Using qualitative methods to understand the local meaning of women’s empowerment in Ethiopia

This blog was written by Dr. Susan Kaaria, Senior Gender Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy. Susan is member of the Gender, Agriculture, and Assets Project Phase 2 (GAAP2) External Advisory Committee, and works on one of the projects in the GAAP2 portfolio, the UN Joint Programme on accelerating progress towards the economic empowerment of rural women in Ethiopia (JP-RWEE). Susan and her team have also written an extended research note on their qualitative work in Ethiopia, available here.


Photo source: Likimyelesh Nigussie/IWMI

Photo source: Likimyelesh Nigussie/IWMI

In the Oromia Regional State of Ethiopia, rural women and men define an empowered person as one who has knowledge, can meet their socially constructed roles, has income-generating activities, and can use improved agricultural technology. Equally important dimensions of an empowered woman include good conduct, acceptance within the community, ability to participate in community issues, and ability to use family planning.

These are some of the findings of a study that assessed how the strategies and interventions of the UNJP RWEE Programme have contributed to the empowerment of rural women in the Adami Tulu and Yaya Gulele districts of Ethiopia. The programme accelerates economic empowerment by enhancing women’s access to both financial and non-financial services.

To capture the impact of the programme’s intervention on rural women’s lives, it was important to understand how women and men alike define empowerment, and what outcomes are derived from being empowered.

Why do qualitative research?

Because the definition of empowerment is highly context specific, we realized that a survey-based quantitative measurement would not adequately capture the nuances of the concept. Therefore, we used qualitative tools, including focus groups and in-depth interviews with women and men who were locally identified as empowered and disempowered, to elicit the local definition of empowerment and describe complex related aspects such as status, self-esteem, and individuals’ perceptions of empowerment.

What does ‘women’s empowerment’ mean in Ethiopia?

There is no equivalent word in the local language of Afan Oromo. However, the words “cimina” (meaning one who is strong or able) and “gahumsa” (meaning one who has capability or capacity) are closely related terms. These words represent the ideal characteristics of a woman/man in the community and reflect the society’s ideals of femininity and masculinity, where an empowered person is strong/able/capable, accepted, and respectable.

The ability to meet one’s prescribed social roles was an important dimension of empowerment. For men, this means meeting family members’ needs for food, clothing, shoes, education, and medication. For women, this means taking good care of the family through proper feeding, sending children to school, and maintaining hygiene and cleanliness in and out of the home.

Participating in income generating activities was another important dimension of empowerment. For men, income generating activities included crop production, cattle fattening, and wage employment. For women, these comprised selling local alcoholic drinks, vegetables, handcrafts, poultry and dairy products, and petty trade.

Having knowledge was also empowering for both men and women. The UNJP RWEE programme builds capacity of women to participate in different livelihood activities and effectively manage their financial resources, and enhances their knowledge of sanitation, hygiene, and women’s rights. As a result, women said they are in a better position to make informed choices, helping to boost their self-worth and confidence.

Participation in community issues is an exceptionally empowering aspect because it increases a women’s awareness about her rights and potential. A woman who shows ability in community leadership is empowered, whereas a woman who does not have the ability to lead the community and is too shy to speak during community meetings is disempowered.

I am a woman who can explain her ideas clearly. I am not educated but I am knowledgeable. I have good position in the community, because of my knowledge. An empowered woman is she who has a good behaviour, uses credit properly, is knowledgeable, shares her knowledge and contributes to the community. I am also empowered because I am able to participate in farming of crops and vegetables, educate my children and speak at community meeting, as I am a UNJP RWEE beneficiary.

A 40-year-old empowered woman

What can we conclude?

  • It is important to consider social and cultural aspects in defining empowerment. Empowerment is not only about the ‘ability to decide’ or ‘make a choice’; it is also about a person’s conduct, respect, and trustworthiness in both the household and the community. It also includes the ability to have a voice, engage in decision-making on valuable assets and resources, and influence decisions.
  • Empowerment has many intangible dimensions, which are best understood and disentangled using qualitative methods.
  • Empowerment is also subject to various local meanings and conceptualizations that are difficult to measure and quantify, such as good conduct, patience, and thinking about one’s family, among others.