My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

Maya Angelou

Empowerment is a word that we may see European and American donors and funders use when they give money to youth clubs in Africa. It is a buzzword in international development, especially when talking about women and girls. And in African youth work we find that it can be contentious – some people like it, others aren’t sure about what it means, and others see it as a ‘Western’ idea. But what does it mean?

Whilst academics and policy-makers may have many definitions of empowerment, none is universally agreed upon. We believe that it means “giving women and girls the tools to make informed decisions about their futures and to act upon them”. It means making them aware that they have rights and can claim them. It recognises that they have the right to make their own choices.

Importantly, especially in our African context, it represents the move from an attitude where vulnerable or marginalised people are seen as being in need of ‘rescue’ to giving those in need the opportunity to access the services they need and helping them to regain control of their lives.

Empowerment means seeing each girl or young woman we work with – or work alongside – as a person, and our equal. It recognises that those in need, who may be in great need of our support, are still experts in their own contexts. Our role is not to show them how to do things, but to work with them to better understand their challenges and identify solutions. It doesn’t mean imposing ideas on them but helping each woman and girl to know herself and to thrive.

Critically, we must make sure that this idea of ‘empowerment’ isn’t seen as ‘enough’ for women. Women can only act upon their decisions, and achieve their dreams, if those around them, the laws that govern them, and the services available to them, act fairly, and recognise their rights. 

Finally, true empowerment means that young women – and all citizens – are aware of their responsibilities towards others and the resources they share. In learning that we have rights we are empowered to defend the rights of others, to be of service to others, and to know how we can work, individually and collectively, towards creating a more just society. 

Good youth work should give young women the chance to become agents of change in their own lives, as well as in their families and communities.

Reflection Questions

  1. What does ‘empowerment’ mean to you? How do you explain the value of your work with women and girls to other people?
  2. How do you encourage young people to think critically and constructively about the social norms around them? Can you think of an example?
  3. What has worked or not worked? What were the risks and achievements?

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