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Words In the Bucket

Gender is at the top of the agenda in International Development.

“ Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” is the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)[1], announced in 2000 by the Secretary General of the UN. The promoting part of the goal has been tackled, now it is time to act.

International news and press releases from pressure groups like Amnesty International constantly share news of women suffering abuse, of different kinds. In India, there has been a  case on the link between lack of access to hygiene and rape; women and girls are raped on the way to find a clean place to use the toilet.  Another story is the one of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death for apostasy because she married a Christian man in Sudan. She was arrested and forced to give birth in a dirty prison, in chains. Not to mention the 200 million children that are estimated to be victims of sexual abuse every year. The situation worsens when there is an ongoing conflict, as protective networks usually collapse during this time. This was one of the biggest topics at the world summit to end sexual violence during conflict a few weeks ago in London. Most of the victims of rape during war are women, so gender-based violence was big on the agenda too.

As we approach the New Year many international organisations are pushing for women and girls to be at the top of the post 2015 MDG agenda. The Nike funded “girl effect” has for example released a Girls Declaration which is a call for action linking women empowerment to poverty alleviation.

The Guardian Global Development recently featured an interactive graph showing Women’s rights by country (please see below- it’s worth a watch). It gives a great overview the legal side of the topic (which often is what actually changes things) showing country by country, what laws and legislations prevent or allow women’s rights.

Gender is everywhere.

A few weeks ago I received a notification from a discussion group on LinkedIn that discusses gender issues. The discussion started with the question:

“How do you define empowering women in few words? All women want to be empowered but a few women seek power”

I was baffled. I did not, and still do not, think that there is a way of defining “women empowerment” in a few words. I also don’t agree with the second statement on women not seeking power -what does seeking power mean anyways?

As I expected, a series of clichéd explanations started coming up in the comments to this question. Some suggested that empowering women was giving them self-confidence, others mentioned equal treatment within the law, others suggested economic independence, and some spoke of access to health care and quality education, the list goes on. All valid points, but they still were not a holistic explanation of what women empowerment really means.

As I read on, it became clear that finding one sentence was probably not possible, the definitions – or indicators-  that define women empowerment are too many.

Ruth Alsop and Nina Heinsohn describe empowerment as the ‘capacity to make effective decisions and convert them into desired outcomes”.  This made me think that perhaps though it was not possible to use one sentence to describe women empowerment, ironically it would have been possible to use one word: CHOICE.

When an individual is able to choose – socially, politically and economically- they are free and therefore become empowered. Having the possibility to express your religious or political views, to be able to wear what you want, and to choose your own path is what we should aspire for every human being to have.

Just yesterday the European court for Human Rights ruled the French ban on veil as not being a violation of human rights.  Yet another example of taking away women’s choice.

With the deadline of Beijing +20 and many women around the world still not enjoying basic human rights, now is the moment to spur recommitment on women rights.

Although I don’t undermine the importance of definitions, having worked in the development sector and in an emergency context, I think the time has come – after years of promoting and defining gender-related words –  to stop trying to give words a meaning and Give Women a Choice.