To meaningfully contribute to women’s empowerment, development programs
need to support transformation of the economic, political and social structures
within which women in all their diversity live.
What is women’s empowerment? How do you measure it? Why is it relevant to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)? This article looks at how the concept of empowerment has evolved. It concludes that women’s empowerment is best understood as a process rather than an end goal, where marginalised women are able to set their own political agendas, to access resources, form movements and achieve lasting change in gender and social power structures.
Women’s empowerment processes are complex, diverse and multi-layered, and range from individual self-perception to structural drivers that shape context, which makes any simplified measure problematic. Long-term contextual qualitative research is needed (in addition to quantitative approaches) that takes note of small incremental changes, which over time can add up to a bigger shift. Research must also include intersectional analysis to understand the lived experiences of women from different groups in society.
What does this mean for WASH? This article has emerged from a research project, Gender in WASH: Partnerships, Workforce and Impact Assessment, led by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney (ISF-UTS) and partners. The research project explores key questions around women’s empowerment through WASH, including: Is a woman who establishes a water supply or sanitation business with support from a WASH programme actually ‘empowered’? What are we actually measuring when we try to understand empowerment outcomes for women involved in WASH programmes?
The article suggests that the oft-cited claim that WASH programmes involving women have better outcomes for the community at large needs to be critically questioned. If such projects increase women’s workload, without shifting inequitable gendered responsibilities, can they truly be described as empowering? In asking these questions and contributing to critical debate, the authors hope to strengthen the sector’s engagement with empowerment towards more socially transformative approaches and outcomes.