Women’s empowerment: What works?

Andrea Cornwall


Empowerment is one of the most elastic development buzzwords: emerging as a call for transformative social action aimed at confronting inequalities, to a contemporary mainstream development concern more focused on provision of resources, assets or services. This paper argues that only through the former can empowerment work challenge the power relations that underpin pervasive gender inequalities.  It also highlights a growing body of evidence showing the significance of women’s rights organisations in influencing and organising collective action for positive social change, and the centrality of relationships.

This article draws on findings from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, a multi-country research programme involving more than 60 researchers.

Historically, feminist conceptual work has insisted that empowerment is not something that can be given to others, but about recognising inequalities in power. The centrality of power and control is complemented by a primary focus on the structural basis of gender inequalities, not individual self-assertion and an understanding that empowerment is a relational process – not a fixed state. As a result, it is not easily quantified using current metrics or rubrics.

While some aspects of empowerment have entered mainstream development discourse, others, including its relational nature, have fallen away. A focus on the enhancement of women’s assets and resources alone may enable them to better manage poverty, but it is not transformative. The changes brought on as a result of greater access to economic resources are a contingent, not necessary, outcome: women may find themselves unable to envisage the kinds of changes that could bring them greater empowerment because social norms and limiting self-beliefs restrict their ability to re-imagine what is possible. To address this, empowerment processes should be aiming to produce shifts in critical consciousness and engagement with culturally embedded normative beliefs, understandings and ideas.

Key findings from the case studies explore the importance of working at the level of individual consciousness to expand women’s sense of their own possibilities and also a critical recognition of the role broader societal dimensions play:

  • Where empowerment initiatives actively engage women in critical consciousness of their own circumstances, and can share these with other women, there is a marked enhancement of the programme’s effects (employment training programme, Brazil).
  • Respect and solidarity between front-line workers and women involved in programmes can break paternalism and stimulate other forms of collective engagement (cash transfer programme, Egypt).
  • Women are more likely to succeed in making changes for other women and also experience for themselves the empowering effects of mobilisation when they are able to come together and organise themselves (sex worker collective, India).
  • Relationships matter, and donor funding can influence these relationships with potentially negative consequences (landless women’s organisation, Bangladesh).
  • Changing representations in popular media can have a powerful impact on women’s sense of their own power, with greater scope for creative engagement outside of health interventions (action research project, Ghana).

Lesson for development institutions seeking to lend support to women’s empowerment include:

  • Shifting from viewing women’s rights organisations as contractors to innovators whose success often rests in solidarity, which can be undermined by the project cycle and competitive bidding processes. Enabling women’s rights organisations to set their own agendas, providing institutional support and medium- to longer-term financing instead of project-based grants, and investing time to build and maintain supportive relationships with women’s rights organisations form part of this.
  • Investing internally, as well as externally, to strengthen donor capacity for analysis and responsiveness, and to improve effectiveness in targeting resources.


Cornwall, A. (2016). Women's empowerment: What works? Journal of International Development 28, 342 - 359. DOI: 10.1002/jid.3210