Womens Empowerment as a Foundation for Social Change

(Research essay about Gender and the development of Peace)

Astrid-Margrete Johannessen, 16 November 2007

“Is a shift from a system leading to chronic wars, social injustice and ecological imbalance to one of peace, social justice and ecological balance a realistic possibility? More important, what changes in social structure would make such a transformation possible?”
(Riane Eisler, 1995:xiv)

The essay will examine women’s role in changing a “system leading to chronic wars, social injustice and ecological imbalance, to one of peace, social justice and ecological balance” (Riane Eisler, 1995:xiv) The essay will discuss the links between gender equality and concepts of peace with justice. It will claim that the process of creating gender equality through the empowerment of women and women’s agency is fundamental in the process of creating peace with justice.
Empowerment refers to “the process by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such an ability.” (Kabeer, 2005, p13) Woman’s agency implies actively exercising choice to challenge power relations. (Kaaber, 2005) The process of women’s empowerment also involves becoming capable of perceiving themselves as able and entitled to be part of decision making and to have the right to act and have influence. (Rowlands, 1995) Thus, the concept of ‘power from within’ is central in women’s empowerment for social change. (Rowlands, 1995)
This essay explores possibilities of how the empowerment of women has the potential of leading to a more peaceful society in underdeveloped countries.
For the purpose of analysing women’s empowerment as a foundation in the process of creating social change, a case study from Burma will be examined.
In order to build systems of peace and justice, gender- based violence and structural violence have been addressed in workshops among refugees and internally displaced women in Burma. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004)
The process of deconstructing gender-based violence involved a strong emphasis on creating awareness among the women about these issues thrugh analysing and discussing gender-based violence and to create action plans aimed at empowerment and social change.
Freire’s theory of conscientization is central in relation to the case study in Burma and will be analysed in regard to women’s empowerment. The case study in Burma demonstrates strategies of empowerment and liberation of women as well as pointing out important questions and challenges.
Lederarch’s theory of just peace will also be examined in this regard.
It is important to look at changes in social structures which can create peace with justice. This essay will emphasize feminine concepts of peace and how women’s empowerment can lead to social change and is an important step in building a ‘culture of peace’.

The concept ‘culture of peace’ refers to a broad understanding of peace including equality, development, social justice, tolerance, nonviolence and human rights. (Yesufu, 2000) It rests on the principle that development is crucial to create lasting peace and that equality between men and women is crucial for the development process. (Yesufu, 2000, Sen, 1999) Thus, a culture of peace can only be created by fighting against both direct and structural violence, including discrimination, oppression, racism, sexism and poverty. (Yesufu, 2000, Sen, 1999, Jeong, 2000) Women’s movements emphasize a ‘culture of peace’ by promoting typical ‘feminine’ values inherent in the concept of ‘culture of peace’. (Yesufu, 2000) Brock- Utne (1990) claims that “as women gain status, the status of nonviolence also strengthens” (p. 206) and that “the most extensive use of nonviolent strategies has been by women” (p. 206) Reardon (1990) claims that viewing peace through a ‘feminine’ perspective involves focusing more on fulfilling fundamental human needs and on the equal distribution of resources and less on military force and national defense. She also claims that feminist concepts of peace and security have a global scope by including all peoples of all nations. (Reardon, 1990) This holistic view of peace as well as the idea that just peace can only be created by ending structural violence and oppression, is fundamental aspects of the feminist concept of peace.
Thus, it is evident that the feminist concept of peace promotes a transformation in social structure; decreasing violence and discrimination and creating a ‘culture of peace’ including social justice and ecological balance.
Women have been promoting a ‘culture of peace’ by working with social and “global issues such as development, democracy, human rights, world security and the environment”. (Yesufu, 2000, p.1) Thus, it is important to focus on the empowerment of women as well as on the potential of women’s agency for social change.

Lederarch’s (1999) concept of just peace regards peace as both means and end. He emphasizes a multi-strategy approach to peace building, which includes a strong focus on grassroots and people- power. In order to change social structure in favour of peace, social justice and ecological balance, people on the grassroots must play an important role. (Lederarch, 1999, Sen, 1999)
Power-sharing, partnership in equality and gender- relations, cooperation, networking and participatory processes are important in this regard. It is also important to redress inequality and exclusion and to create gender equality on all decision- making levels. (Broch-Utne, 1990, Jeong, 2000, Carr, 2003)In the process of creating this kind of social change and to build just peace, the empowerment of women and women’s agency is fundamental.

The empowerment of women, through education, literacy, employment and economic opportunities, has positive consequences for society as a whole, including the women themselves, their children, their whole family and the community. (Sen, 1999, Parker, 2005)
In a society where women are empowered through education and employment and where women are participating in decision- making processes on all levels of society, there is generally an increased emphasis on values such as peace, social justice, equality, human rights and ecological sustainability, than in patriarchal societies. (Jeong, 2000, Bell, 2006) Bouta, Frerks and Bannon (2005) claims that “rebuilding social capital and cohesion are deeply gendered processes.” (p.123) They are emphasizing the importance of “women’s participation and representation in decision making processes in community driven development.” (Bouta, Frerks and Bannon, 2005, p123) Communities where women are empowered often have a higher social capital and can better manage conflict in non-violent ways. (Bouta, Frerks and Bannon, 2005)
Increased gender equality in a society has positive consequences such as a decreased level of aggressiveness, authoritarianism and social violence. It also reduces the chance that the State will become involved in military conflicts and war. (Bouta, Frerks and Bannon, 2005) Empowerment of women through education, employment and social and economic participation, brings about changes in society such as reduced child mortality, reduced fertility rates and often an increased well- being of the whole family. (Sen, 1999, Parker, 2005) It also increases focus on environmental and ecological sustainability. (Sen, 1999, Rai, 2002) Thus it seams clear that there is a correlation between increased gender equality and the level of peace, social justice and ecological balance. However, promoting gender equality in underdeveloped countries is a very long and difficult process. The process of empowering women need to be encouraged and acknowledged on all levels of society, from family and community levels to state, law and government levels. Also, it needs to be a process which starts from within the women themselves. It is therefore both a psychological, social and political process.
Creating a system of peace, social justice and ecological balance can therefore seem like a never ending struggle. However, the empowerment of women and women’s active agency is a fundamental condition for achieving results through a successful struggle.
Jeong (2000) claims that the patriarchal system breads violence, oppression, war and military expenditures and is especially discriminating against women who oppose the system. She claims that “Equal relations between men and women can serve as the foundation for equality among all peoples and an end to racism and ecological destruction as well as sexism.” (Jeong, 2000, p.83) Feminine values, such as peacefulness, non- violence and protection of human rights, diversity and egalitarian relationships need to gain greater relevance throughout all systems and levels of society, from the grassroots, to the powerful institutions, in order to create social change and build peace. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004)

In Burma, workshops aiming to deconstruct gender-based violence and to empower women have been conducted since 1997 by the American women Kathryn Norsworthy and the Thai women Ouyporn Khuankaew in collaboration with local partners and women’s groups in Burma and in Thailand. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) Many women in Burma have been forcibly relocated by the military regime. The military regime in Burma is oppressing citizens, especially ethnic minorities and women. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) In the workshops, groups of women address topics of power, empowerment, violence and oppressive social structures. They were looking at how gender oppressive values are embedded within family, religion, education, law, community and government levels. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) They were also identifying systems that value women and the feminine and building programs based upon values of gender justice and equality. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004)
Gender- based oppression, inequality, social injustice and poverty are forms of structural violence. Many women in today’s world are victims of gender- based violence, as they encounter direct and indirect forms of violence, through unjust and oppressive social systems. Discrimination and poverty are forms of structural violence which many women around the world suffer today. Norsworthy and Khuankaew claim that “sexism and misogyny are at the centre of a culture or system supporting and maintaining gender- based violence”. (p. 260) Violent structures and attitudes need to be addressed in the process of transforming a culture of violence into a culture of peace with justice. Therefore, gender- based violence must be addressed and deconstructed.

In the workshops for women in Burma, the process of deconstructing gender- based violence involved a strong emphasis on creating awareness among the women of different forms of gender oppression and of recognising how gender- oppressive systems are maintained at both the community, institutional and overall structural levels. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) When working with women in Burma, Norsworthy and Khuankaew emphasized the importance of recognising “that acts of sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence are embedded in a web of interconnected systems that support violence of women.” (p.260) instead of regarding oppressive behavior and attitudes as personal and individual- oriented. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) The women identified gander based oppression within institutional and societal levels such as religion, the education system, the media, business, within law and legal systems and within the State/ government. The women were discussing what they regarded as male supremacy in society and how they experienced oppression. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) For example, they reported that women in their community are seen as week and in need of a husband to take care of them. They felt that they as women are not seen as capable of living their own lives and of making important decisions about their own lives. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) They were discussing negative attitudes and myths towards women, including that “being born as a woman is due to bad carma from past lives and being born a man is due to good carma from previous lives.” (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004, p. 273) They also discussed other attitudes that they met in daily life, such as the attitude that if a women was abused, it’s because she herself caused it to happen or because she was a bad wife. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004)
After awareness was created, the women themselves would be dis cussing ways to transform violent structures into structures of peace and gender justice. They were also developing action plans for violence prevention, for transforming oppressive systems and for building strategies, attitudes and actions which focus on values of peace and justice. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004)
Creating awareness and knowledge of social structures is an important way of empowering women and will enable them to participate in the process of achieving social change and building peace.

The workshops conducted in Burma were grounded in Freire’s (1970) Liberation theory, which focuses on how those oppressed by powerful systems of domination are able to struggle for social transformation. Liberation theory emphasizes the importance of creating awareness of structural oppression as well as the importance of people’s agency in transforming society. The concept of conscientization is central for this theory. (Freire, 1970) The group- dialogue process which Freire (1970) called conscientization, is a process which aims to raise consciousness by uncovering peoples experiences of powerlessness and oppression and to find their political dimensions in order to create social and structural change. (Freire, 1970, Carr, 2003) Thus, conscientization is ultimately an active strategy for social and political change. This is important in the process of empowering women and for women’s agency. Carr (2003) claims that “concsientization is ultimately an analytical, constructive and mobilizing process that is crucial to the realization of empowerment”. In Burma, the women were empowered through knowledge and skills, awareness, social support and through the development of strategies for change. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) They focused on developing the women’s explanations and definitions of their own reality or predicament as a way to achieve empowerment and liberation. Conscientization involves critical consciousness and the ability to perceive “oneself as a subject (rather than an object) of social processes and as capable of working to change the social order.” (Carr, 2003, p.15)
A problematic aspect of this kind of workshop is the notion that women can not simply be empowered from the outside; empowerment must start within the women herself. (Kaaber, 2005,Townsend, 1999) Kabeer (2005) claims that “a process of empowerment often begins from within”. (p14) She discusses the sense of agency, claiming that “empowerment is rooted in how people see themselves - their sense of self worth”. (p15) Thus, in order to empower women to become active agents for social change, it is important to work on both personal, group and community levels. Jo Rowlands (1995) claims that “the core of the empowerment process involves fundamental psychological and psycho- social processes and changes. Central to these is the development of self- confidence and self- esteem, and a sense of agency….a sense of self within a wider context.” (p102)
The notion of ‘power from within’ is an important part of women’s empowerment, and refers to an awareness of external reality as well as their sense of agency. (Townsend, 1999) Townsend (1999) talks about the process of self- empowerment as a process of enabling awareness and choice which can not be controlled from the outside. “Empowerment has to include the process that lead the individual or group being enabled to perceive themselves as able to occupy that decision making space.” (p.65) The process of empowerment is aiming to enable women to be able to occupy decision-making spaces on different levels of society. Then they can act as agents for social change and bring forward feminine values of peace, justice and equality. (Jeong, 2000, Sen, 1999)
Being empowered through a process of dialogue and solidarity can lead to a developed sense of self involving an increasingly political identity. (Rees, 1998, Carr, 2003) The empowerment process of acquiring consciousness, confidence and connection were very much interlinked in the case of Burma, where the women were empowered through conscious raising and confidence building while being connected to each other in the group. Consciousness was acquired through raising issues of violence, promoting reflections and discussions of the forms of violence that the women had encountered. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) Norsworthy and Khuankaew aimed at building confidence by encouraging all the women to participate openly in the big group and in smaller groups. They emphasized that there should be no hierarchical structures and no ‘power over’ dynamics as part of a strategy for building confidence in the women in the group.
Workshops conducted in underdeveloped countries by white women from Western developed countries face the challenge of overcoming differences in race and culture and of being able to conduct open forums where everyone can participate freely, without any kind of hierarchical power- relations. Norsworthy encountered this challenge in Burma and realized the importance of minimizing power-over dynamics and of promoting open sharing of ideas. It is important for both the participants and the facilitators to deconstruct and challenge their ideas, and to analyse how they might be rooted in oppression and domination. (Sen, 2003, Parker, 2005)
Being respectful of each other and using the method of ‘deep listening’ while sharing personal experiences were important in order to understand and deconstruct forms of violence and oppression and at the same time build confidence in the women. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004, Parker, 2005)The workshop aimed at creating a large degree of connection between the women in the group. The concept of ‘power-with’ is important in this regard, referring to their ability to associate with each other and realize the strenght and capacity they have together. (Townsend, 1999, Rowlands, 1995)

Carr talks about conscientization, interpretation, identity and mobilization as part of a successful process of empowerment. (Carr, 2003) By interpretation, he refers to the way the women, through the consciousness- raising process, break free from patriarchal discourses and find new ‘ways of naming’ their experiences. (Carr, 2003) In the case of Burma, this ‘naming’ was an important part of the process. The women were ‘naming’ institutions which they regarded as supporting and reinforcing violence against women. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) They were ‘naming’ their problems in order to share and work through difficult feelings and experiences in order to be empowered. For example, they were sharing their experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence; trying to put names on this and to express their feelings. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) The women were encouraged to access “their own knowledge and wisdom in theorizing and creating solutions to their own problems”. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004, p. 264)
Critical interpretation and understanding is a foundation for both personal and social transformation. (Carr, 2003) Furthermore, identity construction and self- definition are important parts of the empowerment process. Freire claims that the oppressed are often alienated and need to gain self- knowledge. (Freire, 1970, Carr, 2003)
By mobilization, Carr refers to the “politization process and liberation process which create a demand for socio- political restructuring.” (Carr, p17) The ultimate goal of the empowerment process is that the women mobilize for political action and social change. (Carr, 2003) Kabeer (2005) claims the importance of “transformative forms of agency that do not simply address immediate inequalities but are used to initiate longer- term processes of change in the structures of patriarchy.” (p16) Some of the women who had participated in the workshops in Burma went back to their communities with increased confidence awareness of power-structures and well as skills and action plans for how to change oppressive structures on different levels. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) Thus, they became active agents for social change. Some of the women went back to their communities and started workshops for other women, using the same methodologies and format for empowerment. Also, according to Norsworthy and Khuankaew (2004) one group of women developed a legal system to deal with partner abuse. Some of the women established organisations for women, promoting power- sharing and open participation, as well as working to document gender-based human rights violations by the military and by the police in Burma.
Some of the women in Burma became agents addressing the human rights violations committed by the junta, and to fight for democracy. They were working to promote partnership, co-operation, power sharing and equality in gender relations. They realized that ‘power- with’ other women seeking organisation, solidarity and cooperation, would make it possible to create social change.

Sen (1999) emphasizes the importance of taking an agent- oriented approach to women’s agenda. Being an agent for social change involves being a responsible and self-conscious person as well as being able to make choices and to act. (Sen, 1999, Rowlands, 1995) The workshops in Burma were aiming to develop awareness and responsibility in the women who then would transfer the knowledge and practice to their community. Through a process of awareness, analysis and discussion, the empowered women were better able to make conscious choices and to act on them. However, the workshops in Burma is only one step in the long process of creating social change.
It is crucial for the participating women to communicate their knowledge and skills further in their community. These women then become active agents for social change by participating increasingly in decision-making on the individual, family, community and organizational level.
Forming power- sharing relationships between all members of a family as well as creating flexible gender roles within a family is an important strategy which can reduce gender- based violence in a society. (Norsworthy and Khuankaew, 2004) It is imporatnt that women give the same opportuinties to both theyr soms and their daughters. On the community level it is important to educate both men and women about the importance of gender equality and to raise awareness of these issues. It is also important to increase the representation of women in all levels of society including in political systems and to promote power-sharing relations and gender equality.

The case study in Burma shows the potential of how the empowerment of women can lead to social change. Transforming systems of violence and gender-based oppression into gender equality and peace is a long process which must take place on all levels of society. It is a process which needs to begin within woman themselves, as they realize their power, value and agency.
Feminine values of nonviolence, power-sharing, gender equality and human rights are fundamental for building a ‘culture of peace’. The process of conscientization, empowerment as well as women’s agency play a crucial role in the multi track strategy for creating just peace. Only through deep and fundamental transformations in social structure can a future of peace, equality, social justice and ecological balance be achieved.


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