Gender and Empowerment: A conversation with Yvonne Underhill-Sem

This is a commentary article by Yvonne Underhill-Sem 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, read also the commentary by Nejra Cengic.

by Yvonne Underhill-Sem

Just this week, I had a fantastically stimulating discussion with a prospective student from the Pacific wanting to study women's empowerment. Our discussion moved quickly on from examining the new spaces and the new actors constituting those spaces. We allowed ourselves to be swept through often turbulent, sometimes deadening but eventually wonderfully rich currents of possibility for a research focus. We ended up with a great new project that is embedded in our embodied experience of working for gender equality for many years in the Pacific.

It is not informed by new media and technologies — which for most women in the Pacific is still limited to radio broadcasts or old newspapers rescued from men rolling tobacco — but from what we do in our daily lives and how we do this with our friends, family and neighbours. This speaks directly to the themes and debates raised in this edition of Development. Empowerment may not be the same as when it was coined by southern feminists working in communities years ago, but these southern feminist, and any others, are not the same either. And here I welcome the new insights, analyses and debates that are promised in this edition.

Wendy, Andrea and Nana provide a tantalizing context which variously laments, underlines and challenges the nature of empowerment in different spaces. They recognize that still too many women are systematically disempowerment, oppressed, even cruelly tortured and that care must be taken in not inadvertently allowing the insidious movements for disempowering women to get the upper hand. They also draw attention to the drudgery of working in spaces like the UN, the snappy spaces of blogs, new found autonomy of grassroots resistance movements and many more that we will read about. I think all these spaces are welcome additions to the on-going task of securing gender equality. Formal institution need to change and this requires careful on-going engagement that is tedious and often boring but nonetheless still essential. We may be able to enliven these places a little but the reality is that they are not suited to everyone. Perhaps we are still in awe of the possibilities of global assemblies to provide the meaning of life — this was delivered to us in the 1990s and we have struggled to regain it in the 2000's.

We cannot let it go but perhaps we don't all need to be there. It seems more feminist are working regionally and nationally and technology like live podcasts we can share our analysis from our different sites. While we still be need a presence in many different places, perhaps it can be a different kinds of embodied presence. Yes we must acknowledge the micro politics of power that continues to allow for the emergence of new possibilities for women to experience their rights to development. But in looking elsewhere for the moments of empowerment, we must also keep our eye on the ball.

Lady Gaga usefully reminds us of the diverse ways in which empowerment can happen, but let it not be seen as a replacement technique for shifting away those institutions that continue to have an impact on women's rights. Yes we need to expand spaces, we need new spaces, we need to reinvigorate spaces, to reoccupy spaces and to consolidate. And the debates around the nature of power in empowerment critically provide us with the language to do this. Without that language I would not have had the conversation I had this week which resulted in yet another innovative feminist scholar activist in the making.


Yvonne Underhill-Sem, feminist geographer of Cook Island/New Zealand heritage, is a professor of gender and development at the University of Auckland, and the regional coordinator for Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) in the Pacific.

Photo: dreamglow pumpkincat210/flickr