Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment

Naila Kabeer for Sida

Created 06/20/2017


Empowerment is defined as the expansion in people’s ability to make strategic life choices where this ability was previously denied them. Changes in the ability to exercise choice involve three inter-dependent dimensions:

  • Resources (material, social or human). Empowerment entails a change in the terms on which resources are acquired as much as an increase in access to resources.
  • Agency includes collective, as well as individual, reflection and action. It encompasses analysis, bargaining, negotiation, deception, manipulation, subversion, resistance and protest.
  • Disempowerment is manifested when failure to achieve valued ways of ‘being and doing’ reflects asymmetries in the underlying distribution of capabilities.

A sustainable process of empowerment involves change at multiple levels (at both individual and structural levels) as well as in multiple dimensions. In situations of gender discrimination, evidence that the enhancement of women’s agency has led to a reduction in prevailing gender inequalities in achievements can be taken as evidence of women’s empowerment.

Studies attempting to measure empowerment differ in the dimensions of empowerment they focus on, in whether they view power as relating to individuals or structures, and in how they conceptualise social change. Problems of meaning and of values need to be considered:

  • Single measures, disembedded from their context, lend themselves to a variety of meanings. It is not possible to establish the meaning of an indicator – and its validity – without reference to the other dimensions of empowerment.
  • Very different values are associated with the concept of empowerment, which complicate attempts to conceptualise and measure it. There is a risk of the measurement process itself being disempowering if concepts such as ‘achievement’ – and of empowerment more broadly – are interpreted according to the values of those doing the measuring.
  • Further, measuring informal processes (such as privately renegotiated power relations) is challenging.
  • It is also very difficult to measure the indeterminate and unpredictable nature of agency; there is no single linear model of change by which a ’cause’ can be identified for women’s disempowerment and altered to create the desired ‘effect’.

How then can attempts to measure empowerment proceed? Attention can be focused on changes in access to valued public goods (such as health, education, credit, land, livelihoods and employment opportunities): such changes are indicative of changes in the conditions of choice and are easier to measure than informal processes. Official development agencies and social movements can contribute to women’s empowerment through their comparative advantages in these different fields. However:

  • Both the level of access and the terms of access to such goods need to be measured: do the terms of access promote the ability of poorer women and other excluded groups to define their own priorities and make their own choices?
  • The terms of access need to be monitored through methodologically pluralist approaches combining quantitative and qualitative data, preferably by grassroots organisations.

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