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What is an ‘empowering education’ if women’s empowerment is conceptualised from a capabilities-informed African-feminist perspective?

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


A 2005 report by the Department for International Development opens with the following quote from an Ethiopian schoolgirl: ‘To be educated means… I will not only be able to help myself but also my family, my country, my people. The benefits will be many’. Such quotes sell the notion that education is both intrinsically and instrumentally good, is life-changing, has direct returns, and empowers (Nussbaum, 2004). They also capture common ideas advanced by international development agencies in promoting initiatives to meet global education targets. An educated woman is assumed to be an empowered woman. However, some studies report fear and antagonizing of the ‘over-educated’ woman (e.g. Kamau, 1996; Montique, 2017). Such is the case in Cameroon, where the Pidgin-English phrase ‘too much book’ is often used to capture the notion of being over-educated, particularly with regard to women. While enrolment figures show that basic education is valued for both men and women in most of the country, Cameroonian women soon thereafter meet with an invisible line that suggests that they have had ‘enough’ education. This line typically falls at the end of a woman’s first tertiary qualification. A woman’s education is seen as acceptable and adding value up to graduate level, at which point furthering their higher education succumbs to a law of diminishing returns. The notion of ‘too much book’ suggests that a woman with ‘too much’ education is a threat to men and society (Atanga, Ellece, Litosseliti, & Sunderland, 2013:10). This notion can also deflate education’s role in reducing inequalities (as per SDGs 4 & 10).

Evidence of the potential of education in general, and higher education particularly, to enable women’s empowerment is found in much scholarly work on international education and the wide array of development reports. Many of these studies (see Bhatti, 2013; Spark, 2011, Mejuini, 2013; Malik and Courtney, 2011; Walker, 2018; Kinge, 2014; Adelabu and Adepoju, 2007; Fonkeng and Ntembe, 2009) have associated women’s attainment of higher education with: increased awareness, confidence, personal growth, consciousness of gender inequality, greater employability and higher socio-economic status, a willingness to take matters to court in order to defend their rights, as well as an expansion of civic engagement and aspirations. All considered as characteristics of ‘empowerment’. Nonetheless, a review of literature on women’s empowerment through higher education underscores some reservation- that empowerment through higher education is not always tangible, and that it is dependent on the quality of education but cannot be guaranteed for all women, and can often have adverse effects for them (e.g. Assie-Lumumba, 2006; Mejuinin, 2013; Sparks, 2011; Kwachou, 2015). Seen from this point of view, the assumption of women’s empowerment through higher education can be problematic, generating at least two difficulties - it promotes the limitation of young women’s aspirations, and presents an incomplete informational basis for government (and public) judgement of higher education outcomes for women.

Moreover, research on the empowerment of women presents a varied collection of definitions of empowerment. In their 2007 work, Ibrahim and Alkire tabulated thirty scholarly definitions of empowerment from diverse fields of study. Focusing on research encompassing empowerment, gender and education, Monkman (2011) equally presents a variety of approaches to understanding empowerment ranging from Stromquist’s (2002) four-part model of empowerment, to the Capabilities Approach’s (CA) framing of empowerment which, though criticised, is hailed for considering the particularities of individual lives and life contexts, pluralism of values and priorities and diverse conditions within which people live. (Monkman, 2011 p. 7-8). Nevertheless, despite neither a universal definition nor understanding of empowerment, there is agreement on the importance of how empowerment is conceptualized in assessing how it might be enabled. A bid to investigate the socio-cultural fear of the “over-educated” woman and the notion of ‘too much book’ in Cameroon must therefore begin with the conceptualization and operationalization of empowerment from the view of Cameroonian women themselves, followed by assessing the potential of higher education received at public institutions in Cameroon to contribute to the effective opportunities these women have reason to value.

This presentation stems from a broader study entitled “Too much book: a capabilities and African-feminist based investigation of Cameroonian women’s empowerment through higher education” and seeks to develop a unique construction of an African-feminist application of the CA to explore what empowerment means for Cameroonian women and to answer the question: ‘Can higher education provide Cameroonian women with the necessary capabilities to consider themselves empowered and be considered empowered?’ To effect this re-conceptualization of empowerment, this study proposes to marry the principles embedded in African-feminist theory with those of the CA, critiquing both within the framework of decoloniality and developing a new theoretical application- drawing from Robeyns’ (2017) modular framework. This new application will be further extended via adaptation of Rowland’s (1997) categorisation of power, and the capabilities and empowerment framework presented by Murphy-Graham and Lloyd (2016). The idea is to conceptually interrogate power deficits and understand what empowering education entails.

By questioning the very conceptualisation of one assumed outcome of higher learning- empowerment - this presentation encourages us to take a new look at what is valued prior to proclaiming its delivery. Employing the CA (which postulates that what matters in assessment of well-being lies in what one is able to be and do) in dialogue with African-feminist theory (which argues that African women have diverse needs and unique forms of oppression linked to their colonial history, multicultural lived experiences etc.) this reworked conceptualisation has the potential to yield original and nuanced results. Through the simultaneous application of an African-feminist framework and the CA (which has been predominantly engendered using mainstream western feminist thought), this unique theorization will contribute considerably to developing nuanced understandings of what it means to be empowered through higher education, thus enriching international literature in this field, whilst also widening the informational basis from which to draw for public perception and higher education policy on women’s empowerment.


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