There are some cruel ironies about empowerment. As good as it sounds, empowerment means nothing to a marginalized girl or young woman in a developing country unless it leads to economic well-being, the ability to independently care for oneself or to provide food, shelter and medical needs to one’s family.
While I believe passionately in the importance of post-secondary education, I’ve also seen that attending a college, university or getting vocational training is empowering only if it contributes to a better way of life for specific young women and their families.
I’ve come to think that sometimes what is offered by traditional aid and development models of empowerment actually can be quite dehumanizing and discouraging to the very individuals that empowerment is meant to reach.
Yes, it is true that statistics show that when girls have access to education, their countries’ birth rates go down, mortality rates go down and health generally improves.
But does this rather intellectualized notion of empowerment actually translate into better and more humane lives for specific girls, young women and their families?
Has anyone ever asked a young girl from a disastrous cultural background whether improvements in her country’s mortality rates have helped her or her family to have enough to eat, find clean water or access to decent schools that are capable of teaching her the skills she needs to comprehend and interpret the world around her?
There are many notions of empowerment. Some examples would include knowing how to use a computer, drive a car or to read and write; having access to clean water and firewood for cooking or to the markets to sell the produce from one’s farm; and being within reach of basic medical services to receive treatment for malaria, diarrhea or to deliver a baby.
But learning how to drive does not empower a young woman unless she owns a vehicle that can assist her to earn a living as a taxi-driver or to reduce her costs of getting produce from her farm to market. Basic computer skills won’t improve a girl’s life unless she has access to a computer, not to mention access to electricity to charge it.
For a Maasai girl, completing high school only to return home to social, economic and cultural isolation is certainly no measure of empowerment for anyone to be satisfied with.
Even completing college — a hallmark of empowerment by any measure — isn’t going to change the economic circumstances of a young woman in a developing country unless it leads to her employment in a sustainable job in the formal workforce. Skills are not empowering unless those skills can be put to use.
Nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations and aid organizations use too many resources conducting workshops and seminars for marginalized girls with the goal of “making girls feel good about themselves.”
People who think that this approach helps one single marginalized, isolated and impoverished girl in any real way need to move out of the way to make room for the only empowerment that actually changes lives: access to economic well-being.
Telling marginalized Maasai girls in a seminar that they can “become anything you want to be” and that becoming a nurse, teacher or lawyer will change their lives is not a substitute for providing the means for those girls to actually become nurses, teachers and lawyers.
In my opinion, it is actually pretty cruel to do one without the other.
Mary Walker, a 27-year resident of Clark, first went to Kenya in 2007 to volunteer at a rescue centre for Maasai girls. She has organized assistance for several Maasai young women to attend college and university in Kenya. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.