Is empowerment a feeling? A state of being? A scientifically measurable set of variables?
Or is it a condition that other people recognise in me which I cannot see in myself?
What do people mean when they say they want empowerment and how will they measure their success in achieving this goal?
This year I spent a fair amount of time talking with other women about empowerment.
The women I’ve spoken to range from familiar friends to business associates to new acquaintances.
I spoke to Zimbabwean women living in Zimbabwe and to Zimbabwean women living elsewhere as well as to foreign women living in Zimbabwe.
I spoke to women from India, Jordan, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Canada, Malawi and the US, among others.
We discussed issues of self-determination and financial autonomy as well as relationships and responsibilities.
In one empowerment conversation someone pointed out: “You are the person they are talking about when they say women are not empowered!”
It was not a line you expect to hear in a conversation between women with a university education and presumably a clear understanding of their civil liberties.
Like most uncomfortable moments it was not without a grain of truth and it got me thinking about the real meaning of empowerment.
Many would want to dispense with the idea that empowerment is a feeling.
Feelings are considered to be frivolous and unreliable, too susceptible to change.
But when you think about it, so many of the most important decisions we make in life are based more on feelings than facts: Who you marry, who you vote for, who your closest friends are, what you enjoy doing for a living, when you have a baby, who you have a baby with!
All of these critical decisions are feelings-driven choices. Why not empowerment then? Can you be empowered without feeling empowered?
I read a quote from Malcom X that says: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Of course my first giggly thought was, “What if you are a woman?”, but more seriously the suggestion is that one can only empower oneself, rather than expect others to empower one.
Is this true? If it is, then where does the responsibility of the rest of the community lie in ensuring that women are empowered?
Should for example our empowerment be enshrined in the Constitution of the country, in the laws that govern our relations and operations with others?
Should we make men part of the empowerment conversation?
Should we even be having the conversation or can we just assume that we are all created equal and therefore trust one another to behave accordingly?
I am looking at a leaflet entitled Women Issues in the New Constitution.
It explains what a constitution is and why women should be part of the constitution-making process, and then lists the issues that the Constitution must provide for.
Among these are equal opportunities between men and women in education and employment.
Further down it refers to equal access, and ownership of resources and opportunities between men and women.
Will these and other provisions be enough to make us empowered?
What will happen if we get all the rights, access and opportunities we want, but squander them by making choices that disempower us all over again?
A small and not so serious example: In high school I was taught basic rules of electricity, including how to wire a plug.
But when some electrical appliance breaks down in my house, do I use that knowledge?
Do I check the plug? No, I ask a man to look at it. My excuse is that I have many areas of competence, but this is just not one of them, so why stress over it.
Am I disempowering myself? The trouble with society is the process of socialisation.
And the biggest problem with socialisation is the fact that once people are socialised to a certain belief system or behaviour pattern, it is very difficult to get them to break away from it, to challenge the assumptions of that system and to forge a new path in the wilderness of social confusion.
By refusing to even try to fix broken appliances, am I reverting to the basic socialisation which says boys are good at this and girls are good at that? No doubt my mother will be horrified because that’s not how she raised me!
One observation I made was that women from many different backgrounds are all seeking empowerment.
So even the ones that we think are empowered want a different kind of empowerment.
I guess then that power must be very much like money. You keep thinking things will be better if you have a little bit more. But no one can tell when the little bit more is actually enough.
Years back, before the “empowerment” buzzword we used to speak of women’s rights. The interesting thing about rights is that they come with responsibilities.
It’s not enough that contraception has freed you to engage in sex without worrying about pregnancy. Now you have a bigger responsibility to protect yourself and your partners from disease.
Understanding your roles, rights and responsibilities as a member of a community is an important part of a healthy adult life.
If the pursuit of empowerment has led us to a space where we (men and women) are more confused and have less clarity over what is expected of us, are we really more empowered?
The title for today’s piece came from a question posed by one Tina Dooley-Jones when she was addressing a group of students in a girls’ high school earlier this year.
I listened along with the 400-plus teenagers and realised that I didn’t know the answer to that question.
So, nine hundred words later are we any closer to an answer?
I imagine every woman will have to negotiate the answer that sits best with her.
Perhaps you would like to share what yours is?
Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity.
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