Rethinking approaches to empowerment in development

This CFP welcomes papers that contribute to a critical assessment of the conceptualization of empowerment in the context of gender and international development. There has been an increasing focus on promoting and measuring women’s empowerment as a means to achieve sustainable development outcomes. However, some argue that, both conceptually and in practice, empowerment has lost its critical edge; its radical feminist roots are lost in the term’s “elasticity” (Cornwall, 2016, p. 342) within development objectives (Cornwall, 2016; Mosedale, 2014).


Dominant paradigms mold empowerment to fit economic development objectives, presuming that if women gain access to or control over particular economic resources, they can better compete in the market economy and benefit from processes of growth. This presumption often automates the use of material attainments as measures of empowerment, such as obtaining micro-loans, increasing access to agricultural inputs, ownership of land, and other tangible resources (Quisumbing, Rubin, & Sproule, 2016). Limiting the concept of empowerment to quantifiable results such as these discounts people’s subjective experiences and fails to recognize the underlying institutions, norms, beliefs, and practices that affect how men and women navigate their everyday livelihoods (Quisumbing, Rubin, & Sproule, 2016).


Efforts to understand, measure, and support women’s empowerment must acknowledge the place-based complexities, intergenerational variation, and nuanced meaning of empowerment (Tsikata & Darkwah, 2014). Spaces and places of everyday life contest and redefine norms, perceptions, and beliefs; these underpin power dynamics within individuals, households, and communities (Nightingale, 2011). Through this CFP, we welcome a feminist political ecology perspective to muddy the conceptualizations of empowerment – now “mainstreamed” throughout development projects – in which intricate and contextual negotiations of power are often overlooked. From this perspective, we welcome papers that include:


  • Mobility and accessibility

  • Subjective indicators of empowerment

  • Transformative social and behavior change

  • Household decision-making and negotiations of power

  • Engaging masculinities for women’s empowerment

  • Gendered division of labor/Paid and unpaid work

  • Intersectionality and empowerment

  • Social capital, leadership, and collective action


Please email enquiries and abstracts (300 words) to Kaitlyn Spangler ( or Daniel Sumner ( by November 13, 2017. Authors will be notified by November 17 regarding acceptance to the session, and they must register for the conference and submit their abstracts through the DOPE website ( by the December 1 deadline to be added to the paper session.




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

Mosedale, S. (2014). Women's empowerment as a development goal: Taking a feminist standpoint. Journal of International Development, 26, 1115-1125.

Nightingale, A. (2011). Bounding indifference: Intersectionality and the material production of gender, caste, class and environment in Nepal. Geoforum, 42(2011), 153-162.

Tsikata, D., & Darkwah, A. K. (2014). Researching empowerment: On methodological innovations, pitfalls, and challenges. Women's Studies International Forum, 25(2014), 81-89.

Quisumbing, A., Rubin, D., & Sproule, K. (2016). Subjective measures of economic empowerment. Women's economic empowerment: A roadmap, 1-21. Retrieved from

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