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It doesn't matter what we call “empowerment”, as long as it can happen


From a development cliché to a Kardashian marketing meme, 2017 has already seen a fair share of discussion around the term “empowerment”, with commentators arguing that the term has become entirely meaningless. But what if this whole conversation is just a distraction?

For those of you who don’t spend all your time looking up development buzzwords, the Oxford Dictionary defines empowerment in two ways: “authority or power given to someone to do something” or  “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights”. 

Sure, it’s a heavy definition for a term that’s been used to sell everything from protein powder to useless conferences, but that doesn't mean that the process it represents should be overlooked. 

Girls attend vocational school at our partner school in the Philippines. Empowerment in action?

Ultimately, these terminology discussions make empowerment all about the people working in development programmes - what do we think of it? Should we use it? Is this really what matters? Empowerment is not for us to impose, but about providing the right resources, information and support so that vulnerable people can transform their own lives for the better. In the context of Wonder Foundation’s own work supporting local education projects for women and girls around the world, we know that it’s this transformation that can happen through relevant, quality education, which makes the difference.

Maria, a graduate of our partner school in the Philippines describes this in her own terms: “As a student I learned to value what was given to me whether these may be material things or lessons that I learned. But most importantly, I learned to make decisions for myself. It is because of my education that I now have a good job that allows me to earn well enough to help my family live better. I even help pay for the tuition fees of two of my siblings- both of whom are in high school.”

 Maria delivers a speech at her old school. Read it here.

For us at Wonder Foundation and for the women and girls whose education we support, the process of empowerment is real, and involves not only learning skills that will enable them to access good employment and a better life. It is a word that we use as a placeholder for their ability to make their own informed choices and tell their own story. Maria doesn’t use the term “empowerment”, but it’s clear that she has learned and grown; she is claiming her rights and able to make her own life decisions.

So in the end, does it really matter what we call empowerment, so long as we work hard to make sure that the programmes we support enable it to happen? At Wonder we're open to alternative terms, but getting tied up in terminology risks missing the point. Perhaps it’s time to stop splitting hairs, and start doing whatever we can to help women and girls around the world claim this process for themselves.