Cultural Context And Westernised Women Empowerment Cultural Studies Essay

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In September 2010, the United Nations declared gender equality and women's empowerment third of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Presented more as an end in itself than a tool for achieving additional goals, the official third place listing only echoed efforts of the dozens of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOS) already active in Kenya. The U.N.'s declaration of "women's empowerment" as a focus reinforced those existing efforts while providing potential activists with a call to action. Unfortunately, further instructions or, at least a briefing on the best means to "empower" did not accompany the global initiative.

Decades prior to the MDG declaration, INGOs throughout Kenya and East Africa have both overzealously and unsuccessfully applied the term 'empowerment' in their fight for gender equity. There is both positive and negative evidence available on the overall efficacy of such groups. It should be noted in the critique of said groups that success is universally defined according to the United Nation's definition, which is "an organization's positive effect on improving the status of women within their community." Interpreting the means by which a group achieved or failed in their pursuit of the defined "success" defining "empowerment."

An evaluation on how INGOs approach this buzzword reveals three distinct categorical frameworks applied by Westerners working in Kenya and throughout greater East Africa. This analysis examines each framework and concludes with a recommendation for improving efficacy inspired by cultural conscientiousness and based on documented successes.

Common fallacy amongst Euro-American feminists is in assuming the "cross-cultural/universality" of empowerment. These are found more often than not advocating for gender equity with empowerment defined as power over or power to. These first two frameworks currently active in Africa's third sector illustrate the ideological practices of some women's organizations. While their flaws and failures are dually noted, the first two frameworks are followed by one effective conceptualization proving the existence of an alternative approach. Analysis of one particular international women's organization in Kenya further illustrates this third approach. The nature of feminist movements within both cultures is also explored and, a review of the literature reveals that although it is typical for Western activists to push for women's autonomy, African-based movements emphasize community-based strength as well as cultural participation.


Empowerment has become a popular, largely unquestioned goal of organizations serving on the global level. The vagueness of this concept draws universal appeal, but is often problematic for that same reason. After careful assessment of several INGOs claiming to "empower" women in East Africa, the ultimate goals of groups advocating for gender equality seem relatively the same. Yet, the means by which they conceptualize the end goal differs with each group-some concepts proving more effective than others.

Academics and activists hold up the Euro-American feminist movement as the model for female emancipation. Within this movement there is much demand for INGOs from the industrialized world to approach women's empowerment in Africa no differently than they would within their home country. With democratic intentions, Western feminists continually attempt to implement what many consider to be seamless, uniform, universal approaches to empowerment abroad. Unfortunately, a lack of progress in gender equity across East Africa in conjunction with documented pushback from the target service demographic calls into question these preferred implementation frameworks.

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan and founder of the Green Belt Movement (an organization created to teach rural women of Kenya about agriculture, sustainability and the environment), is weary of the way in which first world organizations "gloss over" those issues she considers "specific to African women." For Maathai, their activist intentions are moot because she sees them doing more harm than good. In one interview, Maathai warned against INGO tendency to blame culture in its entirety instead of holding individuals accountable: "One of the most fertile sources for the inaccurate representation of African women is western feminism, at least in some of its guises. In their quest to globalize their creed, some itinerant feminists whenever they come across cases of African 'men behaving badly,' immediately blame 'African culture.'"

Maathai is not alone in her opinion. Both Western and African academics have publically blamed the Euro-American feminist movement's dedication to social change and corrective action for inadvertently "disregarding conceptualization at the theoretical level." However, as noted by SHARP, the ones who are most criticized continue to promote gender equality in the third world unsuccessfully. Despite visible failure with two very specific frameworks for implementation, most groups continue to champion 1) empowerment as power over, and 2) empowerment as power to. Each is analyzed below.


Interpretation of the term empowerment to mean power over is tied to the assumption that female power must be at the man's expense. According to Papart's 2002 Gender and Empowerment: New Thoughts, New Approaches, this reformist approach accepts social structures instead of attempting to change the system, but is aggressive about requiring current structures to make immediate, gender-based substitutions. For groups like Women's Shadow Parliament of Kenya (WSPK) pushing Kenyan women's power over, the belief is that female occupancy in positions of power will ensure gender equality.

There is some disagreement amongst activists working within this framework. While some view power over as an attempt to share power with men, the more radical, primarily Eurocentric of the group insist that a patriarchal power system can only change with extreme repudiation and overthrow. Groups such as WSPK put considerable pressure on Kenyan women to not only refuse traditional roles, but fight for control of men's-this in a country where nearly a decade after the treaty that re-established the East African Community (1999) progress remains negligible. The plan to promote gender equality associated with the treaty generated at least marginal success in all other participating countries, yet Kenyan parliament remains just 9.8 percent female today.

Kenya's slow progress by Western, as well as African standards, has made it a primary target for the more aggressive power over groups. The embattled cries of these groups are often spiked with buzzwords that further underline extremism and martyrdom for the equity cause. Representative groups like Action Aid sometimes even refer to themselves as "emancipators." The incidental depiction of African codependency coupled with a tendency for academics to utilize evaluative epithets when reporting on organizational progress is nearly as predictable as it is damning. In addition, the concept of power over is not often well received by women of the third world due to its divisive nature. Proving that pitting women against the men in their community is not always the best means for progress.

For example, in November of 2000, hundreds of Muslim women in Kenya demonstrated against a sexual equality bill brought before parliament. One protestor by the name of Mariam Mohammad was quoted saying, "The place of the woman in the Koran is not negotiable, it is very clear that the woman must submit to the man and we can't change this." This proposed law was an attempt to bring greater equality for women and outlaw gender-based discrimination throughout the country. According to available sources, the proponent majority was (ironically) made up of INGOs advocating gender equality.

Although it may not be obvious to some Americans, the term feminism has the ability to generate a polarizing response. Meaning, for some African women that term is too polarizing for use. Thus, alternative terms are often used by grassroots organizations seeking to empower women locally. Womanism is a like-minded term favored by writers in South Africa and Nigeria, while other African countries utilize motherism. Stiwanism, meaning commitment to social transformation for women of Africa (stiwa) is also popular. In Kenya, the activists working in grassroots development organizations show a preference for gender activism especially where policy demands require gender expertise

No matter how the end goal is termed, the overall ideas behind it remain the same. The following conceptualization of empowerment offers the most popular method for achieving said goal.


The second conceptualization is slightly less aggressive than the first and is more readily accepted in Kenyan communities and beyond due to its universal focus on finance. The power to concept is just as deeply rooted in Western context. However, while power over is more politically focused, power to has an economical base. The power to framework measures success by women's increased ability to act within political, social, and especially economic realms without having to take over various male dominated positions. Women's increased involvement in all societal spheres is thus associated with an increase in female power, which in turn promotes equating development with empowerment.

According to Bryceson, "The belief that women can begin to gain equality with men by earning cash 'outside the household' has been implicit or explicit in most approaches and project designs." In other words, the concept is typical. As stated previously, power to places considerable emphasis on money as power. It links the image of a financially independent woman with the emancipated ideal. These ideological promotional frames for power to INGOs operating in Kenya got their start rather recently. Unfortunately, no evidence can be found which ties this approach to progress in African females fight for equality.

Research shows the power to framework gained a true following shortly after a 1985 United Nations conference in Nairobi, Kenya, which focused on female empowerment. The reported aim of this gathering was to address what the U.N. had declared to be "a severe disadvantage of women financially." At the time, many women were unable to access financial services from these institutions available-primarily mainstream banks. So, the U.N. declared that to be a primary cause for female poverty.

According to the World Bank, poverty is hunger, lack of shelter, being sick and the inability to see a physician. Poverty is not having access to education and illiteracy. Poverty is joblessness, fear of what is to come and living day to day. Poverty is losing a child due to unclean water, powerlessness and a lack of representation and freedom. To address their additional portion of the bullet point definition, government and numerous development partners held up micro finance programs as the best possible solution.

Immediately, new programs flushed in from UNIFEM (United Nations Funds for Women) and FSD (Foundation for Sustainable Development), and Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT). Though KWFT began as a leader in microfinance for Kenya's female population, today it is just not one of hundreds pushing the same policy agenda. No major progress has been documented, but new problems have certainly surfaced.

It is evident that this popular approach causes problems. In the past decade, amidst deteriorating economic conditions characterized by high inflation rates, inhibitive costs of energy and water, drought and a major global recession the intense international power to focus on females has narrowed what originally might have been a more community focus. According to resources, the infiltration of Western-run INGOs pushing the value of income-based work has forced a flip of traditional roles leaving many men unemployed. What options are available for those Kenyan males wanting to raise some form of security to obtain a loan? In terms of INGOs, the answer is "hakuna"-Kiswahili for "none."

Another predicament faced by power to groups is that instead of changing the role of Kenyan women, this conceptualization simply adds another set of responsibilities to their lives. When Africans agree to participate in INGO income-earning programs, they do not cease their activities as mothers, daughters and wives. These roles already include, but are not limited to: food production, household maintenance and childcare. In fact, studies show that women in Kenya work 12-13 hours a week more than men, as the economic downturn tends to increase the working hours of the poorest women.

The appeal of cash-income assistance is universal for obvious reasons and is therefore generally accepted into third world communities. However, if "emancipation" is an INGO's end goal, why introduce new, unshared, microfinance-masked burdens on the individual woman? Several critics have noted how the exclusivity of women's-only aids has damaged some communities. Sources state that the Western feminist movement is historically an outgrowth of women's quest for equal rights and is now philosophically associated with modern humanism. Apparently, this all-inclusive humanist aspect of the modern feminist movement is often forgotten by the aggressive and passionate third sector.

Despite power to's good intentions, insisting on separating one gender from the other when divvying up services throughout an entire community in need is simply a slower way to achieve the great gender divide witnessed in the wake of the power over approach.


Perhaps Maathai was correct when she said, "The worst maligned problem for both men and women in Africa today actually is unspinning the cocoon of Western stereotypes, within which people are confined by the internationalization of Western culture's patronizing and exploitative conceptions of Africans." The constant pity, pardon and pats on the back for Kenyan women from INGOs in an effort to empower has only immortalized the image of the helpless third world woman.

In 1991, Chandra Mohanty argued that the relationship of first and third world feminisms became a sensitive subject as early as the 1960s when first world feminists publically categorized third world feminists as victims-never agents of their own destiny. This historical tendency of first world females to serve other women from a pity standpoint while championing their own ideals birthed this image of the "average third world woman." This is a woman who, according to Mohandty, leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender and her being 'third world'. It should be noted that Mohanty's view is supported and that this skewed impression she speaks of has only handicapped international equity progress.

According to one survey of third world women, "Empowerment is a dubious achievement." When questioned on Western methods for advocacy and activism, respondents went so far as to argue that the Western feminist movement was not actually a success. In the words of one respondent, "Society characterized by polar or binary gender relations does not meet the definition of better."

The 24th and current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf suggests another theory. She argues that the West is only upheld as the model for success because, "Western feminism has done a lot of showcase, but they have not really come up with a strategy to achieve the full emancipation of women and the full acquisition of leadership or display of leadership roles as we have been able to achieve in Africa. Maybe our numbers are smaller. Therefore, it is much easier for us to attain our critical mass."

The overwhelming presence of these organizations proves INGOs present the Western model as the model of success for all gender equality-seeking regions. Although women speaking from positions of power often credit the West with igniting a universal movement, they are quick to differentiate their region's approach to that of a power over or power to organization, which are so often associated with the "universal" model. These two frameworks simply do not sit well within certain cultural contexts. President Sirleaf explains: "The emergence of the changing African feminism does have some basis in Western feminism. I mean, the feminist revolution has gone to a second level. I'm saying that today's African feminism, which is based upon equity and equality, does find some of its inputs and approaches in Western feminism because the revolution of feminism really started in the West; in a manner where we know women agitate for equality and equity." Organizations must recognize that the methods for achievement are by no means universal.


While some INGOs continue to impose solutions rather than seek answers, there are those groups who have found success adhering to a culturally specific framework with universal goals. Marie Stopes International (MSI) is one organization illustrating the less aggressive third approach to empowering women. This INGO understands and implements empowerment as power from within. This framework follows a bottom-up system, while the two former concepts are more top-down. Essential to power from within is: a progressive personal attitude; knowledge of the political and cultural systems that define the community; and an ability to strategize and cultivate with fellow community members to promote change.

Unlike the former frameworks, organizations operating from this angle do not ask men to step down, nor do they require women to take on additional (and arguably) unreasonable responsibilities. Instead, a power from within framework asks Kenyan women to "take responsibility for their own fate." This request is often accompanied by education and/or provision of necessary resources, but assistance stops there. The onus for change is left on the locals.

For this reason, cultural understanding is essential to the power from within concept. In the end, Kenyans not the international activiits are the change agents. Generating understanding of the current situation and opening up discussion on the possibility of something different is all the INGO can do to fuel the fire. The INGO must then step back and allow participants of their programs to take the reigns.

One such organization is currently operating out of Kisumu, Kenya with a staff made up entirely of Kenyans. With clinics all over the world, a streamlined list of services is offered regardless of regional restrictions on women's health, but within a culturally sensitive context. In Kenya, for instance, abortion is illegal yet the MSI Kisumu clinic offers abortion services to women under the guise of "pregnancy crises counseling." Employing local women to serve other local women is another example of how MSI empowers from within. The specialist organization has helped women with sexual and reproductive healthcare since 1976 and their clinics span the globe.

Unlike power over organizations, this INGO does not clamor for a community's attention, nor does it demand the community change. Instead, MSI provides third world women, specifically, with reproductive services while remaining conscious and respectful of the cultural systems in place. They do not conduct major demonstrations or broadcast the injustice of the current laws. MSI simply focuses on enacting change where it can by relying on local women, their hard work and word of mouth all from within the community.

Although it is difficult to discern a coherent women's movement in Kenya given the Western standard, the complexity of the African female role and the disparate influences of the government and other INGOs, Marie Stopes International has succeeded in connecting with and serving women at the local level. The UK-based INGO provides women with information and resources with respect for the autonomy of the local women. History shows that Kenyan women's rights will continue to evolve and that Marie Stopes International will continue providing reliable and non-confrontational care regardless of these changes.

Feminist thought on Kenyan women's emancipation may continue to evolve outside the country, but all while MSI continues to successfully address effective empowerment from within.


Both African and Euro-American feminist movements will agree that: "Human rights of women are inalienable and an integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." They have not, however, tended to agree on the best way to attain the common end goal. It is important to recognize that when western feminists push an agenda well beyond the boundaries of its original context, feminists from the third world will most likely push back. The issue lies with the misappropriation of two culturally specific concepts of what it means to empower women without acceptance of the community.

The first world's misapplication of support methods for third world women directly correlate with the way in which empowerment is conceptualized. Misinterpretation (as determined according to context) of the term and/or the attempt to adhere to a universal approach places a handicap on the very much-anticipated emancipation of Kenyan women. The threat of "misinterpretation" can only be remedied when Kenyan women openly reject international assumptions on feminism and freely and explicitly define the principles and practices needed for their culturally congruent emancipation.

Conceptualizing empowerment is challenging, but one approach (power from within) champions the key component: agency. Ultimately, this framework is best for INGOs seeking to empower women around the world. Groups adhering to this conceptualization promote leadership at the local level in congruence with local culture. They understand that women must be primary players in the process and that change begins and ends with these players.

As first world based INGOS continue to advocate for third world women's right to full and equal participation in the political, civil, economic, social and cultural spheres, more attention must be given to comprehending and theorizing the local, while avoiding universalistic claims steering female mobilization today.