Towards a lexicon of women’s empowerment : usages and discourses

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review

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  • Vivienne WEE
  • Farida SHAHEED

Related Research Unit(s)


Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2008


Title10th Annual Meeting of the Hong Kong Sociological Association
CityHong Kong
Period6 December 2008


This paper seeks to analyse the political and cultural contexts for usages of and discourses on ‘women’s empowerment’. It examines various constructions of ‘women’s empowerment’ in developmental discourses – for example, the discourse of the Millennium Development Goals. It compares connotations implied by the term ‘women’s empowerment’ with those implied by related terms, such as ‘women’s rights’ and ‘gender equality.’ The argument made is that the distinctive usefulness of the term ‘women’s empowerment’ derives from the implicit reference to its root word – ‘power’. But ironically, even as the term ‘women’s empowerment’ has gained currency in development discourses, discussions of ‘empowerment’ have become increasingly dissociated from the power structures that impact on women in the real world. De-linking ‘empowerment’ from its root ‘power’ is problematic, because it impedes the conceptual clarity required for effective development planning. Instead, there is a persistent tendency to view women’s relative lack of power as stemming from their lack of education, health or other skills and assets. This reluctance to address the power structures which women inhabit is a serious blind spot that hinders efforts to support women’s empowerment, notwithstanding declarations of good intentions. Why is there such a blind spot? We argue that the politics of patriarchy have so permeated developmental discourses that pervasive self-censorship is exercised to sanitise ‘women’s empowerment’ as non-threatening to existing power structures. On the other hand, terms for ‘power’ and ‘empowerment’ do vary widely in different social, cultural and linguistic contexts. The varying usages also indicate the power dynamics at work. Analysis of these varied usages and their underlying power dynamics draws on the research of the Research Programme Consortium on Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts in China, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and cross-border situations.

Citation Format(s)

Towards a lexicon of women’s empowerment: usages and discourses. / WEE, Vivienne; SHAHEED, Farida; ARENAS, F. Joy TADIOS.
2008. Paper presented at 10th Annual Meeting of the Hong Kong Sociological Association, Hong Kong, China.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (without host publication)peer-review