We often hear the term women’s economic empowerment in relation to – and sometimes interchangeably with – gender equality and women’s rights. It seems therefore useful to discuss the goal of women’s economic empowerment and how this links to women’s access to meaningful work. Furthermore, how does this concept fit into a larger scheme of achieving gender equality and advancing the development of all of society?
If we define development in strictly material terms, then progress is the result of income generation and economic growth working as key instruments to lift the less developed world out of poverty and into a state of prosperity. International policy born of such definitions brings women’s rights into the equation in the name of ‘empowerment’. Slogans such as Gender Equality as Smart Economics frames women’s ‘empowerment’ as a tool to advance this economic growth. And such campaigns do enjoy success at the level of rallying Government and private enterprise support for a ‘gender equality’ dimension to their development efforts. But does this definition of ‘empowerment’ have wider implications on women’s sense of identity, on their concept of ‘work’, and on an overarching definition of ‘progress’? Does it neglect and even reinforce the underlying injustice that we seek to eradicate? Our discussion on 'empowerment' and how it links to gender equality, then, must be embedded in an alternative vision of progress, one that values the role of justice and principles in combating oppression.
An example may help us to consider this. Many development strategies promote women’s ‘empowerment’ by gearing women who live in poverty towards entrepreneurship from a young age. Resources are being directed towards a school curriculum that offers financial education on how to invest, how to save and how to access markets, as a means to equip girls with the skills necessary to manage their own businesses. Such skills are valuable in advancing the role that women can play to contribute to the material prosperity of their families and communities. But what about the qualities such as trustworthiness, cooperation and a spirit of service that go along with good financial management? Alone, are these skills enough to empower women to become actors in a process that generates sustainable change that can be integrated into a more holistic conception of prosperity? What kind of models of ‘empowerment’ can reinforce the community and local economy while addressing deeper problems of injustice and social inequality, to avoid having women become merely tools to propel economic growth?
Any efforts for women’s empowerment and gender equality lack purpose if we don’t see them as vital ingredients in a larger, overarching agenda to advance humanity towards an age of maturity where justice reigns and both men and women are united in their efforts towards spiritual and material progress. How to get there? Certainly it implies going beyond a good combination of policies and incentives; beyond giving women the means to earn their own living; beyond the right publicity campaign. Gender equality is so much more than any of these things – it is a fundamental truth about reality. And while we agree that economic empowerment is an essential element in giving women equal access to meaningful work, the change that is first needed must take place within peoples’ minds and hearts. A change that inspires a genuine belief that like the two wings of a bird, men and women must be equal and work side by side to empower humanity to glide perpetually forward, together, as an ever-advancing civilization.
Women's empowerment in the context of an ever-advancing civilization
We would propose that economic empowerment should not be divorced from moral empowerment, in the same way that in the larger development picture, spiritual and material prosperity go hand in hand. In the critical adolescent years of these girls’ lives, as their identities are being formed, can we neglect a need for parallel efforts that seek to provide the strong moral foundations necessary for their progress? Or a need to ‘empower’ them to develop their talents to realize their potential to contribute to the spiritual and the material well-being of their community through meaningful work and service? That means endowing the work we are training them to undertake with a purpose that supersedes its material utility and thus providing a different definition of ‘progress’. It means a more holistic approach to education that frames productive labour as a meaningful contribution to both their own lives and the lives of the people around them.
What happens when we integrate girls into a system built on the principles of self-interest and competition from such a young age without also providing the moral compass to guide them? The response to that question could fill volumes; it is interesting to note however how severely these principles contrast those that characterize the work that women have been historically engaged in. That is, building homes conducive to the material and spiritual welfare of children. This work is traditionally nourished with the qualities of love, service, generosity, cooperation and detachment. Is there no place for these qualities in the current model of the working world? Perhaps our current economic vocabulary does not possess the language to measure their utility.
Recent studies indicate that qualities are not the only thing being lost: as more women move forward with their careers, less are choosing to become mothers. In achieving economic empowerment, the value of family is being compromised. The role of the mother as the first educator of children is being subordinated to economic gain. Men too have an important role to play here. For us to consider building a just and equitable civilization, the role and relationships between both men and women need to be defined not around economic gain but around building just and equitable social structures of which the family unit is at the core.
So we start with a different premise: That ‘empowerment’ means launching women and men into a two-fold process of transformation: transformation of themselves through transformation of the world around them. So that every human being – male or female – should have access to meaningful work through which they can develop individually and contribute to the spiritual and material prosperity of society. And we cannot construct such a framework without first laying the spiritual and moral foundations that provide the conditions necessary for true development progress; for true empowerment. As discussed, this should go beyond banking know-how and involve a deeper exploration into the values and principles upon which an entire community is built. Just what kind of values could lay the foundations for a universally encompassing approach conducive to the expression of the individual soul’s desire for progress, and the advancement of humanity? Where could we turn to define these values?