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Empower to protect

“we know our rights and that makes the men less powerful”

Empowering women and girls, while it may not directly address VAWG, can have a protective effect and can certainly be useful in rehabilitation and support programmes.

Empowerment programmes are essential to creating meaningful, lasting change whereby women are given control and choice, the freedom to exercise agency, and to be decision-makers over their own lives. The VAWG movement at times has been criticised as not taking an empowering approach:

“feminist writers have rightfully critiqued the VAW mandate arguing that exclusive reliance on violence in claiming rights casts women as victims who must be rescued, prompting responses that may be imperialist, protectionist, or charity-based. They argue that the responses are not concerned with the complex analysis of power and materiality that underlie subjugation and dominance, nor are they grounded in recognition of women’s human rights. Rather, the responses and remedies reinforce stereotypes, often that of the disempowered and brutalised Third World woman as the authentic victim” [1].

Taking an empowerment approach recognises women as victim/survivors not because of their inherent vulnerabilities, but because of a male-oriented society and patriarchal hierarchy that allows power imbalances to manifest themselves in acts of physical violence.

The WHO provides an excellent definition of just what we mean when we say empowerment:

“Empowerment is an approach that helps individuals and communities to identify their own problems and to develop, through participatory methods, the resources, skills, and confidence needed to address them. This approach emphasizes the role of individuals and communities as agents of change and prioritizes community ownership and leadership of the entire process” [2].
Addressing the root causes of VAWG by empowering women and girls is essential. Empowerment approaches not only give women and girls confidence and agency, but also access to resources and justice. These programmes aim to empower women to protect themselves and seek redress should they experience violence. Although this solution is not primary prevention, empowerment does act as secondary prevention and is critical for victim/survivors to overcome their experiences.

Notably, studies have also shown that women who find violence acceptable are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. Time and time again, we see that attitudes lead to violence, and attitudes can be changed through education and empowerment solutions.

School support groups and women’s collectives are two excellent solutions which underscore how powerful empowerment can be. When girls and women come together to support each other and to join their voices together, suddenly power balances shift. No longer is it so easy and acceptable for perpetrators to continue to exert control through violence. Such a simple and inexpensive solution, with such effective outcomes.

Another notable example of an empowerment-based solution is microfinance with gender equality training. As a case study for an effective solution, this is quite interesting. Some microcredit programmes that do not have education components or address community wide issues of inequality can lead to increases in intimate partner violence. The theory is that men begin to feel less in control and even emasculated by the newfound economic freedom from the women. This causes discord and can lead to violence. However, microcredit programmes which involve education and awareness raising components have been shown to relate to decreases in intimate partner violence.

1. United Nations Human Rights Council Report: ‘Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, Including The Right to Development’ 2009, para 89.

2. WHO Report ‘Preventing Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence against Women’  2010, p.47

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