Security and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Findings from a Thematic Synthesis of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research

45 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2012

See all articles by Naomi Hossain

Naomi Hossain

University of Sussex, Institute of Development Studies

Date Written: 2011


While security and women’s empowerment are both prominent development concerns, there has to date been little sustained analysis of the relationship between the two. An unexamined assumption appears to be that insecurity – violence and rights abuses – prevent women from gaining power over their lives through full social, economic or political participation. But how and how much does insecurity structure women’s agency? In which domains and contexts are these insecurities prominent? And what are the policy and practical implications of the relationship between women’s security and processes of empowerment in contemporary developing countries?

This paper reports on an effort to derive lessons about how security and insecurity shape processes of women’s empowerment in developing countries through a thematic synthesis of a collection of research outputs from a five year programme of research on the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment. The programme covered four broad thematic areas: voice (political mobilisation), paid work, body (or changing narratives of sexuality) and concepts of empowerment. Some 115 outputs, including both conceptual and empirical work, were included in the review. The synthesis is not a systematic review (it did not review work outside the Pathways collection nor select papers according to quality or other criteria) but drew on thematic synthesis methodologies as used in the systematic reviews of qualitative data.

The Pathways research was not focused on the issue of security, as the research consortium members had early on concluded that a focus on violence lent itself to victim narratives, which were inconsistent with its feminist approach to women’s agency and power. However, as the research proceeded, security and insecurity issues recurred as issues, and the present synthesis was designed to extract interpretive and empirical findings about how security and insecurity shape processes of empowerment. The findings of the synthesis were ultimately grouped into three categories: findings about 1) how security features within the meaning and conceptualisation of empowerment in this collection, covering the issue of victim narratives in conceptions of empowerment and insecurity and concepts of agency in which security is constitutive; 2) the different sources and forms taken by insecurity in the Pathways research contexts, including armed conflict and authoritarian rule, sanctioned forms of violence or insecurity, cultural constructions of gender and sexuality, and ‘everyday’ forms, including harassment, domestic violence, and fear; 3) responses to insecurity within the processes of empowerment, including opportunities for change in post-conflict and military regimes; violence as a locus for women’s mobilisation; and more individualised responses that enable women to negotiate and resist insecurity.

The paper arrives at two broad conclusions and three implications for policy and practice about how insecurity features on the pathways of women’s empowerment:

• Insecurity cross-cuts the pathways of women’s empowerment in developing countries. Insecurity in a range of forms, levels, and degrees of severity and varying across place and time indelibly shape the processes of women’s empowerment. Yet this does not mean that violence and rights abuses are absolute obstacles or that women cower before such threats: instead, it is a reminder of the core basic features of context, structure and power relations within which women’s lives are lived. Specifically, it is a reminder that empowerment is irreducibly multidimensional, and does not take place in economic and social settings which are insulated from conflict, domination, and the exercise of other forms of power. Some of the insecurities that shape empowerment are subtle and often ignored forms such as sexual harassment, gendered and sexuality norms, and control of women’s mobility.

• It is in opposing and resisting insecurity that some of the most powerful instances of women’s individual and collective agency are found. While women’s agency is shaped and constrained by belligerence and fear and by unlawful and sanctioned abuses of their rights, women (people) also become agents through such experiences. The Pathways collection highlights the individual resistance and collective contestation that violence and abuses have evoked, signalling these struggles as important political apprenticeships for the women’s movement in many developing countries. Instead of these structural insecurities, fears, aggression and abuses preventing women’s empowerment, it is often precisely the abrogation of ‘entry-level rights’ to bodily integrity that triggers empowering forms of mobilisation, and around which women’s political agency and organisation is built.

Policy and practice implications

• ‘Securitising’ women’s empowerment: More effective policymaking and interventions around women’s and girls’ empowerment should be attuned to how the sources of insecurity in the particular context shape women’s prospects for personal, social, political and economic empowerment. This is partly a matter of being better equipped to operationalise the multi-dimensional nature of women’s empowerment within interventions. Approaches to gender in relation to security, fragility and peace-building could also be sensitive both to how insecurity constrains women’s economic, social and political power, and to the opportunities for them to gain power that may arise in post-conflict societies where norms and policies sometimes become more open to favourable shifts in power. • Measuring empowerment. If processes of women’s empowerment are cross-cut by violence and abuses and galvanised by efforts to negotiate and resist them, efforts to accurately track or measure empowerment should take this into account. This has implications for development results measurement, for instance to understand better how violence and empowerment interact along the pathways of change, to ensure indicators are fit for purpose. For example, gains in women’s empowerment are not always matched by decreases in the prevalence of violence against women: a better indicator of women’s empowerment may be a measure of the extent to which women can resist, report or mobilisation against violence, rather than of its prevalence.

• Investing in empowering responses to insecurity. The focus on resistance and mobilisation against violence and abuses demonstrated the scope for responses to insecurity that individually and collectively empower, and which institutionalise official accountability towards women’s concerns. This suggests investments in the police and justice sectors (formal and non-formal) could successfully integrate a women’s empowerment approach, not by burdening women with uncompensated participation in accountability activities but focusing on the provision of security in sectors that matter to women’s empowerment: safety at work (e.g. in petty trading, vending, domestic or sex work); tackling sexual harassment in public spaces and institutions (e.g., schools and colleges, government offices); and protecting women’s rights to participate in politics without fear of violence.

Keywords: women's empowerment, human security, violence against women, conflict, gender equality

Suggested Citation

Hossain, Naomi, Security and the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Findings from a Thematic Synthesis of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research (2011). Available at SSRN: or

Naomi Hossain (Contact Author)

University of Sussex, Institute of Development Studies ( email )

Falmer, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 9RE
United Kingdom

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