Meaning of Empowerment
Empowerment can be of individuals and of groups of people (communities). Empowerment of an individual is also known as self-empowerment.
The general meaning of Self-empowerment is taking control of our own life, an ability to make our own life-choices, speaking out and making our voice heard. However, it is important to understand that persons from different cultures can make very different life choices. In an individualistic culture, living independently and able to say whatever we want may be important for empowerment. In more traditional cultures where family values are seen as more important, empowered persons may still prefer to stay with their parents or listen to their elders, instead of insisting on making their own choices.
In a 2015 article about empowerment, Nipa Shah wrote, “For me, self-empowerment is standing up for my own beliefs, and executing actions around those beliefs, to the best of my ability. Also, for me, self-empowerment came from being “hungry.” Hungry to succeed, hungry to achieve more in life, hungry to do the right thing, and hungry to overcome any challenges that come my way.” She concluded by saying “FAITH in yourself + Action + Skills (Knowledge/Training) = Confidence = Self-empowerment”.
Zimmerman (1995) proposed that empowerment is both a process and an outcome. He identified different contributing factors of empowerment, such as - control and access to resources, participation with others, and critical understanding of socio-political environment.
I think that empowerment is a never-ending process and it relates to different facets of life, so that while we may be more empowered in one life-domain, in others, we can be less empowered.
Meanings of empowerment for Persons with Disabilities
Recently, during a visit to Mongolia for an emancipatory disability research (EDR) project, I asked some persons with disabilities about the meaning of empowerment for them and what were the barriers to empowerment.
For some persons empowerment meant overcoming fear of the negative views. For them the biggest barriers to empowerment were the negative attitudes in the family and in the community.
Others looked at positive qualities to define empowerment, such as having self-confidence, having courage, and to be able to hold responsibility. One person said, “We have to first recognise our own skills and show our skills to others. If we change, we can change attitudes of the society, like Stephen Hawkins did, even if he can’t speak or move.”
For most of them, making independent decisions was a key to empowerment. Most felt that having a work and being financially independent helped in this.
Some persons shared their life stories to explain how they had fought against family attitudes to assert their need for making their own life-decisions. This raised the question about the links between personalities of the persons and their empowerment. Some persons are born fighters, they do not give up and insist on following their decisions, so they are naturally empowered. Others do not have fighting personalities and need help in developing their empowerment skills.
For some, parents' love and protectiveness were the barriers to empowerment. One person said, “Barriers are also inside us, we are sensitive and feel hurt. Lack of accessibility restricts us, forcing us to depend upon others. Going to school is important for empowerment, not only to learn to read and write, but it is an opportunity of meeting others, talking, expressing ourselves, and having friends.”
How would you define empowerment?
One question in my mind is: does collective empowerment automatically lead to individual empowerment? If a group of persons undertakes a joint action to correct an injustice and through their efforts manages to change the situation, I think that it will promote feelings of value and self-confidence among all members of the group. Thus, it will promote both collective empowerment and individual empowerment.
When unjust situations change, they may help other persons to become empowered, even if they did not take part in the fight to change the situation.
Another question is: does individual empowerment automatically lead to collective empowerment? If a group of empowered persons agree and come together to fight, then they can be more effective in changing the unjust situation. However, if persons are individually empowered but do not agree with each other, and do not come together to change the situation, then probably there will not be any collective empowerment.
Empowerment is a process. It starts when we become aware that we can also make our own decisions. It is easier for us if we are economically independent and educated, but that does not mean that without education or financial independence we can’t be empowered.
Empowerment means not just getting respect for your decisions, but also respecting others. Sometimes, we can also decide that we do not wish to make our own decisions. Meeting others, learning from their life experiences, sharing our doubts and fears are all steps towards empowerment.
As Zimmerman (1995) wrote, “asking why” is a key part of promoting empowerment. Emancipatory Research (ER) approach facilitates groups of marginalised persons to come together, ask questions and understand the reasons behind their life situations, and thus promotes empowerment.
In Emancipatory Disability Research, the way we look at and understand disability is very important for promoting empowerment. In the next post, I will focus on that – the importance of how we see the world and understand it in promoting empowerment.
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Note 2: All the images used in this post are from a CBR project in Mongolia.
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