‘What does it mean to empower someone?’

Arjun Rajan

The writer attended a panel discussion on women’s empowerment and came back with more questions with no easy answers

As I rushed to Bangalore International Centre (BIC), I kept hoping that I reach before time so that I don’t have to struggle to find a seat. BIC has been a wonderful discovery for me and I have attended several of their events during the year; and most of them have been a full house. However, when I reached the centre a few minutes prior to the session titled ‘Paths to women’s empowerment’, I was taken aback by the lack of people in the audience. There were around 15 people in attendance, most of them women.

The panelists were surprised at the low turnout with the moderator Revathi Narayanan (Director-Agasthya Foundation) stating that in their line of work they often had to face similar situations where  there were very few people to hear their voices. I was reminded of another event several months ago that had a very low turnout. It was a similar event except that the discussion was around children’s rights with a focus on children from marginalized communities. It made me wonder the relationship between the turnout and the topic being discussed. Is there a lack of interest in understanding and engaging with the issues of the most marginalized? Or could there be a plethora of other reasons as to why people didn’t turn on these two occasions? I am not sure.

The session started with Ruth Manorama ( a women’s right activist from the Dalit community) narrating a story about a young girl who had walked on a specific path of empowerment. She had defied her parents in resisting early marriage and with the help of the organization Women’s Voice, was able to pursue her graduation and is currently the president of the organization.

Geetha Menon, activist and member of ‘Stree Jagruthi Samiti’, a collective working with women in the unorganized sector painted a picture of disempowerment when she speaks of women whose bodies are broken having woven our clothes, helped built our house etc. She spoke of how while there has been an increase in women entering the workforce, majority of them participate in the informal sector where they are beyond legislation; receive no protection or social security. She mentioned how women are hired for their cheap labour and are at the bottom of the workforce by providing the example of 90 percent of manual scavengers being women. She also spoke of the resistance from women who are creating their path of empowerment; and questioned how many of us would dare to join them in the path that they have created.

Jyoti Raj, who works on women’s land rights, raised the point of 70 percent of agricultural work being undertaken by women and therefore the need to be identified separately as women farmers and for policies to be designed specifically for them. She emphasized the need to revisit the land reform policies both at the central and state level, which haven’t been revised in several decades, and insisted that the reforms be made through a gender perspective.

R Poornima, journalist and an author painted a bleak picture while speaking about the role of media in women’s empowerment. She stated that women’s empowerment is not on the agenda of the mainstream media as they are corporate backed and merely listen to their ‘master’s voice’. She added that media is interested in covering stories regarding women that are of sensational value but not of development issues related to them.

Nature of ‘empowerment work’

What interested me in the open discussion was a question on the nature of empowerment. What does it mean to empower a woman? How does one see one’s life in this process of empowerment?

In the development sector the terms ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘target groups’ are generally used, especially while writing proposals to funding agencies. These terms imply a one way activity – where the marginalized groups are receiving something, and not giving anything back in return. And there is the sense that these groups aren’t partners in the struggle; and they are passive recipients. Geeta Menon rightly said that there is a need to move away from such perspectives and terminologies.

In the past I had worked as an educator teaching students from low income backgrounds. I had as part of a different role facilitated children from migrant communities to advocate for their rights with local governments. In my work especially with children from migrant communities, I was aware that empowerment meant being able to advocate for oneself and claim one’s rights; and my role was to facilitate that. In both my roles, there were several struggles I faced and there were times when I felt like quitting. However, it never occurred to me that my relationship with them was one of benefactor and beneficiary. I have learned and grown immensely through my work and interactions with children from marginalized groups. It is because of my work and interactions with children from low income backgrounds early in my career that I was motivated to learn sociology to get a better understanding of society. I made this shift after pursuing computer science as an undergraduate.

Eventually, one needs to rethink about one’s role when the involvement with marginalized groups reduces. ‘What is your role when marginalized groups are able to create their own path, by themselves?’ This question by Geetha Menon continues to occupy my mind till now. And it’s a question that I am still trying to find answers for.