WI-HER Series: breaking barriers and raising the bar on measurement

 Part I: What is empowerment? And how do we measure it?

By Kelly Dale, Gender Specialist

The international development community frequently uses buzzwords or jargon such as mainstreaming, sustainability, equity, or empowerment without a concrete understanding or unified definition of what these terms represent. This makes addressing and measuring these concepts a significant challenge. This blog is part of a series—for five weeks, I will explore some of these concepts in greater detail, defining and explaining how we monitor and evaluate them. This blog will explore the concepts of empowerment and agency and the challenges in measuring them.

In 2012 USAID developed its gender policy with a strong focus on female empowerment. Since then, the gender and social inclusion sector has put a strong emphasis on empowerment. But I have found different understandings of the concepts of empowerment and agency makes it difficult to define and measure them, which often leads to inaccurate, incomplete, or not easily comparable data about the lives of women, men, girls and boys. We are still grappling to collect and use data that highlight the unique experiences of women, men, boys, and girls, reveal barriers to equality, and prove what works to improve the situations of people around the world. This lack of data not only restricts effective programming, but masks and at times even perpetuates inequities.

To understand empowerment and agency, I find it useful to explore the theoretical underpinnings of these concepts. Naila Kabeer (1999) defined empowerment as “the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability.” Empowerment is a relatively broad concept that also includes resources—knowledge and material and human resources– and achievements—improvements in well-being and life outcomes (see figure 1). Kabeer’s definition of empowerment also emphasizes the importance of agency and gaining the ability to make informed and autonomous choices. It is the process that connects resources and achievements, through voice, participation, influence, negotiation and decision-making power.

Any program must also bear in mind that their intervention or activities are affected by the informal and formal social, political, cultural, and economic institutions in which they are implemented. These institutions greatly affect an individual’s agency and possibilities for  empowerment.

Measuring these three components– resources, agency, and achievements–can be an effective way of measuring empowerment. However, personal preference must also be considered and proxy indicators for agency must be selected carefully to adequately recognize choice. Currently, researchers and implementers are capturing empowerment through proxy indicators such as education achievement, financial capital, or exposure to the media. However, these indicators only represent resources and achievements and do not actually capture the full spectrum of agency—they do not account for preference, choice, or the unique constraints that a person may face when defining and acting on preference or choice. They are therefore missing the more subjective process of empowerment.

In doing so, our measurements of empowerment are incomplete, reflect biases, and potentially impose preference on others. For example:

  • Increasing women’s and men’s access to work can be empowering for some people in some settings, but we must also consider other factors influencing their decision to work. For example, it may not be empowering to work in a job that is not utilizing your skills, to work in an environment where there is workplace harassment, or to work if the job leads to an increased burden at home. Women and men may feel disempowered if they must work when they would rather be home taking care their children or keeping them safe from violence. Rather than looking at increased labor force participation alone, we must consider underlying decision-making processes and the opportunity for choice.
  • We often consider uptake of contraceptives as a sign of increased empowerment. But are we sure that women know all the facts, have weighed all their options, and selected a method that is in line with their goals, values, and preferences? For example, if we measure only uptake of contraceptives, are we accurately measuring the full spectrum of choice? And by measuring uptake of contraceptive without understanding and tracking underlying values, preferences, and choice, are we imposing our own values on others? We will explore methods for tracking values and choices throughout this series.
  • A third example is around purchasing power—in some settings, it can be empowering for women to be able to use their money to buy items of their choice, whereas elsewhere it can be disempowering for women who feel that they have the sole burden of making household decisions and purchasing food or supplies for their family. The responsibility of making these decisions and finding the time to purchase household items can be overwhelming, especially if a person is the sole provider, such as the burden faced by many single mothers. Looking at purchasing power—rights and finances—alone would result in biased results about empowerment.

These examples highlight the misconception that empowerment is seen through visible change and show how the essential component of agency is sometimes ignored. In reality, increasing agency does not have to result in visible behavior change, but rather means that a person is able to define goals, evaluates those goals, and then act upon those goals. For example, an empowered person with full agency may have access to knowledge and capital, have complete decision making power, and yet still may not choose to change their behavior.   In 1985 Amartya Sen defined agency as “what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important.” (Sen, 1985, p. 206). Therefore, in addition to measuring established proxy indicators to assess empowerment (such as education achievement, employment, use of family planning), we must to measure how decisions (such as getting a new job or seeking a medical procedure) were made and what needed to be in place for that an individual to reach that decision and achieve a goal.


At WI-HER, we are using innovative measurement approaches (both quantitative and qualitative) to understand the more subjective and theoretical notions of agency such as autonomy, self-confidence, bargaining power, choice, and preference. And we always contextualize our instruments to reduce bias. We believe that improving agency and increasing the empowerment of women and men are critical steps in reducing disparities and achieving equality. This blog is the first in a series about WI-HER’s approach to addressing the challenges that are inherent in measuring and monitoring the cultural, societal, and individual indicators that truly capture the many faces of agency and empowerment and the diversity of achievements they could afford. The next post will discuss how WI-HER has taken the concepts of empowerment and agency and applied them to our gender analyses.

For more information on WI-HER’s approach measurement, please contact our measurement, evaluation, and learning team at evaluationandlearning@wi-her.org

References and additional resources:

Kabeer, Naila. 1999. “Resources, agency, achievements: reflections on the measurement of women’s empowerment.” Development and Change 30(3): 435-464.

Sen, Amartya K. 1985. “Well-being, agency and freedom: The Dewey lectures 1984.” Journal of Philosophy 82.

Sen, Amartya K. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press.

http://www.womeneconroadmap.org/sites/default/files/Woodruff MWEE_NRB.pdf


http://www.womeneconroadmap.org/sites/default/files/Susana Martinez-Restrepo – IDRC UNF Think Piece.pdf