The term empowerment was first formally used in international development discourse in relation to the feminist movement in the Global South. The empowerment concept was then formally recognised in the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, where it was stated that women’s empowerment and gender and sexual rights were central to population issues. Then, in 2000, at the United Nations Declaration, the third Millennium Development Goal referred to directly to empowerment: ‘promote gender equality and empower women’. Since then, the term has become increasingly common in theories of development and gender and also among policy makers. Cornwall (2016: 356) describes women’s empowerment as “a process that engages women in thinking differently about themselves, about situations they are in, about their social worlds and relationships”. It is relevant to speak of ‘empowering women’ because as a group they are often disempowered relative to men. In terms of women’s empowerment, Kabeer (2000: 22) claims that women are “constrained by the norms, beliefs, customs, and values through which societies differentiate between women and men”. She states that this can manifest itself in a wide variety of different ways such as through gender pay gaps or gender-based physical or psychological violence. In patriarchal societies, this can lead to men holding power over women by making major decisions within a household, not allowing women to work, curtailing women’s access to resources, and so on.
One way in which the Sustainable Development Goals aim to promote women’s empowerment is through increasing women’s access to decent paid work. Women’s economic empowerment can be defined as “when a woman has the ability to succeed and advance economically and has the power to make and act on economic decisions” (Golla et al, 2011: 3). Women’s economic empowerment has become an important global policy priority and is seen as a vital contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. There is evidence to suggest that economic strength is the basis of social, political and physiological power in society, and so with a higher economic status, women often benefit socially and physiologically. Economic empowerment can have positive effects on women. With economic power, women have the ability to make more household decisions as economic empowerment can increase self-confidence and women’s voice within the household. Women’s economic empowerment can also have positive effects on the development of their country. Evidence suggests that women are more likely than men to spend their income on nutrition, health, and education of both daughters and sons. As a result, this can lead to economic growth, poverty reduction, increased health and welfare. Increased income can encourage as well as facilitate mothers to send their daughters to school as well as their sons.
The positive impacts of women’s economic empowerment were evident among the Hmong women I interviewed in Northern Vietnam. From my research, I discovered that by Hmong women being employed, Hmong gender roles in the household underwent a change. Prior to Hmong women working full-time jobs, they mainly stayed at home to care for their children and carry out other household tasks. In the past, Hmong men used to carry out work on the farm and were generally not involved in household tasks. Since Hmong women have begun to work full time outside of the home, their husbands have begun to look after the children and cook for the family and carry out other domestic chores. This has almost led to a reversal in Hmong gender roles. I gained a sense of Hmong women’s empowerment through my interviews with these women. The women stated that they no longer felt restricted to their household chores and were able to earn a large income which meant that they no longer depended on their husbands for money.
It is evident from my research that the fifth sustainable development goal is an important one. Achieving women’s empowerment has the potential to reduce gender inequality and have a positive impact on wider society. My own research has proven that decent paid work for women can certainly increase women’s sense of empowerment and in turn reduce gender inequality.
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