Words and work by Lore van Praag, Amal Miri & Kaya Klaver
Gender empowerment and inclusion in civil society organisations
To rethink the concept ‘gender empowerment’ in policy discourses, media, and practices in civil society organisations, more attention should be paid to individuals’ situated views, conceptualisations, and definitions of gender empowerment. The concept ‘gender empowerment’ is often promoted in many European societies and international organisations, and (mis)used by a multitude of political views and strategies. Nonetheless, the interpretations of what this means are less straightforward and are often not made explicit. Despite the many steps that governments and civil society organizations are taking all over Europe, the (diverse) views of women themselves are not involved enough and (the interests of) certain groups such as people with a migration background are often forgotten. What is empowering, what is not and how do women and women's associations see this themselves? What is the (social) media and political discourse on these themes and how does this differ between European countries? Including people’s perspectives on gender empowerment needs to take on a more situated approach to fully understand its power and meaning.
From workshops on climate to building a giant puppet named Fatima
In 2012, FMV vzw, an Antwerp federation that supports migrant-led organisations, built a giant puppet in collaboration with one of their member associations called Shams vzw. The giant puppet was named Fatima and wears a headscarf taking part in the annual Giant parade in Borgerhout (Antwerp, Belgium). Giantess Fatima represents a migrant woman who is a member of a women's association that strives to help women out of isolation using small steps such as cooking together, reading together, and so on. In 2022, after the major COVID-19 pandemic, this giantess was used again in the Giant parade in Antwerp to symbolise the large number of women that spend a lot of time in isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. Initiatives, such as the construction of the giantess Fatima, are often viewed as derogatory or not empowering enough.
There are many initiatives of civil society organisations that promote gender empowerment across Europe: Moroccan women collectively preparing sandwiches for school for every child to have lunch in Antwerp (Belgium); migrants that follow a training to become experience-based experts in Rotterdam (the Netherlands); workshops on climate change for everyone with a migration background and alternatives to plastic and healthy living in Vienna (Austria); voluntary work by migrants in Barcelona (Spain) for educational participation in the global South; poetry against intimate partner violence in Warsaw (Poland); and women who support and strengthen each other against intimate partner violence in Trento (Italy). These are some of the many ways organizations in Europe are trying to achieve a gender-equal Europe making sure that gender-based violence, gender discrimination and structural inequalities between women and men become a thing of the past.
Despite all these bottom-up initiatives, most actions remain invisible and there is a need for a broader framework and support for (self) organizations to realize equality, diversity, and inclusion. Although many policies and politicians have eagerly put the promotion of gender empowerment to the fore, less has been known on what gender empowerment means for people involved or targeted. The concept of ‘empowerment’ can easily be used as a container concept, which is mainly shaped by a Eurocentric Western paradigm (Syed, 2010). In many of these discourses, liberal and Western notions of freedom and empowerment are embedded. Many policy initiatives and policies are based on these discourses and built in a paternalistic way to ‘empower’ or ‘save’ women, especially female migrants (Cornwall, 2016; Abu-Lughod, 2015). Such gender empowerment discourses are thus intertwined with discourses focused on inclusion and integration in society. When discussing migrant integration and related topics, the concept of ‘gender empowerment’ is in some cases even used as a criterion for so-called ‘successful integration’ in society. This calls for the need to rethink how gender empowerment should be promoted, through policies and in practices of civil society organisations.
Rethinking the nexus of gender empowerment and inclusion
Building on the innovative theoretical concept of ‘situated intersectionality’ (Yuval-Davis, 2015), the concept ‘gender empowerment’ needs to be applied with more scrutiny. Applying a situated approach to intersectionality, to better grasp meanings and interpretations of gender empowerment is certainly relevant when it comes to migrant groups. These groups are relatively new in a society, they are often not part of dominant cultures, and have a unique set of (transnational) frames of references. Focusing on these groups is of relevance considering the cumulative disadvantages and othering assumptions that come with being women and migrants, thus making it crucial to approach gender empowerment as interrelated to issues of gender, class, and race (Miri, 2022). This relates for instance to migrant women that have educational degrees but after migrating must work in domestic and care services, and thus are being deskilled (Kofman & Raghuram, 2015).
The ‘situatedness’ of intersectionality (Yuval-Davis, 2015; Anthias, 2012) refers to its sensitivity to the geographical, social, and temporal power locations of the individual or collective social actors. In other words, situated intersectionality takes in to account the contested, shifting, and multiple meanings of specific social locations, notably historical moments (cf. transtemporality) within particular social, economic, political and cultural contexts (cf. transcalarity) in which some social divisions - e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship status, ability and age - have more saliency and effect on particular people and/or society as a whole (cf. translocality) than they have on others (Yuval-Davis, 2015). Situated intersectionality can be further described as a development of “feminist standpoint theory” (Harding, 1986) and “situated knowledges” (Haraway, 1988) which claim that it is vital to account for the social positioning of the social agent meaning the researcher or the researched (Yuval-Davis, 2015).
“Situated knowledges” (Haraway, 1988) argues that the perception of any situation is always a matter of an embodied, situated subject and their geographically and historically specific perspective, a perspective constantly being structured and restructured by the current social conditions (migration, COVID-19, economic crises, etc.). Applying this innovative situated intersectional approach (Yuval-Davis, 2015) to understanding why gender empowerment can have different meanings and outcomes and how they can define and develop their own definitions on ‘gender empowerment’ and how they can be translated into practices in policies and civil society organisations.
Using gender empowerment as a container concept goes against its main premise and could even hinder empowerment, related to gender. When it comes to translating such multiple interpretations and experiences of gender empowerment into practice, there is need to examine and unravel the (situated) meanings of gender empowerment within different societal spheres with explicit attention to migrant groups and the diversity and agency within these groups. Hence, applying a participatory and co-creative approach towards the development and reimagination of so-called empowering practices in civil society organisations is needed to realise objectives of gender empowerment in civil society organisations, policies and across societies.
Sparked your interest? Follow the ReIncluGen project!
The ReIncluGen project tackles the latter questions and aims to study, (re)evaluate and further develop the concept of gender empowerment in collaboration with and based on existing practices of civil society organizations (CSOs) and media channels that combat structural gender violence and promote gender empowerment. Through participatory and co-creative action research with five European civil society organizations and their members, this project will explore the different meanings and practices of gender empowerment within different societal spheres with explicit attention to migrant women and girls and their diversity and agency.
With this project we therefore strongly believe in the participatory aspect of doing research, in which we, together with civil society in the different European countries involved as well as migrant women themselves, will seek concrete, practical and innovative tools and answers to address the structural and systematic roots of gender inequality. We also believe this needs to be dismantled at all levels to promote the social, cultural, and economic empowerment of (migrant) women. In concrete terms, we therefore work together with social and cultural civil society organizations that work in Europe to promote gender empowerment and inclusion among migrant women and girls. More specifically, these organizations focus on a wide range of themes such as sexual or domestic violence, autonomy, representation, socio-cultural participation and labour market participation through education, training, media, and legal and psychological counselling.
On January 1st 2023, we started this ReIncluGen - Rethinking Inclusion and Gender empowerment: a Participatory Action Research - project: a collaboration between six research institutions and five civil society organizations in Belgium (University of Antwerp & FMV), Spain (Universitad Autonoma de Barcelona & Fundacion Intered), Italy (Universita Degli Studi di Trento & La Strada Der Weg Onlus), Poland (University of Warsaw & Feminoteka), Austria (SYNYO & Orient Express), and the Netherlands (Erasmus University Rotterdam) coordinated by the University of Antwerp. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe Research & Innovative Action under Grant Agreement No. 101093987. www.reinclugen.be
Please get in contact if you want more information: Lore Van Praag: firstname.lastname@example.org (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Erasmus University Rotterdam), Amal Miri: Amal.email@example.com (University of Antwerp); Kaya Klaver Kaya.Klaver@Uantwerpen.be, University of Antwerp
Abu-Lughod, L. (2015). Do Muslim women need saving? (Vol 15, No. 5, pp. 759-777). Sage UK: London, England: SAGE Publications.
Anthias, F. (2012). Transnational mobilities, migration research and intersectionality. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 2(2), 102-110.
Cornwall, A. (2016). Women's empowerment: What works? Journal of International Development, 28(3), 342-359.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14 (3): 575–599. doi: 10.2307/3178066
Harding, S. (1986). The instability of the analytical categories of feminist theory. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 11(4), 645-664.
Kofman, E., & Raghuram, P. (2015). Gendered migrations and global social reproduction. Springer.
Miri, A. (2022). Working “With” or “On” Moroccan Migrant Mothers: Mediating “Structure versus Agency” in the Analysis of Marriage Migration, Gender and Integration. Afrika Focus, 35(1), 173-181.
Syed, J. (2010). Reconstructing gender empowerment. Women's Studies International Forum 33(3), 283-294
Yuval-Davis, N. (2015). Situated intersectionality and social inequality. Raisons politiques, (2), 91-100.