A few days ago, I had the beautiful opportunity to talk with some women leaders from Talcahuano, a port in southern Chile, about the questions: How do we empower ourselves? and what do we need for it? I share some of the conclusions of this productive journey of mutual learning.
I want to start by defining what empowerment is. Women's empowerment is the process or set of processes that allow the increase of the transversal participation of women in all aspects of their personal and social life. Therefore, it has a direct relationship with the strengthening of women's citizenship.
Women are told to "empower ourselves", as if saying it had a magical effect, without considering the impact that support, mobilization and learning networks have on making this possible. It is even intended that women in a clear situation of disadvantage, minority and social marginalization, "empower themselves" deliberately ignoring factors such as class, income, educational level, geography, ethnicity or race, motherhood, age , job or economic precariousness, immigration status, play a role in making it more or less possible.
Currently, the government, civil society and businesses carry out initiatives to empower women, meaning that activating capacity building to increase their participation and generate beneficial changes in terms of equality in the individual and social context. But it is not enough, because also we need a change in attitudes in the direct environment of women, regarding greater autonomy and connection with the public space. Women's citizenship begins in the privacy of the home. As Julieta Kirkwood, a Chilean researcher and activist, used to say: "Democracy in the country, at home and in the street."
Empowerment is closely related to social participation; the exercise of integral citizenship, which should not be confused with the passivity of people in the reception of a service or the presence as mere spectators of public management. Participation means that women become agents of change who take part in decisions to define priorities, plan solutions and demand accountability regarding matters that influence their quality of life. This implies listening to their opinions and valuing their knowledge with the same relevance as the opinions and knowledge of academics, professionals or technocrats.
One of the women in the workshop shared a clarifying reflection:
“To be a social leader and participate, a woman needs to coordinate life with her husband, with her family, to concentrate on doing things in the neighborhood. For me it is important to know that my children and my husband are happy with what I do, that they support me, that they take care of the house when I am not there. I become an accomplished human being to the extent that others also collaborate with those accomplishment."
- Empowering women requires collective action and external initiatives that engage the individual, social and governmental level.
- Take into account the role that the family and the participation of children and partners in housework have in facilitating the social participation of women.
- Educate the community about the importance of empowering women at a personal and collective level, so that this is seen as a positive process and not from a macho perspective.
- Strong networks within the community to increase collective action for inclusion and a sense of belonging.
- Development and construction of capacities for integral citizenship and social participation.
- Policies to support the active participation of women in the public sphere and their role as co-managers in the planning of strategies that improve life and decision-making, which also facilitates the acquisition of skills to relate to the municipality, the regional government and other public bodies, obtain available resources and defend the rights that correspond to them as citizens.
As one woman participant said
"I do not like being always in the public as spectator. I would like to be invited to give my opinion. In my years in the Neighborhood Council I have learned a lot about working with the community and I have knowledge that I can share with other people, for the collective well being."