• Ying-Yu, Chen (Alicia)

When Empowered Women Return Home: The Overlooked Risks of Women's Empowerment



On the way to a Cambodian woman’s house in a village of the Siem Reap Province, Cambodia.


“How are you?“

“I am not good, thank you.“


Since Ama (name changed) has been struggling with problems at work and with her husband, this is always her answer to my daily greeting. 


Ama is a mother of two, working as a full-time social worker in Cambodia, to empower young women in the villages who are often left behind. She is one of the most independent, brave, and intelligent women I have ever met in my life. 


As a woman who has been empowering the other young indigenous women through series of training for years, heartbreakingly, she can barely use her knowledge and skills to solve her own family’s issues. Instead, more tensions have emerged, even domestic violence frequently occurring in her personal relationship. 


The power dynamics in her family triggered the conflicts and risks of women empowerment. Access to higher-level education and gaining more income than her husband gave her power over her husband. Her husband responded with even more oppression due to her growing sense of empowerment.


"I am very different between who I am at my workplace and at home...... what my husband want me to do is just to obey his rule." The absolute order in her family contradicts her role outside her home, resulting in more conflicts and mental health problems she has been facing. As an individual, the empowerment process helped her build the ‘power within,’ but simultaneously oppressed her expressions in the private realm. 


Personally, her case shocked me after I understood the dominant patriarchal system, but also knowing that this kind of situation has been seen in many regions and societies. Women’s empowerment is already seen as an overused term in the development field. Undoubtedly, it plays a fundamental role in the change of the betterment for women’s lives. However, the risks of the empowerment process need to be equally taken into account, to deeply understand the multiple layers of power relations and the subtle contradictions in different contexts.


Throughout modern society, it has become more socially acceptable for women to work outside their household, but the domestic burdens are still primarily or solely women’s responsibility. Unbalanced gender ordination and burden distribution in both paid work and housework force women to take a ‘double or triple shift,’ which adds to their burden. 

Those women appear to have different levels of empowerment in public and private life, and the lack of conversation about gender roles and housework redistribution might put ‘empowered women’ in deplorable situations. To a wider extent, while keeping up with the demands and image of her public duties, a woman with a relatively higher position or reputation in society may accept a subordinate role in her family, ormayevensuffer domestic abuse in her relationship.


Women’s empowerment at the household level is still far from its improvements in the workplace. These contradictory roles of power and powerlessness for a woman increase her challenge in the intimate realm, which may cause some of them to withdraw from the empowerment process or give into their inferior position in society. 


Ironically, men are usually missing in the discussion on women’s empowerment, despite being partially involved in this system. Without the understanding of gender equality in both public and at home (but not the only two) from the male part, the empowerment process may always be stuck. Therefore, I argue the necessity of ‘men-women empowerment’ could gradually help society foster ender sensitivity and to reform the gender structure in different realms of life at large.  


“empowerment is really like a dance, with eye contact with a partner, a family, and a whole society. It’s not linear, not predictable, neither the sole responsibility for a single person; it’s in pairs, taking steps forward and back together.”  In this sense, how come we only train women to dance?

Additionally, intersectionality should be taken into account. In our fast-changing society, the reliance on a dual system is not sufficient to deal with the complex fabric of gender equality. We should also consider other factors, such as class, race, religion, culture, and ethics, to name but a few, through the gender lens, to better understand their multiple roles among different individuals.


I am not here to downplay the importance of women’s empowerment. Rather, I agree that empirical approaches of empowerment could make a change if they fit the local needs and take multiple actors into account. I really like the expression that VeneKlasen and Miller use: “empowerment is really like a dance, with eye contact with a partner, a family, and a whole society. It’s not linear, not predictable, neither the sole responsibility for a single person; it’s in pairs, taking steps forward and back together.”  


In this sense, how come we only train women to dance?


#womenempowerment #gender #Cambodia #menempowerment


This article is also published on the Developing Perspectives: https://goo.gl/6x98jw