Gender and Empowerment: A conversation with Nejra Cengic

This is a commentary article by Nejra Cengic, in response to Wendy Harcourt's editorial 'Lady Gaga meets ban Ki-Moon' for the 53.2 Development issue on gender and Empowerment. On the same conversation, read also the commentary by Yvonne Underhill-Sem

by Nejra Cengic 

How to breathe the meaning into concept of women empowerment once when it is felt it has been emptied? How to return excitement about the concept and its prior meaning? How to prevent (or stop) to be treated as commodity once when all around us is treated in that way? How to return political dimension to this concept? These are important questions raised in introductory articles of this journal issue by Wendy Harcourt, Andrea Cornwall and† Nana Akua Anyidoho. In which measure we all feel a gap between empowerment concept as an inspiring political agenda and the way how it operates today? And finally, in which measure institutionalization that treats only consequences of this unjust world, undermine women empowerment concept? 

In her introductory article, Harcourt expresses resistance to accept reduction of empowerment concept to UN gender equality agenda focused on stopping violence against women, getting more girls into education, and more women into government. Indeed, in which relation these three directions of action are with empowerment concept? If empowerment is about transformation of social relations, systems, institutions that promote all kinds of inequalities (Harcourt 2010, 2), how much UN gender equality agenda contributes to this goal, or how this agenda operates in the field? Lets take a look of some of these relations more in detail. Using human rights discourse, how much women human rights are achievable and doable within current social relations? As Cornwall and Anyidoho note, we cannot talk on uniform social relations, context, development agenda or course of action. Societies differ in their socio-historical background, persons differ in their life histories and interaction to these backgrounds (Cornwall and Anyidoho 2010, 3).

While nowadays world provide more and more mechanisms/procedures to register violence, to find the shelters for women and other subordinated groups, does it really affect social relationships? Information are available, awareness on distribution of problem is higher, we are signing petitions for stopping violence in farer part of the globe, expressing solidarity to women across the globe. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as post-socialist and post-conflict state quite good legal framework for protection of women rights exists. Another issue is how much it is efficient, implemented, and even if it is so, in which measure it contributes to building a different human relationships. It seems that violence against women was never so frequent, so present. Is there real increase of it, or it has just become more visible? Introduction of human rights discourse in post-socialist states in general, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in particular, made some steps in terms of raising awareness on certain extreme ways of behavior, the most frequent discrimination on women.

What is problematic here is that it functions mostly on the basis of prohibition. How much within this context, increased number of girls within education really change the situation? During the Yugoslav socialist past, the politics of equality was quite one sided, producing emancipation in some terms, and reproducing patriarchal context in other terms. Free education, which was very much promoted, in high measure functioned for both sexes within urban areas. Even if we presume that whole population has been educated in equal measure, there is still a question, does it makes a real difference? In terms of increased choices, employability and economic independence, it is some empowerment, but in majority of these cases insufficient. Education system although based on principle of equality, reproduced and still does patriarchal values. Additionally, nationalistic agenda has affected education system, which becomes the paradigm of state functioning.

Within this line of reasoning, it is hard to believe that increased number of women into government ensures commitment to building different world. As Cornwall and Anyidoho note 'how to empower women within disempowering structures and systems' (Cornwall and Anyidoho 2010, 4). So, it is not so much about contents of UN gender equality agenda, but more about the way how it functions. Its way of functioning shows us that it is possible to create a parallel world, to have gender equality agenda met in quite satisfactory measure remaining the same social relationships. It is still far from women empowerment. We have to be aware of it, and it is about what, among other topics, articles of this journal issue raise the attention. Without awareness on it, emancipatory potentials for women empowerment that exist within each society can be hardly found.


Nejra Cengic is professor at Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduates Studies, University of Sarajevo

Photo: dreamglow pumpkincat210/flickr