Editor’s Note: Why We’re Breaking up With “Empowerment”

by Karen Sommer Shalett, Editor-in-Chief, Impact Magazine @ksommershalett

I set a day’s worth of bottles by the daycare sink before kissing my 11-month-old on the head and handing him to Princess, his caregiver. Princess’ eyes glided over me, and she smiled. “You’re pregnant!”

I laughed and said, “Nope. This guy is turning one next week and his brother is turning three. My hands are full and my wallet is already empty.”

I walked out of the daycare center. I opened the car door and noticed a form from my last gynecologist appointment still on the dashboard. I grabbed it and started sweating. My last period had been eight weeks before. Princess was right, and I needed to do something quickly. I told my husband I wanted to protect the future for our two children: I wanted to get an abortion.

My husband could have stood in my way. So, too, could society, religion or the law, but no one could “empower” me. No one could give me power to make my choice. I had to take it.

I’m extremely privileged — white, Western and married to a husband who was indeed supportive — but I still feel it when someone means to empower me. It means that the power is theirs to give, and they are doing me a favor.

I don’t need someone else to give me power. But I do need the obstacles removed from my path. That’s the role that the legal system, societal norms and market pressures can play, as well as organizations like ours.

PSI’s strategy demands that our consumer has power in her hands and that we work to build markets so she can make the choices she desires for her life. That’s our Consumer-Powered Healthcare agenda. This Women Deliver, PSI is breaking up with the word empowerment.

It’s controversial. Certainly, anyone who offers to empower women does so with the best intentions. But language matters. This word is an outdated construct, perhaps particularly in the development community; “to empower” can sound neo-colonial and condescending. It represents us, those with means, giving power to you, those with none.

In this issue of Impact magazine, created in partnership with Women Deliver, you’ll read about the self-care movement, why it’s picking up steam and how to make sure that the right supports are in place for girls and women to self-administer the care they need. It’s an exciting time as the World Health Organization and donors like the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation invest in ways to enable consumers, particularly girls and women, to use drugs, diagnostics, devices and digital modalities to test themselves for HIV, inject their own contraception, administer their own medication abortions or track their cycle and its own uniqueness month over month using an app.

If I had access to a form of self-care, such as medication abortion, when I discovered my own unwanted pregnancy it would have allowed me to keep my choice solely in my hands. Instead, I tried to make an appointment for an abortion with my doctor. She told me no. She referred me to Planned Parenthood, where I learned my evening appointment would be 40 miles away from my home. Of course, all of that is a very small price to pay given the threats of violence and lack of access so many other women face in countries all over the globe, developing and otherwise.

Today, I tell my teenage children this story with pride, letting them know that protecting their future was the most important thing to me. It’s my goal and PSI’s to create the space for all women and girls to take hold of their power to protect their dreams.

This is my second time attending Women Deliver and PSI’s fourth. Our 65-person delegation hails from nearly 15 countries and is incredibly excited to learn from all of you. We look forward to working with you to create spaces for every girl and woman to exercise the #PowerInHerHands.


This article appears in PSI’s Impact magazine, released in tandem with Women Deliver 2019, as part of an ongoing conversation about putting #PowerInHerHands.

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