Empowerment: Measuring the unmeasurable

My favourite graph on empowerment has been published by the World Bank a few years ago.

Source: World Development Indicators, 2013

In brief, it depicts the share of female members of parliament across the regions of the world. It shows a steady rise – rather slow, and starting from a modest level, but the movement is clearly upwards. Except for one region.

The female share of parliament is often used to measure women’s empowerment, in fact, it is one of three dimensions of the Women Empowerment Index used by the UN Development Programme. The above graph perfectly illustrates why the female share of parliament might be a problematic indicator. The sharp decent and slow recovery marked by the red line reflects the political events of the 1990s, when the Soviet States crumbled. From a political ideology which held gender equality high and implemented the parity laws – technically, at least – these countries dropped to the conventional gender-condition of the Western liberal democracies. The story of this graph thus has to be retold: It basically reads, that the proportion of women in parliament reflects the power this particular parliament actually has – in an inverted sense. In other words, the fewer the women, the more powerful the chamber of representatives.

For the FATE-project, this is a rather interesting thought. With Rwanda (63,8 %) and Bolivia (53.1 %), we work in the number 1 and 2 countries in terms of female representation in parliament: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm. Can we draw the lines and look for entry points to our main concern, which is employment creation in the transforming – feminised? – agricultural sector?

But let us tell the story of empowerment first. And forgive me for this rather lengthy post – I got carried away by my passion for conceptual debates around what we are trying to study. So feel free to skip theory and jump to “measuring the unmeasurable”.


A story of success

 “Empowerment” has had a great career. A concept originating in community work and the black civil rights movement in the 1970’s US, it has been established in the development community as a preferred achievement ever since development “assistance” has come to be framed in terms of partnership and cooperation. Empowerment has become a lead objective in gender and development initiatives since the 1994 Cairo Population Conference. The concept lends itself towards an understanding of women as agents of change, rather than victims of whatever change process. The success story of the concept is also due to the fact that influential development agencies, namely the World Bank, have come to the conclusion that empowering women is not only morally imperative, but also economically smart. This was confirmed on a recent panel at the World Bank Headquarters with Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank Director, Hillary Clinton, most probably the Democratic presidential candidate, and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s Executive Director: Empowering women and girls .


The power of empowerment

“Empowerment” is mentioned more than a dozen times in the proposal of the FATE project. Even though the high season of the concept of „empowerment“ was in the late 1990’s, the term is still prominent in development debates. However, its appeal seems to unfold as an advocacy instrument rather than as a concept, let alone an empirically grounded issue, its main characteristic being its definitional fuzziness, not clarity. A destiny it shares with a number of buzzwords of the development industry which, through their vague and euphemistic qualities, gain purchase by way of embracing a multitude of meanings. Some feminist scholars welcomed this vagueness as a quality that added to their analytic strategy, as expressed by Batliwala (1993, quoted in Kabeer 2001, 18): ‘I like the term empowerment because no one has defined it clearly yet; so it gives us a breathing space to work it out in action terms before we have to pin ourselves down to what it means.’ This very looseness has however been criticised (Alkire and Ibrahim 2007). The other side of the coin is that terms such as “empowerment” have edged off, from contested concepts triggering vibrant debates they have become “consensual hurrah-words” (Chandhoke 2010, 176).

At the core of “empowerment” stands “power”. In a Foucauldian sense, we refer to power as “pouvoir”, the power to, to be able to, rather than the notion contained in “puissance” which stands for the power over, thus designating force, dominion, rule.

In feminist development literature we often find empowerment being translated into four basic forms of power:


The power within: the knowledge individual capabilities, sense of entitlement and self-esteem to feel capable of changing their lives and having learning skills

The power to: decision-making within the household and the community, and in domains that go beyond areas that are traditionally seen as women’s realm.

The power over: access and control over resources, such as financial, physical, social, and cultural; including knowledge-based assets and information.

The power with: the ability to organise with others to enhance influence, voice, economic activities and rights.


Along this line we like to frame power in terms of the ability to make choices. Empowerment, then, describes the process of change from being denied making choices to acquiring the ability to choose (Kabeer 2001).

Of course, the conceptual background of the notion of “choice” has to be put into perspective. It carries a neoliberal touch, raises suspicions of methodological individualism and Western ethnocentrism. Restoration comes from an influential position: Amartya Sen has framed his idea of capabilities in terms of choices. It is closely linked to his idea of freedom – the core objective of any development (1999).

Measuring the unmeasurable

But how should the ability to make choices effectively be measured? How can we assess outcomes in terms of choices against the fact that not all the differences that we will find can be attributed to the denial of choices, and thus, to disempowerment? – In fact, many of these differences can be attributed to preference or priority, rather than to inequality, or discrimination.

Some – Sen is among them – try to solve the problem by measuring only the most basic achievements such as life expectancy or adequate shelter. This strategy bears the risk of associating gender-based discrimination with poverty. Implicitly it suggests that these disparities will disappear with development.

To construct proxies that are of value in more general terms is another strategy to address the problem. This is what the UN measurements usually do, examples are the gender-disaggregated Human Development Index or the Gender Empowerment Measure. Such measurements are useful for comparisons across regions. On the downside are the value judgements that have led to their selection, representing the values of those who measure rather than any woman’s choices (Kabeer 2001).

An additional problem, also described by Sen (1999), are adaptive preferences. This concept refers to the fact that a social group may accommodate with a certain situation or even choose an option at their own detriment, because they do not perceive alternatives within the realm of possibilities.[1]


The FATE approach


 Workload, decision-making, income and how these are organised and shared within the household needs to be factored into any assessment of empowerment. Photo: Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. Sabin Bieri, 2015.


In the FATE project, we framed empowerment in terms of income, employment, access and ownership of resources and assets, as well as decision-making, social capital, and political power. We thereby strongly relied on IFPRI’s Women’s empowerment in agriculture index WEAI: https://www.ifpri.org/publication/womens-empowerment-agriculture-index.  The most serious constraint we felt within our quantitative assessment of women’s empowerment was the question of time use, as it exceeded the methodological scope of our enquiry. We will have to be imaginative in shaping the coming qualitative assessments so as to tackle the question of workload and time and how they are shared within households.

I wonder what your thoughts are, now that you start digging into the data from our household survey. Which are the steps ahead towards measuring the unmeasurable? What  stories are emerging that can be told as stories of empowerment? What are important elements of empowerment and rural employment in the FATE contexts? And what are missing pieces?



Sen, A 1999. Development as Freedom. New York, anchor books.

Kabeer, N. 2001. Reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment. Theory and practice. Discussing women’s empowerment – Theory and practice. Sisask, A. Stockholm, Novum Grafiska AB.

Permanyer, I. 2013. A critical assessment of UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. Feminist Economics 19 (2):  1-32.

Alkire, S and Ibrahin, S. 2007. Agency and empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. Oxford Development Studies 35 (4):  379-403.

Chandhoke, N. 2010. Deconstructing development discourse. Buzzwords and fuzzwords. Cornwall, A and Eade, D. Oxford, Oxfam: 175-184.


[1] A similar concept is offered by Bourdieu who talks about „doxa“ as a subconscious order guiding somebody’s behaviour. The doxa only becomes fragile once it submerges and enters the discursive level, from where it can become conflictive (Bourdieu 1977).





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3 Responses to Empowerment: Measuring the unmeasurable

  1. bupreti says:

    I appreciate the conceptual dimension in this blog. I want to bring few parietal observation from Nepal were a log to change not only in the understanding but also in the operationalisation of mainstreaming going on in Nepal. Based on the 20-25 years of progress in the gender mainstreaming there are several changes are happened. The main factors contributing to the change in the gender relations are:
    1. Political awareness
    2. Constitutional and legal provisions (33% compulsory inclusion of women in the state structures), 3. Institutional arrangers (like establishment of Women’s Commission, operation of gender unit/cells in Police offices,

    At present out of 5 highest constitutional positions in Nepal 3 are women (President, the 1st position; Chief Justice, 4th position, Speaker of the Parliament, 5th position) and only 2nd and 3rd are male. Also women’s qualitative participation (meaningful engagement in decision making) is observed in several other senior and important positions, that we Nepali can not even imagine 20 years back.

    So the social construction and reconstruction of role of men and women are now changed (e.g., plowing field, participating in funerals, by women was out of imagination before 20 years and they were solely male responsibility. However these are changed (due to conflict related migration, awareness and confidence developed by women).

    the gender division of labor shaped by past roles, behavior, and social expectations are now changed because of new culture, political changes, time and place. Hence, the relations of power between women and men in interaction with other structures of social hierarchy such as class, caste and race are now changed. We have also found such change in our FATE study sites while conducting qualitative study. Other factors contributing to such changes were alteration of practices, ideas, images; including division of labor, roles and resources between women and men. So, now the determining factor became abilities, attitudes, desires, personality traits, behavioral patterns but not the sex as such.

    Bihsnu Upreti
    2016 May 3


  2. Elizabeth Jimenez says:

    How to “measure the unmeasurable” is indeed a very “tricky” and challenging question (thank you for triggering the issue Sabin!) ..I think the issue is not to attempt to come up and provide a quite strong measure of women’s empowerment, but rather to come up with proxies, indicators that could help tell (and construct) an story of changes on women’s participation that could be considered part of a long-process of empowerment. Not sure if IFPRI’s Women’s empowerment in agriculture index WEAI could indeed be a good indicator (it is a complex one….that is, it requires various types of information) YET, I believe that with FATE we are in a very privileged position to “test” this indicator, the extent into which it can be actually used “across different social and cultural contexts” (Nepal, Bolivia, Laos, Rwanda…) and our exploration could help us come up with some conclusions as to what can be “measurable” and what cannot…..particularly if we wish to come up with world-wide comparisons.

    Talking about world-wide comparisons I also find Sabin’s favorite women’s empowerment graph interesting. this is clearly not an indicator or women’s empowerment……..or is it really? I think this is an example of an indicator that makes more sense when is not used for comparative purposes but rather to assess changes in women’s empowerment within a region or a country. While it might seem paradoxical that -according to the graphic- Bolivian women are more empowered that women in Europe, I would say that greater representation of women in the parliament has certainly had very significant changes in women’s political participation in Bolivia. Yet the consequences over other spheres (including the “time allocation of labor inside the household”) are yet to be seen….nothing ensures that such changes will also take place.

    Now the issue of a “parliament’s empowerment”…..is “another story”….It can be said that current Bolivian’s chamber of representatives is also “highly empowered,” and this certainly has nothing to do with women’s participation but with the fact that the ruling party has more than two thirds of representation and thus they can enact easily all changes they wish (with limited debates and argumentation)……BUT this is indeed “another story”

    Looking forward to comments and suggestions as to how to use our data for the analysis of women’s empowerment inour case studies……we are just starting this on Bolivia, and will make sure to share our experiences with you all!


  3. Sabin says:

    This is indeed a fascinating story from Bolivia. I guess, one of the questions would then be, how the institutional power that Bolivian women have obviously gained, can be translated into the everyday lives of regular women (and men, we agree it always needs the two).
    I would certainly like to hear a comment from Rwanda on this story.


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