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A process that gives an individual or a group the authority, capability or power to accomplish something. The objective of empowerment is to make people stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

The World Bank has defined "empowerment” as:

"The process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Central to this process are actions [that] both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context [that] govern the use of these assets.”[1]

This definition is good; however, it neglects the process and objective of accessing rights, which is a critical component to empowerment in practice.

In 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that "empowerment” has two aspects that include (1) focus on rights holders and (2) equipping those who are responsible for implementing human rights (local authorities, government, etc.) with the necessary tools to do so.[2]

Empowerment as a strategy and outcome of programming is often aimed at marginalized or vulnerable groups such as women, rural and urban poor, and indigenous persons, who often find more challenges in accessing and asserting their rights. UN WOMEN has developed seven principles for women’s empowerment in business, which indicate how the idea of "empowerment” can be operationalized for a specific goal. These principles are:

  1. Leadership promotes gender equality;
  1. Equal opportunity, inclusion and nondiscrimination;
  2. Health, safety and freedom from violence;
  3. Education and training;
  4. Enterprise development;
  5. Community leadership and engagement;
  6. Transparency, measuring and reporting.[3]

Empowerment has several synonyms, including enabling, capacity building and capacitization, when applied in a remedial sense of transforming powerless into the ability to control or influence events and developments, and involving claims to rights. This relates closely to the work of Amartya Sen, which emphasizes synonymous "capabilities” as the repertoire of skills and power needed to transform a situation and develop through the exercise of rights and freedoms (Development as Freedom). Pedagogue Pãolo Freire pioneered an approach to education that leads to empowerment to exercise agency to transform a situation for the better. In the habitat domain, concepts of empowerment are identified with John F.C. Turner’s concept of Freedom to Build, with all the capabilities that building a homes and community implies.

In the domain of housing and land rights, "empowerment” is a theory or an approach whereby persons or communities become agents in the realization of their own adequate housing, in all aspects of material and procedural rights. This often entails supporting communities in social production and effective participation in development and asserting rights vis-à-vis government authorities and other development actors.

[1] Institute of Medicine, Empowering Women and Strengthening Health Systems and Services Through Investing in Nursing and Midwifery Enterprise: Lessons from Lower-Income Countries, Workshop Summary (Washington: The National Academies Press., 2015), at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK305429/#.

[2] In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, Report of the Secretary-General, A/59/2005, at: https://undocs.org/A/59/2005

[3] UN WOMEN, The Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), at: http://www.weprinciples.org/Site/.

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