complex ways. They shape behaviour through
enforcement and compliance. This can occur explicitly,
through sanctions, coercion or violence, or implicitly, in
routinized and repetitive behaviour, when compliance is
internalised and social obligations are taken for granted.
Norms in general, and gender norms in particular, are
expressions of power. Gender norms are manifestations
of gender ideologies, and are reproduced through
socialisation, social penalties, moral policing and
violence. In patriarchal societies, gender ideologies
and norms maintain and justify male privilege, gender
inequalities and the disempowerment of women and
girls. Other social norms related to ethnicity, race, caste,
class, sexual orientation and disability affect women
and girls in their intersections with gender norms. When
norms are taken for granted, they operate as invisible
and silent forms of power16 (Pearse & Connell, 2016;
Scott, 2008).
In order to avoid simplified understandings, it is
important to acknowledge that people are not passive
recipients of norms. Rather, they are selective in their
perceptions and uptake of social prescriptions and
obligations (Pearse & Connell, 2016; Scott, 2008).
Norms commonly attract the attention of development
agencies as constraints on the agency of women and
girls (Fleming, Barker, McCleary-Sills, & Morton, 2013;
Klugman et al., 2014; Mackie, Moneti, Denny, & Shakya,
2012). Yet norms also enable behaviour and women and
girls’ exercise of choice and voice. In addition, gender
norms affect not only women and girls, but also men and
boys. Rigid masculinity norms in many settings require
men to be tough, brave, aggressive, invulnerable and
sexually active. Most times, men are expected to be
heterosexual, and to provide for and protect their family
(Greene & Levack, 2010; Men Engage Alliance, 2014).
Norms exist in the plural. Whereas they convey a message
on what is socially acceptable behaviour, there is hardly
ever one single idea of what this means. Social consensus
around gender norms is easily assumed but this denies
that norms are contested. Contestation and negotiation
of gender norms can be both overt and covert. Norms are
dynamic: they are constantly reproduced and contested
at the same time. Change in gender norms can come from
both internal and external forces. Norms can be resistant
to change, and in this sense also provide stability and
order (Pearse & Connell, 2016).
16. In order to understand how the power of norms works, norms should not be conflated with and reduced to gender roles. “The policy documents that often use a concept of
gender norms generally invoke the idea of custom or stereotype, a fixed and discriminatory pattern that needs to be changed” (Pearse & Connell, 2016, p. 5). Moreover, gender
norms are more than social norms, and more than peer group expectations or pressure.
Examples of the foundation’s work on gender norms
are the Family Planning programme interest to shift
community norms around adolescent girls’ decision-
making on pregnancy. By providing women with choices
and enabling them to make choices, this is seen as
a way to shift community norms over time. Also, the
foundation’s work on new-born care addresses norms
of caretaking and challenges preferential treatment
of sick boys over sick girls. Another example is the
WGCD grant to the Helen Keller International project
Assuming social consensus around gender norms
“Social consensus was simply assumed. But that assumption is dangerous – both empirically
and conceptually. Empirically, because in a given society there may be little agreement
about gender prescriptions or even open disagreement. […] Norms acting as hindrance to
gender equality are not the only kind of gender norms that exist; there are also norms that
support gender equality. Different, even contradictory, norms can exist in the same society.
Indeed, this is usually the case in contemporary societies. Conceptually, the appearance of
consensus may reflect not real social agreement in the symbolic domain, but the operation of
power and the achievement of hegemony” (Pearse & Connell, 2016, p. 35).
in Cambodia, focused on food and nutrition security
of poor households with limited access to land.
The project’s ‘Nurturing Connections’ is a gender-
transformative approach that engages all decision-
makers in a household to challenge discriminatory
nutrition practices and gender norms, through a set
of participatory activities, including story-telling and
games. Box 10 presents another WGCD grant that
explicitly engages with gender norms, in this case in
relation to digital financial services.
In a digital financial products project in Uganda,
CARE employs a gender-transformative approach
to engage with inequitable gender norms at the
household level. This is done to strengthen the
positive and empowering impacts of the financial
innovations and mitigate the potential negative
consequences of financially oriented interventions.
In some cases, women with easier access to their
money through ATM cards experience more pressure
from their husband to share this money with them.
The rationale of the transformative approach is that
financial inclusion interventions need to take gender
norms into account in order to be effective.
The approach addresses gender norms by engaging
all family members (women, husbands, but also
in-laws, uncles, aunts and other siblings) in financial
decision-making. Through a series of participatory
sessions family members are invited to the individual
and collective setting of goals, and to challenge
inequalities in how resources, opportunities and
benefits are distributed. The approach includes
conflict resolution aspects, and stimulates alignment
of needs and visions and translates these into a
household financial plan that reflects the priorities of
all members.
Box 10. Explicitly working with norms in
household decision-making in Uganda
5.4 Relations
Institutional structures are not just abstract rules,
whether formal or informal. They exist through human
conduct in social practice (Scott, 2008). Formal
and informal rules come to live in the relations and
interactions women and girls have with others in their
lives. Important relations of women and girls across the
different institutional arenas include:
1. Spouses, partners, and other sexual relationships;
2. Parents, in-laws and grandparents;
3. Siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives;
4. Friends and peers;
5. Service providers (either public or private sector):
teachers, medical doctors, nurses and health
assistants, police officers, judges, military staff;
6. Business (wo)men, traders, wholesalers, employers,
bank officials, insurance agents;
7. State representatives as government bureaucrats or
politicians; and
8. Local authorities, such as community leaders,
religious leaders.
Formal and informal laws, rules and norms are conveyed
in the relations of women and girls with these actors.
Because empowerment of women and girls is not an
individual affair, it matters what relations women and
girls have in and across institutional arenas. With
whom are they related and interacting? What do their
connections and networks look like? And what is the
quality of these relations? The type and nature of women
and girls’ connections and relations can constrain or
strengthen their choice and voice. Changes in relations
are needed to address their lack of access to and control
over resources or lack of influence on decision-making.
Empowerment and control over life opportunities and
decisions need to be negotiated in these relations. A
stronger network—among women in similar situations,
between women of different social groups and ages or
among women and supportive men—can strengthen
social capital (see also Chapter 6, Resources).
It is not only relationships in the family that are
important; connections and interactions in the
community, market or state arena also matter—for
example with health officials, police officers or traders
who respect women’s and girls’ voice and entitlements
or community or religious leaders who speak out against
violence and marginalisation of women and girls and
respect their claims to access to material assets or
justice. In all four institutional arenas, women and girls’
relations can enhance or block their empowerment.
The actors with whom women and girls connect and
interact can be change agents who deviate from the
status quo and enhance their empowerment but also
can function as gatekeepers of the status quo and
constrain women and girls’ choice and voice. Health
service providers can support girls to make informed
and voluntary choices on sexuality and reproduction
but can also deny unmarried women and girls access
to reproductive health or family planning services.
Employers can provide decent work and equal pay and
support women’s leadership but may also be the ones
who take advantage of women’s labour and offer low
wages and insecure working conditions.
It is not only power relations between women and men,
but also those between and among women and girls,
that merit consideration. Women can have significant
roles vis-à-vis other women and girls, in all four arenas.
Class, caste, age and marital status are factors that can
intersect with gender and generate privilege for certain
women over others. Women can open up or constrain
space as mothers, daughters, sisters or mothers-in-
law in the family arena; or as teachers, doctors, police
officers, members of parliament, government ministers
or presidents in the arena of the state. Women and girls
can make a difference for others as business women,
employers or taxi drivers in the market arena; or as
inspirational leaders and activists or religious or spiritual
leaders in the community.
Resources The tangible and intangible capital and sources of power that women and girls have,
own or use, individually or collectively, in the exercise of agency
Critical Women and girls identifying and questioning how inequalities in power operate in
consciousness their lives, and asserting and affirming their sense of self and their entitlements
Bodily Integrity Women and girls’ security and control over their bodies, and physical and
mental well-being
Health Women and girls’ complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely
the absence of disease or infirmity
Safety and Women and girls’ freedom from acts or threats of violence, coercion or force
Assets Women and girls’ control over tangible or intangible economic, social or productive
resources that include (1) financial and productive assets, (2) knowledge and skills,
(3) time and (4) social capital
Financial and Women and girls’ control over economic resources such as income, credit or savings,
productive assets as well as long-term stocks of value like land, equipment, housing or livestock that
can be owned, controlled or used by a person
Knowledge Women and girls’ knowledge and skills (including life skills), and their abilities
and skills to apply knowledge to situations, obtained through high-quality formal or informal
education, training or information
Time Women and girls’ control over their time and labour, which is key to time poverty
and work burden
Social capital Women and girls’ relations and social networks that provide tangible and
intangible value and support
6. Resources
This chapter describes the third element in the model of
empowerment of women and girls: resources. These are
the tangible and intangible capital and sources of power
that women and girls have, own or use individually or
collectively. Resources are the sources of power, and
access to and control over them are key determining
factors for the expression of agency. For women and
girls’ empowerment, a wide range of tangible and
intangible resources are relevant. This model considers
three main types of resources as imperative to the
empowerment of women and girls:
1. Critical consciousness;
2. Bodily integrity, including both health and safety
and security;
3. Assets, including social capital; knowledge and skills;
time; and financial and productive assets.
Women and girls’ use of resources is fundamental to
exercising choice and voice through decision-making,
leadership and collective action. Yet access to or control
over resources alone does not necessarily indicate
that a woman is empowered. For example, micro-credit
itself does not imply economic empowerment (Alsop
et al., 2006; Kabeer, 1999b; Mosedale, 2005; Njuki,
Baltenweck, Mutua, Korir, & Muindi, 2014).
Resources interact with each other, and can be mutually
dependent and reinforcing. Control over one resource
can affect the benefit of others for both individuals
and groups. Strong social networks can strengthen
a woman or girl’s self-awareness and sense of self.
A woman’s access to and control over savings or
income can be a contributing factor in her daughter
accessing school, life skills training or health care.
Safety and security affect women and girls’ health and
also their mobility and social capital. Employment can
offer the opportunity to network with others outside
family networks. Control over a combination of assets
can contribute to empowerment and have positive
impacts in terms of well-being, especially when
resources accumulate. Conversely, lack of control over a
combination of resources marks disempowerment and
marginalisation. The dynamic and reinforcing relations
between assets can have a multiplier, catalytic effect
(Alsop et al., 2006; DAW, 2001; Ibrahim & Alkire, 2007;
Meinzen-Dick et al., 2011).
Health Safety and
Financial &
Producve assets
and skills
6.1 Critical Consciousness
Critical consciousness refers to women and girls
identifying and questioning how inequalities in power
operate in their lives, and asserting and affirming their
sense of self and their entitlements. Feminist and
popular education methodologies and approaches
enhance critical consciousness by engaging “people
in making sense of their worlds, their relations, their
assumptions, beliefs, practices and values – and
in questioning that which they have come to take
for granted, with potentially transformatory effects”
(Cornwall & Edwards, 2014, p. 6).
Gaining a critical consciousness is fundamental
to women and girls expanding their choice and
strengthening their voice. Critical consciousness
develops when women and girls:
Gain understanding of, and perspective on, seemingly
‘natural’ and ‘normal’ power inequalities;
Uncover how these are socially constructed—that is,
located and reproduced in society;
Uncover how these are experienced by others,
and move beyond individual problems and self-
improvement to generating unity, empathy and
solidarity as a basis for collective transformative
change; and
Liberate themselves from self-perceptions of
inferiority, weakness and unworthiness, and gain a
sense of liberating agency that expands the horizons
of what they can be and do.
Critical consciousness means women and girls start
seeing everything differently: themselves, their relations,
their context and their future. This is foundational to
women and girls exercising collective and individual
agency, because it affects their sense of entitlement
to be in control of decisions that impact their lives.
It is the ‘power-within’, and encompasses a range
of capabilities that include a woman or girl’s self-
Having or gaining access to or control over resources
often implies a transformation of power structures,
because they are shaped by institutional structures.
Laws and policies, as well as norms, affect women’s
ownership of land, whether girls can attend school or
access health care and whether women and girls can
safely go into the street and are not exposed to GBV.
Gender norms and attitudes affect self-awareness and
aspirations as well as the time women and girls spend
on household work, paid labour, enjoying and building
social capital or leisure and relaxation. Women and girls’
control over resources is mediated through relations
in institutional arenas: fathers, brothers and in-laws in
the family arena; religious or community leaders in the
community; employers, traders and bank officials in
the market; and teachers, medical staff, police officers,
judges and politicians in the state. Unequal gender
relations constrain the resources and benefits women
and girls can derive. Empowerment processes become
transformative when a redistribution of resources takes
place and is combined with a shift in recognition of
women and girls as entitled to resources (Alsop et al.,
2006; IFPRI, 2012; Meinzen-Dick et al., 2011; Mosedale,
2005; Njuki et al., 2014).
awareness, confidence and self-esteem, aspirations,
self-expression and self-efficacy (Alsop et al., 2006;
Cornwall, 2014; Mosedale, 2005; Van der Gaag, 2014).
Critical consciousness is necessary for women and girls:
Valuing themselves and believing in their ability to
reach a goal;
Believing they can act to improve their conditions and
realising they can be an agent of change in their own
lives, at both an individual and a social level;
Having a sense of entitlement and understanding
their rights; and
Making choices based on personal aspirations that are
influenced by the opportunities they see as possible.
Critical consciousness has been a fundamental
element of empowerment since its earliest expressions
and conceptualisations. Women’s organising from
the grassroots levels to national and international
advocacy, in all parts of the world and across history,
is grounded in their gaining critical consciousness
and liberating themselves from the constraints of
patriarchal ideologies. Central in empowerment as a
process is women and girls strengthening capacities
to recognise and challenge social rules and the
distribution of power and privilege, and, as part of
that, changing their understandings of themselves and
their rights. Women and girls’ critical consciousness is
a necessary prerequisite to challenging existing power
relations and hierarchies, and to demanding and
bringing about structural change in favour of gender
equality. Without it, women and girls cannot gain
control over their lives and futures (Batliwala, 1993;
Cornwall & Edwards, 2014; Kabeer, 1994).
The centrality of gender ideologies in gender
inequality and women and girls’ disempowerment
makes critical consciousness key to their choice and
voice and a fundamental base for exercising agency,
either in decision-making, leadership or collective
action. Women and girls’ access to and control over
material resources needs to be accompanied by shifts
in consciousness towards an understanding that
women and girls can act for change, not only for their
individual benefit but also for other women and girls.
Critical consciousness is especially important when
women and girls have been socialised to accept their
lower social status and lack of power and perceive
women’s subordination as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’
(Alsop et al., 2006; Fraser, 2010; Malhotra et al.,
2002; Mosedale, 2005; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
Critical consciousness is inextricably linked to building
the collective power of women and girls to effect change.
There are strong reciprocal relationships between the two:
collective power brings women together to question and
interrogate how power operates in their lives to undermine
their choices and voices. The critical consciousness they
develop then fuels collective demand and action for
transformative change. This makes critical consciousness
much more collective than individual. It is not just about
self-reliant and self-sustaining individuals or individual
achievements or self efficacy, but also about a shared
and collective consciousness that inspires to challenge
constraints on conditions of choice and voice in the lives
of women and girls.
“Empowerment strategies for women must
build on ‘the power within’ as a necessary
adjunct to improving their ability to control
resources, to determine agendas and make
decisions” (Kabeer, 1994, p. 229).
Critical consciousness features in the work of the
foundation with the AWARD programme (Box 6) and
the Avahan programme (Box 8). Aspects like self-
efficacy or aspirations are also noteworthy in other
pieces of the foundation’s work. The WEAI, for instance,
has ‘confidence in speaking in public’ as one of its
indicators. In the SHINE framework, self-efficacy is one
of the constructs of caregiver capabilities, and refers
to “the degree to which parents perceive themselves
as capable and effective in the parenting role” (Matare
et al., 2015, p. 747). The Global Early Adolescent
Study (GEAS) also takes self-efficacy into account in its
framework (Box 11).
The GEAS framework seeks to understand young
people’s sexual health risks and what factors constrain
or contribute to healthy sexuality and improved sexual
and reproductive health outcomes. The Health and
Sexuality instrument is one of a set of research tools and
instruments being applied in 15 countries. It contains
seven domains, including an empowerment domain.
This contains questions regarding behavioural control,
relation self-efficacy and voice.
Self-efficacy is about the ability of a girl to negotiate
social situations she finds herself in, and to
successfully navigate these interactions. It can be
made more specific to refer to relational self-efficacy,
which looks at “the perceived ability to resist,
negotiate or solicit experiences”.
Box 11. The Global Early Adolescent Study
6.2 Bodily Integrity
A healthy and safe body is a necessary basis for women
and girls’ participation in society and social life, and is
fundamental to human dignity and freedom. Without it,
women and girls cannot obtain control over their lives
and futures. That makes bodily integrity a necessary
resource in the empowerment of women and girls.
Bodily integrity is the principle of security and control
over one’s body. It is the fundamental human right
to life, to being healthy in the broadest sense and to
being secure from physical harm and assault by others.
It implies that women and girls are not alienated
from their sexual and reproductive capacity, that the
integrity of their physical person is respected and that
they can procreate and enjoy their sexuality17 (Correa
& Petchesky, 2013). Apart from the inviolability of the
body, and women and girls’ personal autonomy and
self-determination that come with this, bodily integrity
also emphasises the wholeness and intactness of the
body. Two aspects of bodily integrity are stressed here
as resources for the empowerment, choice and voice of
women and girls: health; and safety and security from
Health speaks to having a healthy body and mind. It is “a
state of complete physical, mental and social well-being
and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”
(WHO, 1946). It encompasses multiple aspects:
Nutrition and being well fed, and being free from
nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition and being
underweight (as well as overweight);
Physical well-being, and being free from diseases
(communicable and non-communicable) or injury;
Mental well-being, and being free from stress,
depression or mental illnesses (see Box 12).
All these health aspects have gender dimensions.
Biological and social factors affect identification of and
responses to the health needs of women and girls across
their life cycles. Patriarchal values and societies can
confine and undermine women and girls’ health and
restrict their control over their bodies. Women and girls
can be at a higher risk of poor health; they can also have
a lower status in the health system, both as consumers
and as providers of health care (Langer et al., 2015).
A healthy body and mind lie at the basis of life and having
control over one’s life and future. They are also key to
productive and reproductive work, and to being able to
17. Violations of bodily integrity include coerced sex or marriage, genital mutilation, denial of access to birth control, sterilisation without informed consent, prohibitions on
homosexuality, sexual violence, false imprisonment in the home, unsafe contraceptive methods, unwanted or coerced pregnancies and childbearing and unwanted medical
interventions (Correa & Petchesky, 2013).
adapt to new circumstances (World Economic Forum,
2013). The Lancet Commission on Women and Health
argues that “improvement of the status, and fulfilment
of the potential, of women and girls by elimination of
gender discrimination at all levels of society are moral
and sustainable development imperatives”, and claims
that “healthy, educated, and empowered women are
well positioned for the many roles they have as mothers,
caregivers, workers, volunteers, and leaders, affecting
the structure of societies and advancing sustainable
development” (Langer et al., 2015, p. 5). Health, and in
particular the health of women and girls, has for long been
an explicit and core focus of the foundation’s work through
the FP, MNCH and Nutrition PSTs.
“A virtuous cycle exists: health contributes to economic growth and wellbeing, which results
in improved health and leads to increased resources for better, widespread health care. The
health-care roles of women—both within and outside the paid health labour force—are core to
improvement of the quality and availability of health care” (Langer et al., 2015, p. 19).
Mental health of adolescents is attracting increasing
attention, as many disorders tend to emerge during these
years, with potential consequences for mental health
across the life course. Depression, alcohol abuse, mental
disorder, antisocial behaviour and suicide may be critical
factors during adolescence and early adulthood. Family
discord, unsupportive parents, living apart from parents
or depression and suicidal behaviour in the family can
strongly affect adolescent mental health. Mental health
can be a particular challenge for girls, especially among
the socially marginalised, who are confronted with the
intersections of gender and age with class, ethnicity, race,
caste and so on (see box 12 for examples). Better mental
health, including better parent–adolescent relationships,
is linked to higher self-esteem and self-worth and better
social functioning (Patton et al., 2016).
Mental health and well-being are important for
women and girls. They also affect their ability to carry
out productive and reproductive work. Within the
foundation’s work, maternal stress has emerged as an
important factor affecting women’s ability to look after
their children.
The SHINE study identifies the mental health of the
mother as an important determinant of the child’s
health. Mental health and stress are included as
two of nine indicators of the construct of ‘caregiver
capabilities’. Mental health is defined as the “state
of wellbeing in which an individual can realize their
abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work
productively and fruitfully, and is able to make
contribution to the community”. Mental stress refers
to “emotional experience triggered by events or other
stimuli and accompanied by specific biochemical,
physiological and behaviour changes”
(Matare et al., 2015, p. 747).
Psychosocial influences also feature in the Water,
Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Benefits study. This
measures the benefits of water quality, sanitation,
handwashing and nutritional interventions in terms
of improving health and development. It includes
research objectives on the associations between
psychosocial influences—specifically intimate partner
violence, maternal depression and maternal stress—
and underweight, wasting, stunting and impaired
development in children. Intimate partner violence
features prominently as a source of stress that affects
pregnant women and/or women with young children.
The study looks at how a woman’s exposure to intimate
partner violence affects child growth and development,
in particular nutrition and health outcomes.18
Box 12. Mental health and stress
18. The WASH Benefits study draws on validated measures of stress and depression: Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale with mothers and fathers, which includes questions
regarding stressful life experiences in the past month; and the Centre for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, which looks at impact of various maternal and paternal
psychological stresses on child growth and development (e.g. height-for-age z scores, better gut function, child stress, allostatic load, inflammation and telomere attrition).
Safety and Security
Safety and security enable women and girls to move,
speak and act free from acts or threats of violence,
force and coercion. Violence Against Women and
Girls (VAWG) is of critical concern in this regard and
concerns harmful behaviours directed at women and
girls because of gender-based power imbalances.
It includes “any act of verbal or physical force,
coercion or life-threatening deprivation, directed
at an individual woman or girl that causes physical
or psychological harm, humiliation or arbitrary
deprivation of liberty and that perpetuates female
subordination” (Heise, Ellsberg, & Gottmoeller,
2002, p. s6). It can take many forms (emotional,
psychological, physical) and occur in different
circumstances (at home, in the workplace, in the
community, through media, during conflict and war).
Intimate partner violence includes physical aggression
as well as forced sex (including marital rape),
psychological abuse, intimidation and humiliation,
and also controlling behaviours that isolate the person
from friends or family or restrict mobility or access to
services or information (Krug et al., 2002, p. 16).
“Violence against women is the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights violation
in the world. It also is a profound health problem, sapping women’s energy, compromising
their physical health, and eroding their self-esteem. In addition to causing injury, violence
increases women’s long-term risk of a number of other health problems, including chronic
pain, physical disability, drug and alcohol abuse and depression. Women with a history
of physical or sexual abuse are also at increased risk for unintended pregnancy, sexually
transmitted infections (STIs), and adverse pregnancy outcomes” (Heise et al., 2002, p. s5).
19. “Sexual violence encompasses a wide range of acts, including coerced sex in marriage and dating relationships, rape by strangers, systematic rape during armed conflict,
sexual harassment (including demands for sexual favours in return for jobs or school grades), sexual abuse of children, forced prostitution and sexual trafficking, child
marriage, and violent acts against the sexual integrity of women, including female genital mutilation and obligatory inspections for virginity. Women and men may also be
raped when in police custody or in prison.” (Krug et al., 2002, p. 17).
Intimate partner violence, sexual violence and trafficking
and forced prostitution are of key concern in relation to
women and girls’ safety and security and can violate
their bodily integrity. Moreover, they undermine their
dignity and constrain their choices and voices. Sexual and
intimate partner violence “occurs in all countries, cultures
and at every level of society without exception”(Krug et
al., 2002, p. 15). The risk of being assaulted, or the threat
of exposure to violence, undermines decision-making
as well as leadership and collective action. Violence that
women and girls experience embodies unequal power
relations, and VAWG is a manifestation of the social and
subordinated position of women and girls relative to men
and boys. This violence, or the threat of violence, is also
used as a way to maintain control over women and girls,
and hence perpetuate disempowerment and inequalities.
Safety and security strongly interrelate with other
resources. For instance, violence affects women and
girls’ mobility and hence their social capital. It also
affects individuals’ health and places a burden on
health facilities. It can have profound impacts on
both physical and mental health for women and girls,
directly through injuries or more indirectly and even
years after the assault (Krug et al., 2002, pp. 17-18,
see Box 13).19
Addressing Barriers to Healthy Lives (India Country
Office, Integrated Delivery and MNCH)
This 36-month project stems from recognition that
intimate partner violence affects maternal health and
newborn outcomes. The project seeks to address
gender inequality and intimate partner violence as
barriers to the healthy lives of women and children.
The focus is on Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India,
where high prevalence of intimate partner violence
has been found to be associated with negative health
outcomes. The project seeks to improve the ability
to measure violence and its determinants, as a basis
to learn more about how to explore these as an entry
point for the foundation’s programming on gender
and caste inequities, violence and health.
Box 13. Violence and health
6.3 Assets
Assets are the third set of resources, and refer to
tangible and intangible economic, social or productive
resources. The model features four types of assets:
1. Financial and productive assets;
2. Knowledge and skills;
3. Time; and
4. Social capital.
Assets feature prominently in economic empowerment
but should be considered with caution. First, these
assets should not only be conceived of as material
assets. Money, land, equipment, credit and savings
are important assets, but immaterial assets such as
knowledge, skills and networks are at least equally
Whereas these assets clearly have economic use, their
value goes far beyond that. Knowledge and skills matter not
only for making a livelihood but also for voicing demands,
exercising freedom of choice and for leadership and
collective action. Time is about control over labour. The
value of social capital stretches far beyond the economic
realm, into the political and community arena, and is critical
to women and girls building collective power and engaging
in collective action.
Financial and Productive Assets
Financial assets are economic resources such as income,
savings and credit. These have for long featured fairly
prominently in approaches to empower women and girls,
for instance through microfinance, women’s income-
generating projects and entrepreneurship and, more
recently, digital financial services. Productive assets
are resources a person can own, such as land, a house,
equipment and livestock. In many contexts, men tend to
own land, equipment or livestock; in others these assets
may be owned jointly.
Ownership arrangements need to be considered with
nuance, because they vary on a spectrum from use to
control to ownership. It is important to consider who can
use a productive asset. Who makes decisions on its
use? Who decides whether to sell the asset or not? Who
decides who can use it, or who can sell it or the benefits
derived from it (Behrman, Karelina, Peterman, Roy, &
Goh, 2014; Johnson, Kovarik, Meinzen-Dick, Njuki, &
Quisumbing, 2015).
Access to and control over financial assets can be key to
supporting and enabling women and girls to generate
their own income, which in turn can be an important
basis for their decision-making autonomy and bargaining
power. Yet access to credit, savings or income is not
enough. It is crucial that women and girls also control
these financial assets (UNFPA, 2007). Women or girls’
control of income and/or savings can be influenced by
the relationship they have with their partners or family
members and the gendered division of labour (and time)
within the household (Alsop et al., 2006; UNFPA, 2007).
Growing attention to women and girls’ control over
productive assets stems from the recognition that
“increasing control and ownership of assets helps
to create successful pathways out of poverty in
comparison to intervention aimed at increasing income
or consumption alone” (Behrman et al., 2014, p. 7).
Productive assets are long-term stores of value, can
be invested and accumulated and are more resilient
to fluctuations than income and consumption.
“Assets are a stock, income is a flow derived from
those assets” (p. 7). Assets are critical in enduring
‘shocks’, and men and women may use their assets
differently in those circumstances (Meinzen-Dick et
al., 2011). Moreover, some shocks specifically affect
women and their control over assets. For example,
in contexts where a woman’s right to property is not
protected, the divorce or death of a husband can
lead to loss of land, equipment or housing.
For women and girls, productive assets are of
particular importance (see for example Box 14).
Owning productive assets such as property can
increase status and bargaining power within the
household and the community. Female-headed
households tend to suffer greater poverty as they
often do not have equal access to basic resources
(such as water) because they lack control over
productive assets (such as land). Women who do
own or control economic assets are more capable of
overcoming poverty and prevailing over crises and
transitions. However, national policy implementation
often does not give sufficient consideration to
augmenting women’s access to productive assets
(DAW, 2001; ICRW, 2006; Klugman et al., 2014; UN
Water, 2006).
The WEAI identifies productive assets (called
‘resources’) as one of its five key domains and financial
assets as another. The two domains cover four
1. Resources: Ownership of assets, Purchase, sale or
transfer of assets, Access and decisions on credit;
2. Income: Control over use of income.
The resources concern both land (agricultural and
non-agricultural) and other assets such as livestock,
fish ponds, farm equipment, house, house durables,
cell phone and means of transportation. Ownership of
these can be sole or joint.
The indicators differentiate between ownership and
decision-making on purchase, sale and transfer. This
takes into account that use, control and ownership
rights vary in many contexts. Women may not own an
asset but may be able to access it, or decide on its sale
or transfer.
Box 14. Productive and financial assets in the
Womens Empowerment in Agriculture Index
Knowledge and Skills
Education and training provide women and girls with
important knowledge and skills in all spheres and stages
of life. Gaining knowledge and learning basic skills,
and practising them in daily life, are fundamental to
exercising voice and choice (Girl Effect, 2012; Warner,
Malhotra, & McGonagle, 2012). Knowledge and
skills can be obtained through formal education and
schooling, as well as training, informal education or
on-the-job learning. Life skills are “knowledge, attitudes
and the ability for adaptive and positive behaviour that
enable individuals to deal effectively with the challenges
of everyday life”.20 They are of particular significance,
and include communication and interpersonal skills,
decision-making and critical thinking and coping and
self-management. For all types of education, training
and information, it is not only access that is critical for
knowledge and skills to be empowering for girls and
women but also, especially, quality.
Education and knowledge have an intrinsic value for
women and girls’ control over their lives. They can be
closely linked to critical consciousness, especially
when reflection and critical interrogation and thinking
take a prominent place. Education, knowledge and life
skills have also been found to be related to positive
health and development outcomes for women and
girls. They correlate with a delay in marriage, better
life expectancy for women (which in turn benefits their
children), freedom of movement, more decision-making
power in the household and increased opportunities
for employment. Going to school for a longer period of
time also correlates with postponed childbearing and
reduced risk of HIV infection and GBV. As an adolescent
girl becomes empowered through education now, she
will be an empowered and healthy adult in the future
(DAW, 2001; FHI 360, 2012; Fortune-Greeley et al.,
2014; Klugman et al., 2014; Krug et al., 2002; Langer et
al., 2015; Nguyen & Wodon, 2012; Pillsbury et al., 2000;
Van der Gaag, 2014; Warner et al., 2012).
In addition to providing economic advantages,
vocational training or mentorship can also help
adolescent girls make informed decisions that are
more beneficial for themselves and for their future
(Armstrong et al., 2015; Girl Effect, 2012; Glennerster
& Takavarsha, 2010; Klugman et al., 2014; Pillsbury
et al., 2000; Van der Gaag, 2014; Warner et al., 2012).
A longer educational path can also open the door
to employment opportunities and economic growth.
(Armstrong et al., 2015; FHI 360, 2012; Langer et al.,
2015; Pillsbury et al., 2000; UN Women, 2015; UNFPA,
2007; Warner et al., 2012).
Time can be understood as an asset that men and women
can have access to and control over, particularly in relation
to labour. Time as an asset concerns how much time to
allocate to work (paid and unpaid), education, health care,
social networks, leisure, rest and so on.
Many women and girls experience time poverty,
which is closely linked to how paid and unpaid work
is distributed between women, men, girls and boys.
Unequal constraints on women and girls’ time are
a significant dimension of their disempowerment.
Women and girls have less control over their labour,
and hence their time, than their male counterparts.
They also have less access to the labour of relatives. In
turn, lack of control over time and labour undermines
the control women and girls have over their own lives.
Moreover, child care and household work, often done
by women and girls, is mostly unpaid and hence
invisible economically. This undermines bargaining
power. Women who carry out paid work often have
to bear the burden of unpaid work as well, which
reinforces gender inequalities both at home and in the
workplace. The gender wage gap also makes it clear
that, even in paid work, women’s time is valued less
than men’s (Men Engage Alliance, 2014; Pillsbury et
al., 2000; UNFPA, 2007).
The time poverty of women and girls limits the time
they can allocate to developing skills that enable
them to take part in decision-making processes and
exercise control over assets. Gender intersects here
with age, with adolescent girls often taken out of school
to assist women with unpaid work and called on to
care for sick and dying family members. Intersections
between gender and socioeconomic status are also
critical: the time poverty of poorer women is affected
by a combination of limited control over their time, lack
of resources to outsource domestic care work and weak
infrastructure. Accessing better infrastructures (e.g.
running water and electricity) can reduce the time women
and girls spend on domestic chores and free it up for
other purposes. Shifts in critical consciousness are also
critical, though, otherwise their time may be allocated to
other labour-intensive activities (Men Engage Alliance,
2014; Nguyen & Wodon, 2012; UNFPA, 2007).
“Compared to men, women globally spend about twice
as much time on unpaid work—labour done for no pay,
including cooking, cleaning and caring for children
and the elderly. That’s an average about 4.5 hours a
day, with the gap between genders ranging from 45
minutes in Scandinavia to five hours in India. In the
U.S., where the gap is 90 minutes, if we could put a
value on women’s annual unpaid work, it would total
about $1.5 trillion.
“We all have 24 hours a day. It’s kind of funny to me
that we’re in 2016, and who decided that women
should be the ones to do all this unpaid work? We
don’t even call what’s happening at home ‘work.’
Unpaid work is work.”
Melinda Gates highlights closing the time gap by
(1) recognising there is a problem, (2) reducing it with
innovation and (3) redistributing the work.
Box 15. Time poverty in Melinda GatesAnnual Letter 21
Women and girls’ time features most explicitly in the
work of the Agriculture, Nutrition, FP and MNCH teams.
Nutrition, for instance, takes into account how women
and girls’ workloads affect their care practices and the
quality of care. It also looks at how workloads affect
women who are pregnant or lactating, and the effects
on child feeding practices; and
The SHINE framework considers time use and time
stress as constructs of caregivers capabilities. Time
use refers to time allocations to different activities.
Perceived time stress considers how caregivers
perceive “the adequacy of the time they have to
attend to their different roles” (Matare et al., 2015,
The WEAI takes time into account in two of its indicators.
The first concerns workload and the time allocated
to productive and domestic tasks. The second is
satisfaction with the time available for leisure (visiting
neighbours, listening to the radio, doing sports and so
on) (Alkire et al., 2013, pp. 74-75).
The cross-PST project ‘Addressing Women’s Time
Poverty’ responds to a recognition that women and
men face different expectations and constraints in
1) how they use their time and 2) the choices they
have over how they allocate their labour to activities
throughout the day. Time constraints impact on
agriculture and the health outcomes of women and
their children, and on the overall benefits they can
accrue from development interventions. The project
compiles further evidence on why measuring and
monitoring time use is critical.
Social Capital
Social capital refers to women and girls’ connections,
relations and social networks that provide tangible
and intangible value and support. Social capital can
facilitate access to information, services or benefits.
It can function as a resource in household decision-
making or in the individual leadership of women and
girls. Social capital can entail family relations as well
as friends and peers, but also, for example, supportive
teachers or mentors, or business networks in the
market arena.
Strong networks among women and girls provide
solidarity, and can contribute to strengthening critical
consciousness and self-awareness. Membership in a
group can build social capital, which is a key component
of collective action. Social capital among women and
girls offers a safe space in which they can gain critical
consciousness, find recognition and unity and build
collective power to challenge constraints to their choice
and voice. Networks of women and men often differ in
size, composition, function and value.
Women and girls’ social capital has fundamental
value in the context of disempowerment and gender
inequalities. Strong networks and relations among
women are fundamental to them building collective
power to challenge the way power operates to undermine
the control they have over their lives and futures. Social
capital as building collective power is closely linked to
gaining critical consciousness. Combined, they form a
prerequisite for collective action that transforms power
relations and patriarchal hierarchies and ideologies.
Social connections also have a more instrumental value
in women and girls’ well-being and empowerment.
This includes the connections and networks they have
with supportive men and boys. For example, the SHINE
framework acknowledges how support from a woman’s
partner and relatives during the postnatal period is
essential for the well-being of both the mother and the
child.22 Social capital also facilitates the realisation of
other resources, both in the present and with respect to
future claims. For example, women’s informal networks
with other women in undertaking daily household
activities, such as water collection generate a form of
social cohesion and collectiveness as well as access to
information and knowledge. Strong networks with (often
male but also female) political leaders, agricultural input
suppliers, financial institutions, health service providers
and so on can be key to accessing information, assets,
benefits and decision-making processes.
Women and girls’ mobility is key in creating and
maintaining social networks and participating in
community life. Mobility can be physical (a woman
or girl’s physical ability to move freely outside the
household), virtual (the connections and networks she
can access and mobility via media, especially internet
and social media) and social and economic (her ability
to move across social and economic spheres). Virtual
mobility is increasingly important for younger women
especially, who can use mobile phones to access
information, connect or voice their concerns and
mobilise for action. Social capital can be of particular
importance for women and girls from marginalised
groups, who face overlapping disadvantages and may
experience social isolation owing to intersections
between gender and disability, caste, ethnicity, race,
class or sexual orientation. Factors that can restrict
women and girls’ mobility are social and cultural
norms, laws and lack of transport and/or unsafe
spaces (Klugman et al., 2014).23 Both social capital
and mobility feature in the instruments of the GEAS, as
Box 16 illustrates.
22. Social support in the SHINE framework can be informational, instrumental, emotional and companionship. It can contribute to coping, esteem, belonging
and competence (Matare et al., 2015, p. 747).
23. Highly educated and wealthier women report having greater freedom of movement. In some countries women need the consent of a husband to work
outside the household and are restricted in terms of the types of jobs they can have, transport and/or safe spaces– women may risk sexual harassment and
other forms of GBV.
Connectedness and freedom of movement are two
aspects covered in the instruments of the GEAS,
which explores connectedness in the context of
boys’ and girls’ relationships within the school and
their neighbourhood under its Health and Sexuality
Within the school setting, connectedness is
explored through questions on perceptions about
expectations from teachers, how much support
they get from teachers and whether they feel there
is an adult in school who cares about them. It also
includes questions about how safe students feel
within the school.
With respect to neighbourhood, questions about
cohesion focus on young people’s relationships
with other people in their neighbourhood. These
also include whether people in the neighbourhood
look out for and help their neighbours, can be
trusted and know who they are.
The GEAS Health and Sexuality instrument includes a
section on freedom of movement. This asks girls and
boys how often they are allowed to do the following
activities without an adult present: go to after school
activities; go to a party with boys and girls; meet with
friends after school; go to a community centre/the
movies/a youth centre; go to a church, mosque or
religious centre; and visit a friend of the opposite sex.
Box 16. Connectedness and freedom of movement in the
Global Early Adolescent Study
Intersectionality • Refers to how women and girls experience inequality differently as a result of gender
intersecting with other social markers, such as age, race, class, caste, religion,
ability or sexual orientation
• As a result, different women and girls face diverse constraints but also have
unique opportunities
Life cycle Takes into account the life of a person as a whole, instead of focusing on
perspective specific life stages or experiences on their own
Men and boys Empowerment of women and girls can benefit from effective engagement with men
and boys as agents of change in their position as relatives, peers, in authority
positions or as mentors and role models
7. Intersectionality and engaging Men and Boys
The conceptual model has so far emphasised how
gender relations operate for or against empowerment
of women and girls. This chapter expands the
model by looking at the two cross-cutting issues of
intersectionality and the engagement of men and boys.
First, intersectionality is introduced to capture how age,
class, caste and other social differences intersect in
the disempowerment women and girls face. Second,
the chapter makes explicit where men and boys feature
in the empowerment of women and girls. Taking these
two issues into account is needed for a nuanced
understanding of how power works and change can
come about. Indeed, connections have been drawn
throughout the White Paper with intersectionality and
engagement with men and boys.
7.1 Intersectionality
Women and girls are not a homogeneous group,
and gender is not the only basis on which their
disempowerment occurs and is experienced. Other
critical social markers intersect with gender and affect
the choice and voice of women and girls, as well as men
and boys. Inequalities and marginalisation are mostly
not experienced in isolation; many women and girls are
exposed to multiple deprivations and face constraints in
different areas of their lives simultaneously (Batliwala,
1993; Malhotra et al., 2002, p. 5; Mukhopadhyay et al.,
2013, pp. 10-16; Sen & Grown, 1987).
Ethnicity, race, class, caste, disability, sexual
orientation, gender identity and location affect the lives
and futures of women and girls. Strengthening women’s
agency, choice and voice hence requires addressing
other markers of disadvantage. Intersectionality also
allows for better understanding of the intersecting
inequalities experienced by those groups of women and
girls who are particularly marginalised (Klugman et al.,
2014, p. 15; Mosedale, 2005; Yuval-Davis, 2006).
Men & Boys
24. An ‘add-on’ approach risks generating an analysis of each inequality as a separate category and as a homogeneous form of disadvantage.
Gender and intersectionality
“Gender is of course not the only axis along which disempowerment occurs -
disempowerment may be a function of age, class, ethnicity, religion and many other factors
– and these particular factors as well as the intersections among them should be taken into
account” (Samman & Santos, 2009, p. 10).
Intersectionality points to women’s disempowerment
as stemming from different social markers. This
should, however, not be interpreted as ‘adding’ layers
of disadvantage and inequality.24 Rather, it is about
overlapping advantages and disadvantages, and
how these interlock to produce disempowerment and
marginalisation in women and girls’ lives. A low-caste
woman is not on the one hand low caste and on the other
a woman, but experiences life as ‘a low-caste woman’.
Intersectional analysis makes it possible to see
the differences among women and among men, by
acknowledging how gender relations play out differently
when intersecting with other axes of difference (Men
Engage Alliance, 2014; Yuval-Davis, 2006). For this reason,
all three elements of the model need to be considered
from the perspective of how gender and other inequalities
intersect in the lives of women and girls. This means
understanding and responding to how their expressions
of agency, their access to and use of assets and the
institutional structures that affect their lives and futures are
shaped by gender intersecting with age, class and caste,
as well as disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and
other markers of difference.
Life Cycle Perspective
Age is a key social marker that shapes how the causes and
effects of gender inequality differ along the stages of women’s
lives. A life cycle perspective takes into account the life of
a person as a whole, instead of focusing on specific stages
or experiences on their own. This helps in considering how
choice, voice and empowerment take shape over time and
understanding larger cycles of discrimination at various stages
of women and girls’ lives.25 A life cycle perspective can focus
on critical periods in a lifetime and captures intergenerational
dimensions of empowerment. It is vital to identify specific
gendered restrictions women face and different needs they
have throughout their life cycles (DAW, 2001; Langer et al.,
2015; Stuckelberger, 2010).
Life stages refer to periods of time during a person’s
life, including infancy, childhood, adolescence, young
adulthood, adulthood and old age. Transitions from one
life stage to the next depend not only on age but also on
the tasks or roles women and girls take on in their families,
communities and societies. These tasks depend on social
factors such as gender, religion, class, caste, sexuality,
disability and ethnicity. The ‘age’ of a person at a certain
stage of life can vary depending on social and cultural
norms and the context. In countries where girls undertake
family duties earlier in their lives, adolescence may begin
earlier as compared with other girls globally (OECD, 2014a).
Compared with men, women face significantly more
disadvantages, which are present in early childhood and
carry on throughout adolescence and later on in life. Gender-
based discrimination can begin even before girls are born, for
example through the practice of female foeticide. Entrenched
discrimination can persist in early childhood and escalate
in adolescent years, affecting the lives of young women.
Experiences of abuse, violence and lack of information
and services on sexual and reproductive health at an early
stage in life can have significant physical and psychological
consequences later in life (Armstrong et al., 2015;
Stuckelberger, 2010).
A life cycle approach also provides perspective to the
particular situation of older women. In many societies,
women who are beyond their reproductive years hold
more power than they did when they were younger. As
grandmothers and mothers-in-law, they have authority
within the household. They may, however, experience
health problems, especially after menopause, as a
result of years of discrimination and adversity. This can
be because of limited access to basic health care during
earlier life stages or the low quality of health care they
received when they were young (Pillsbury et al., 2000).
Critical Life Stage: Adolescence
Adolescence corresponds with the beginning of the
sexual and reproductive phase. It is a phase in which
girls and boys learn to acquire adult roles and duties
and also are more exposed to and affected by gender
relations. Adolescence is not about age per se, but about
the experiences young girls have and the duties they
take on. It is important to differentiate between ‘girls’,
‘adolescents’ and ‘young women’. These categories are
not simply younger versions of adult women, but have
life-stage specific needs of their own (Pillsbury et al., 2000;
Stuckelberger, 2010; Warner et al., 2012).
Adolescence is considered a critical life stage. Adolescent
girls may face inequalities and discrimination such as early
and forced marriage and premature parenthood, GBV, child
labour, sexual exploitation or trafficking and female genital
mutilation. In addition, adolescent girls may have limited
possibilities to negotiate for safe sex or to leave abusive
relationships. This increases their dependence on men and
the risk of HIV infection. These inequalities can contribute
to school dropout rates and vice versa (Armstrong et al.,
2015; DAW, 2001; Pillsbury et al., 2000; Stuckelberger,
2010; UNFPA, 2007).
Empowerment of adolescent girls can break the cycle of
disempowerment and poverty (see box 17 for examples).
Poverty is entrenched in gender inequalities that have
a disproportionate and negative impact on the lives of
adolescent girls. For change to be sustainable, it is not
enough to invest in girls: it is necessary to shift the social
institutional barriers that limit girls’ access to power,
in their families, communities and economic and legal
institutions (Armstrong et al., 2015; UNFPA, 2009).
25. The condition of women is often analysed in a ‘static way’. A ‘snapshot’ of their situation at a specific time is matched to that of men in order to evaluate differences. This
limits the understanding of how inequality and disempowerment manifest themselves throughout the various stages of a woman’s life. Because women’s roles and power
change throughout their life, taking a snapshot perspective to speak of ‘the status of women’ risks not capturing the bigger picture (Malhotra et al., 2002; Stuckelberger, 2010).
It is crucial to consider life stage-specific assets, as
girls have access to and control over different assets
to adult women. Programmes working with girls frame
the importance of accessing assets as related to the
reduction of vulnerabilities and increased opportunities
and decision-making ability, influencing a girl’s process
of empowerment. Two examples are presented below.
The Girl Effect and girls’ assets
The Girl Effect has published a framework on age-
appropriate assets for the economic empowerment
of girls. Introducing girls to economic empowerment
opportunities, at the right age and with the right
programmes, requires ‘foundational assets’ in order to
prepare girls for a safe and productive livelihood. These
are grouped into four core categories: human, social,
financial and physical assets, and correspond to the
resources in this White Paper as follows:
Critical consciousness (self-esteem, confidence
building communication skills and bargaining power);
Bodily integrity (good health);
Social capital (friends, social networks, mentors and
group membership, relationship of trust, access to
wider institutions of society);
Knowledge and skills (education, literacy, knowledge,
legal and economic information, ability to work);
Financial and productive assets (cash, savings,
access to loans and vouchers, identity cards, land,
housing, transport, and personal belongings).
Self-esteem, knowledge and support acquired from
an early stage of life enable a girl to understand her
options and shape her future. She will be equipped to
put into practice what she has learned and can then
advance to financial assets. The Girl Effect emphasises
the importance of asset-building in reducing girls’
vulnerabilities and increasing their opportunities
and decision-making abilities in later life stages. This
contributes to ‘breaking the cycle of poverty’.
The ‘whole girl’ approach in the
‘Girls Achieve Power’ project
The Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Research Institute
in South Africa, in partnership with Grassroot Soccer,
Sonke Gender Justice and the Population Council, is
working in South African township with the Girls Achieve
Power (GAP) Year project. The GAP Year project is one of
the WGCD Grand Challenge grants. It aims to increase
adolescent girls’ continued progress in education
and ensure their overall empowerment through asset-
building interventions. It builds on a ‘whole girl’
framework that consists of activities to build social,
health, education and economic assets. These assets
correspond to:
Critical consciousness (self-esteem, self-efficacy to
enact behaviour, autonomy);
Bodily integrity (quality of health and ability to
access health care services);
Financial and productive assets (income and
savings, land, housing, transport, equipment and
Social capital (social networks, access to societal
Knowledge and skills (Individual skills, knowledge).
GAP Year’s theory of change is that asset-building of
girls at a young age provides a solid basis on which to
construct their educational, health, social and economic
assets. This enhances well-being, self-efficacy and
decision-making ability. The approach focuses on how
different assets interact and affect girls’ lives, rather
than solely on one specific context. The project also
works with adolescent boys and seeks to encourage
positive behaviour and a shift in gender attitudes.
Box 17. Girls and Assets Framework
Several teams across the Gates Foundation have placed
specific attention on the 1,000 days between a woman’s
pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. Every year,
millions of children die and many more fail to realise their
full potential because of malnutrition in these critical 1,000
days. Children who miss out on good nutrition during these
1,000 days never achieve full physical or mental growth,
which limits their ability to learn in school and reduces their
productivity as adults.
The pre-conception phase is of key importance because:
Women’s nutritional status entering pregnancy affects
foetal growth and holds risks of preterm delivery, low
birth weight and neonatal mortality;
Several nutrients are critical in early pregnancy
for the growth of the unborn child, including brain
development; and
Reaching women before pregnancy is necessary to
ensure healthy first trimester growth. Most mothers in
low-income countries do not seek antenatal care until
the second or third trimester.
In the 1,000 days’ work, the well-being of adolescent girls
is of key interest. The younger a girl becomes pregnant,
the more risk there is to the unborn child. Reaching
adolescent girls to improve their health and nutritional
status is hence important. This includes attention to their
nutritional status, reduced violence, their sexual and
reproductive health status and the delaying of marriage
and childbearing (Piwoz, 2013).
Box 18. 1,000 days
Intergenerational effects
Healthy, empowered and educated women affect societal
structures through their various roles as mothers, workers
or caregivers, boosting sustainable development. In the
household setting, such women are also able to have
greater decision-making power and control over resources
(Brikci, 2013; Langer et al., 2015).
The survival of an infant depends on vital factors
related to a mother’s education and decision-making
power (her age as a mother, the spacing and number of
births and care during pregnancy). Education levels of
women and their agency are positively related, and this
can in turn positively affect children. Even in settings
where gender norms are confining, educated women
often are more autonomous and able to decide and
act for the benefit of their child (e.g. improving child
nutrition or education) (Brikci, 2013; Klugman et al.,
2014; Kudlová, 2008; Langer et al., 2015; Pillsbury et
al., 2000; Warner et al., 2012).
Intergenerational effects also occur in socialisation
around norms. Gender norms are passed down the
generations through observation and repetition
of behaviours, with children learning appropriate
behaviours for men and women from their parents. This
learning process impacts children’s attitudes during
the course of their lives (Fleming et al., 2013). In some
cases, older women may be ‘cultural gatekeepers’ in
their communities: they can be mentors and help create
an environment that allows or encourages younger
women to discuss sexuality or GBV and shifts norms and
attitudes on gender (UNFPA, 2007).
7.2 Men & Boys
Advancing gender equality and empowerment for
women and girls calls for the active engagement of men
and boys. This stems from the recognition that men and
boys can make critical contributions to expanding the
choice and voice of women and girls. They can act as
gatekeepers maintaining the status quo, but can also
be important allies in transforming power relations.
They are present in the lives of women and girls across
all institutional arenas: in the family, as brothers,
fathers, husbands or partners; in the community,
as peers and friends or as religious, community or
civil society leaders; in the market, as traders, bank
officials, employers, labour union representatives and
so on; and in the state, as politicians, bureaucrats,
judges, police officers, doctors and teachers. Across
all these arenas, they stand out as key actors who can
positively or negatively affect the empowerment of
women and girls. Increasingly, strategies are pursued
to engage with men and boys, often as part of an
ecosystem approach to the empowerment of girls and
women (Box 19).
Plan It Girls project
The Plan It Girls project of the International Center for
Research on Women (ICRW) in India engages with men
and boys in different roles and positions. It builds the
agency, self-efficacy and employability of girls through
its Gender Integrated Foundational Skills curriculum. In
addition, it targets and involves boys and men in different
ways. With this ecosystem approach, the project seeks
to shift prevailing norms that hinder the educational and
employment success of girls. The project engages:
Male peers in schools as well as families and
A network of motivated teachers and school
administrators who foster support and a conducive
environment for girls;
With private sectors and especially industry and
business leaders, through exposure visits and
Umodzi project Malawi
CARE’s Umodzi project in Malawi engages with boys
and men as part of a strategy to enhance both peer and
intergenerational dialogue about sexual and reproductive
health and rights. Umodzi is Chichewa for ‘oneness’ and
expresses that gender equality is not achieved at the
expense of men and boys but is beneficial for all.
The project works with same-sex Teen Clubs where girls
and boys in same-sex dialogue groups reflect on and
challenge gender stereotypes. The project also explicitly
involves community adults in its strategies: male change
agents are linked to boys’ groups and female change
agents to girls’ groups. These intergenerational linkages
are considered key to supporting and reinforcing the
intentions and the adoption of new and more gender-
equitable ideas and behaviours.
Box 19. Engaging with men and boys for the
empowerment of women and girls
Effectively engaging with men and boys requires an
understanding of how gender power relations and
patriarchy affect them. Compared with women, men hold
more power and agency in societies, benefiting from
the privilege tied to patriarchal masculinity. However,
patriarchy does not automatically benefit men, who
are often forced into strict definitions of manhood.
Commonly expected behaviours of masculinity often
include a duty to act as protector and provider for the
family. Men are expected to be tough, strong, virile,
courageous and aggressive, and are restricted from
showing vulnerability, emotions or any need for help.
Men can also be marginalised by traditional power
structures, especially in low-income and minority group
contexts. Poor men face difficulties accessing health
care or material resources. How men experience their
power or lack thereof has implications for the women in
their lives (Edström et al., 2015; Greene & Levack, 2010;
Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b; Levtov, Barker, Contreras-Urbina,
Heilman, & Verma, 2014; Men Engage Alliance, 2014;
Slegh, Barker, Kimonyo, Ndolimana, & Bannerman,
2013; Van der Gaag, 2014).
Positive roles of men and boys as father, brothers,
teachers, politicians and the like contribute to gender
equality and empowerment of women and girls. Men
and boys (and women and girls) are often socialised
into acceptance of the status quo and silence on gender
inequality and the disempowerment of women and girls.
When men and boys are socialised into considering
inequality and disempowerment as a ‘women’s issue’,
they tend to take a passive bystander position. Innovative
approaches emphasise how men and boys can be
empowered to speak out and act to confront gender
inequality and disempowerment, for instance on violence
against women.26 Such approaches show that the way
men and boys relate to gender equality and women and
girls’ empowerment can change, and that they can make
critical contributions to transformative change.
Men and boys can be actively engaged in supporting
women and girls’ empowerment in different positions:
As peers, for instance as classmates in school and
peers in a community, mostly in the context of peer
education interventions. The Swaziland Action Group
Against Abuse, for instance, has designed a curriculum
for boys’ clubs in schools, to complement the Girls
Empowerment Clubs. The boys’ clubs focus on male
attitudes and perceptions of gender and violence,
and are considered a key strategy to prevent violence
against girls. In a similar vein, the GAP Year project,
which uses sports to empower adolescent girls, also
organises an all-boys football league in which male
model coaches encourage healthier behaviour and
social accountability among teenage boys.
As partners and in couples, with men and boys as
boyfriends, sexual partners or husbands. This engages
with men and boys’ involvement in decisions regarding
contraceptive use or maternal health, or shared
household decision-making on finances or education.
One example is the above-mentioned project in
Cambodia, with its Nurturing Connections approach
that explicitly involves men, as well as other female
relatives, in dialogue and discussions to improve
nutrition outcomes. Others are the gender socialisation
and couple approach of the Grand Challenge project
in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the Couple Power project in
Jharkhand, India (both illustrated in Box 20).
As community leaders or in authority positions: ‘men
in power’ can actively speak out to support gender
equality and women and girls’ empowerment. The
Enabling Girls to Advance Gender Equity project in
Malawi (of the Girls Empowerment Network, Rise Up
and ICRW), for instance, reaches out to traditional and
religious leaders, male authority figures and leaders of
local civil society organisations. Through networking,
institutional strengthening, advocacy capacity-building
and technical assistance, these male community
leaders are supported to advocate against child
marriage and in favour of the implementation of the
new national law that prohibits child marriage.
26. An inspiring example is the Mentors in Violence Prevention model, which centres on the empowered bystander approach, and the
Ted Talk “Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue”
As mentors or role models, with men and boys as
actively engaged change agents. As the examples of the
couple approach in Box 20 illustrate, men and boys also
feature prominently in interventions that support them to
challenge norms and promote more equitable practices
in their communities. Another WGCD project in India will
work with male movie stars and cricketers who speak out
strongly against violence against women in short videos
broadcast in large public screenings.
What men and boys think and do matters in the family,
community, market and state; engaging them hence
matters in all institutional arenas. Engagement can
be through interventions focused on them alone or in
gender-synchronised interventions that work with both
girls and boys or women and men at the same time. The
latter foster changes among both and improved relations
and interactions between them (Brikci, 2013; DAW,
2001; Edström et al., 2015; Koppell & Grown, 2014;
Levtov et al., 2014; Men Engage Alliance, 2014; Pillsbury
et al., 2000; UN Women, 2015).
Couple approach, Ibadan (Nigeria)
The University of Ibadan College of Medicine recognises
that women’s ability to exercise agency and choice in
their lives is constrained by socioeconomic challenges
and limited reproductive freedoms. The project, which
offers family planning services, counselling and financial
literacy, takes an innovative approach by explicitly
engaging with couples. Aiming to create a supportive
intra-familial environment for the empowerment of
women, the intervention works with both partners of
couples, individually and together. The focus is on
decisions around family planning use, sex and refusal of
sex, child care and financial decisions. In addition to its
couple approach, the project seeks to shift community
norms by supporting role model couples that act as
positive deviants in their community and transfer
knowledge and skills to other couples.
Box 20. Engaging with men and boys as partners
Couple Power, India
Young couples are the focus of the Couple Power project
of the Child in Need Institute and ICRW in Jharkhand.
This seeks to promote equitable decision-making
among women (aged 15–24) and their partners on
use of appropriate family planning and better maternal
health outcomes. The approach identifies 1) supportive
relationships of respect and equality; 2) involvement
of partners or spouses in family planning decision-
making; 3) shared responsibility among sexual partners
for maternal health; and 4) disapproval of partner
violence as key elements of gender-equitable attitudes
favourable to the sexual and reproductive health of
women and girls. The approach works with young and
recently married women and their partners through
training, dialogue and capacity-building to promote
more equitable relationships, improved communication
and joint decision-making. It also supports role model
couples to promote gender-equitable decision-making
in couples and challenge gender inequalities and
the disempowerment of women and girls in their
8. Dynamics of Transformative Change
This last chapter of this White Paper highlights
how change happens and what this implies for
organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation in working on the empowerment of
women and girls. It starts with articulating how the
elements of the model come together in a way that
makes empowerment a process of transformative
change. Next, it qualifies the pathways of change as
dynamic and iterative, and hence non-linear and hard
to predict. Finally, it points to the bottom-up nature of
empowerment processes, and the facilitative and non-
prescriptive roles external agents can have in this.
For all three key points, it specifies the implications for
interventions. It is in this practical use that the model’s
value as a lens to analyse contexts and intentionally
design interventions is to be realised. This is required
to design innovative and transformative approaches to
the empowerment of women and girls, and to track their
implementation in a way that promotes learning, reflection
and adaptations towards actual progress and impact.
Empowerment of women and girls has been defined
in this White Paper as the expansion of choice and the
strengthening of voice through the transformation of
power relations, so women and girls have more control
over their lives and futures. Empowerment challenges
marginalisation and disempowerment, and is a process
of transformative social change. This transformative
change is about expanding the horizons of what is
possible, and challenging and changing structures of
constraints that limit women and girls’ choice and voice.
8.1 Empowerment as
transformative change
Empowerment seeks to tackle the multiple barriers
that deny women and girls from making choices and
voicing their interests. This entails a rebalance of
power and a transformative change in the institutions
and power relations that underlie gender inequalities.
Empowerment aims at changing systemic forces that
marginalise women, girls and other disadvantaged
groups. It is a long-term process of change that
challenges ideologies of male domination and women’s
subordination. Because constraints are systemic and
institutional, they need to be addressed in explicit
and strategic ways (Batliwala, 1993, 2007; Cornwall,
2014; Golla, Malhotra, Nanda, & Mehra, 2011; Kabeer,
1999a, 1999b; Kantor & Apgar, 2013; Samman &
Santos, 2009; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
Transformative change means empowerment involves
changes in multiple dimensions of the lives of women
and girls. Empowerment is about the mutually related
links between inner change and systematic structural
change. It entails fundamental shifts in the distribution
of resources and in institutional structures, and in
women and girls expressing agency, both individually
and collectively. Women and girls’ empowerment
happens in the iterative interplay between these shifts
in agency, resources and institutional structures.
Empowerment processes are multidimensional and
work across multiple levels, in particular the individual
level and all institutional arenas (family, community,
market and state) (Batliwala, 2007; Golla et al., 2011;
Kabeer, 1999a, 1999b; Kantor & Apgar, 2013; Malhotra
et al., 2002; Pereznieto & Taylor, 2014; Rao & Kelleher,
2005; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
The dynamic interactions and relationships between
agency, resources and institutional structures can
be mutually enforcing and set in motion a spiral of
transformative change. Yet such interplays are not
automatic and cannot be assumed: change in one does
not necessarily effect change in another. The dynamics
between agency, resources and institutional structures
will also differ over time and by context. Because
sources of deprivations and opportunities vary,
empowerment is context-specific and needs to be firmly
rooted in local contexts (Alsop et al., 2006; Klugman et
al., 2014; Martínez & Wu, 2009; Mosedale, 2005).
These qualifications imply that interventions:
Need to engage explicitly and intentionally with these
elements and how they interact, and build on the
mutually reinforcing dynamics between them to shift
power relations in women and girls’ lives;
Strengthen women and girls’ expression of agency in
decision-making, leadership and collective action, as
key to challenging and transforming structures that
constrain and undermine their control over their lives
and future;
Intentionally and explicitly address institutional
barriers over the longer term, recognising that this
requires investment over time;
Work across different institutional arenas (state,
market, community and family) to leverage significant
and sustainable change;
Address a range of resources, being cognisant of the
potential interactions between resources and how
these in turn interact with agency and institutional
Need to identify in specific contexts which elements
of agency, institutional structures and resources, and
which interactions, are critical to expanding women
and girls’ choice and voice;
Link with other (development) actors, when needed
in other sectors, to allow for a holistic approach
engaging with different elements of empowerment.
8.2 Unpredictable and
non-linear pathways to change
Transformative change is by definition dynamic and
iterative. Empowerment processes themselves change
along the way. This makes such processes also non-
linear and the dynamics between agency, resources
and institutional structures hard to predict. Moreover,
transformative change will challenge existing power
relations and therefore encounter push-backs and
reversals, as well as unexpected opportunities
and spirals of change. Empowerment is hence not
necessarily progressive but rather ‘two steps forward
one step back’. In short, empowerment as a process
of social transformation is a journey that takes diverse
pathways that are unpredictable and non-linear
(Cornwall, 2014; Luttrell & Quiroz, 2009; Mosedale,
2005; Pathways, 2011; VeneKlasen & Miller, 2002).
These qualifications imply that interventions:
Explicitly and continuously monitor how agency,
institutional structures and resources interact and
change over time to allow interventions to:
– respond to emerging opportunities to leverage
greater impacts on empowerment;
– respond to reversals and backlash, as well as
unintended negative consequences of interventions,
– to explore and address underlying causes;
Use a set of indicators and methods that can capture
dynamics between elements of the model;
Employ an approach to planning and measurement
that not only focuses on measuring attribution of
results to a programme but also allows for long-term
learning; and
Ensure flexibility in design, implementation and
measurement and allow for adaption along the
8.3 Facilitating change in a
non-prescriptive way
By definition, empowerment is a bottom-up process that
cannot be ‘done for’ or ‘done to’ someone. Nor can it
be imposed on women and girls in a top-down manner.
The process needs to begin with women and girls’ own
experiences and has to be determined by them as an
on-going part of empowerment. In this way, the process
is itself empowering. This is why women and girls’
expressions of agency in decision-making, leadership
and collective action are at the heart of empowerment
Empowerment is about expanding choice and
strengthening voice. It is not prescribing the choices
women and girls should make, or the concerns
they should voice and in what way.27 Empowerment
addresses inequalities in the capacities of women and
girls to express their choices and voices but does not
have external agents determine what these choices
and voices are.28 Making the distinction between
empowerment as an outcome and as a process is pivotal
to approaching empowerment in a non-prescriptive
manner, by facilitating the process rather than defining
the precise outcome. What is valued as empowerment
should be based on the experiences and perspectives
of women and girls (Batliwala, 2013; Kabeer, 1999a,
27. Empowerment “involves a process whereby women can freely analyse, develop and voice their needs and interests, without them being pre-defined, or imposed
from above, by planners or other social actors. The assumption that planners can identify women’s needs runs against empowerment objectives which imply that women
themselves formulate and decide what these interests are” (Oxaal & Baden, 1997, p. 6).
28. “As far as empowerment is concerned, we are interested in possible inequalities in people’s capacities to make choices rather than in differences in the choices they
make. An observed lack of uniformity in functioning achievements cannot be automatically interpreted as evidence of inequality because it is highly unlikely that all members
of a given society will give equal value to different possible ways of ‘being and doing’. Consequently, where gender differentials in functioning achievements exist, we have to
disentangle differentials which reflect differences in preferences from those which embody a denial of choice” (Kabeer, 1999b, p. 439).
Understanding the self
“Women’s empowerment is a process which embodies ‘self’ and cannot be attained through
the direct interventions of outside agents. It is self-selected and self-driven and is not
susceptible to interventions of those wishing to ‘empower’“ (UNFPA, 2007).
External agents, such as the foundation and its
partners, can play a critical role in this process.
Because inequalities and disempowerment are deeply
ingrained in institutional structures and women and
men’s consciousness, external agents can play a role
in questioning hierarchies and disempowerment and
opening up space for new aspirations and transformation
of power (Batliwala, 1993, 2013; Cornwall, 2014;
Oxaal & Baden, 1997; Pathways, 2011). Yet this role
should be treated with caution: external agents need
to be committed to expanding the choice and voice of
women and girls themselves without imposing their own
values and norms.29 They need to balance on a fine line
between facilitating and imposing.
Change in consciousness and external agents
“The process of women’s empowerment must begin in the mind […] It means supporting her
to recognize her innate right to self-determination, dignity and justice, and to realize that
it is she, along with her sisters, who must assert that right […] Because of the conditions
of ideological conditioning, the process of demanding justice does not necessarily begin
spontaneously, or arise automatically from the very conditions of subjugation. […] The
process of empowerment must therefore be induced or stimulated by external agents,
more often than not. […] External agents have an important role to play in the process
of empowerment – they encourage others to question the validity and credibility of the
established order” (Batliwala, 2013, p. 49).
29. “There is always a danger that when we assess ‘choice’ from a standpoint other than that of the person making the choice, we will be led back to ourselves and our own
norms and values” (Kabeer, 1999a, p. 41).
The implications of approaching women and girls’
empowerment in a non-prescriptive and bottom-up way
provide clear directions to external agents to:
Focus on the informed and voluntary choice of women
and girls themselves, within an expanded range of
Purposively invite and listen to women and girls’ voices
to identify their key issues from their perspectives,
point to critical barriers and opportunities and define
together with them desired outcomes and pathways of
Create opportunities for women and girls to actively
participate in setting up accountability mechanisms to
set priorities and co-design and inform implementing
strategies and tracking systems to measure progress
and change;
Be clear on how interventions contribute to the
three motivations to work on women and girls’
empowerment: as a goal in itself, as a means to better
health and development outcomes and as a way to
reduce unintended consequences. Being clear about
the motivation to promote women’s empowerment
supports priority-setting, strategy development,
resource allocation, risk assessment and measurement.
Focus on the facilitating process of women and girls’
empowerment, and the interactions between the core
elements, with the aim of tackling systemic differences
in the ability of women and girls to exercise choice and
voice; and
Ensure indicators and monitoring systems are informed
by women and girls’ realities and interests and are
context- and time-specific and relevant.
Putting women and girls at the centre of development
offers a unique opportunity to challenge gender
inequalities and advance development and health
outcomes. This is a highly needed and critical task but
is not necessarily easy. This should not hold us back
from engaging with it. In the words of Melinda Gates,
“Complexity is not an excuse for inaction.”
Complexity is not an excuse for inaction
“At our foundation, we will not use the complexity of resolving gender inequality as an
excuse for failing to think and act more intentionally about putting women and girls at the
center of what we do.”
“We will systematically increase our focus on women’s specific needs and preferences
and on addressing gender inequalities and empowering women. […] Part of this focus
will involve analyzing many of our grants and strategies through a gender lens, to
make sure that gender inequalities are not getting in the way of the results we hope
to achieve. Another part will involve greater accountability for how our strategies and
grants contribute to women’s empowerment over the long term. If we believe that women
themselves are agents of development, then we must invest in their agency and evaluate
the results” (Gates, 2014, p. 1274).
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