Repository logo

Empowerment As Lived Experience: A Social Psychological Study of Empowerment Among Indian Women in a Development Context



Change log


Atal, Saloni 


The empowerment of women has become one of the cornerstones of contemporary development discourse. However, the frequency with which commitments to empowering women have been stated in international development policies and agendas has not been matched by adequate social psychological theorisation. As a concept, “women’s empowerment” remains vague and unspecified, with as many definitions as there are actors and political agendas. Current perspectives on power and empowerment in the scholarly literature tend to focus on the agency of individuals and on structural change, to the exclusion of a social psychological level of analysis. This dissertation is my response to calls for bringing the “power” back into empowerment through research that is situated in women’s empowerment. Drawing on the theory of social representations, I analyse the meaning of empowerment to women participating as teachers in a community education project in India. My analysis takes shape through a multi-method qualitative case study of the project, consisting of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with 90 women, interviews with 17 project staff and participant observation of programme activities. These accounts are woven together to answer the principal research question: What is women’s empowerment as lived experience?

I show that the project context introduces women to a new representational field of gender, characterised by positive and affirming representations of women that contrast representations held within their communities of origin. Empowerment is described by women as the process by which they re-construct their identities against this enabling representational canvas, resisting, contesting and transforming representations that marginalise, Other and subordinate women to men. My analysis reveals how social representations constrain and limit the lives of women at a micro-level, but equally, hold the potential to expand their conditions of possibility. In conclusion, I suggest that empowering women requires more than individually focussed and materially-based solutions offered by development agencies, and greater engagement with non-material, social psychological dimensions of power. As one of the few studies rooted in the lived experiences of women in low-income contexts, my research in this thesis advances theoretically innovative and actionable knowledge on women’s empowerment.





Duschinsky, Robbie
Foster, Juliet


gender, gende and development, women empowerment, South Asia, India, international development, NGO


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Scholarship