Tripathi, Tulika (1); Mishra, Nripendra Kishore (2) (2017). 'Fuzziness in Conceptualisation and Measurement of Empowerment: Reflections from NFHS-3, India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Empowerment is instrumentally important for achieving positive development outcomes and well-being of life which lies in the doing and being what one values and have reason to value, i.e. agency. Sen made a strong claim for increasing the agency of the individual to enable them to be an effective agent of their own well-being and development. The concept of empowerment is very complex in itself, indeed very fuzzy also. Different scholars hold different definition of empowerment according to the need of their work. Women’s empowerment is widely used idea in development literature and capability approach. But there exists substantial ambiguity in conception of these ideas. While women’s well-being and women’s agency is sufficiently distinguished from each other, there seems to be a large overlap between agency and empowerment and between autonomy and empowerment. The present paper is divided into two parts. The first part of the paper examines various conceptions of these ideas to clearly mark the overlapping zones and distinguishing features of respective concepts. The second part of the paper carries out empirical testing of indicators of access to resources and autonomy for major 15 states of India and shows that access to resources and autonomy are not necessarily coterminous as used in case of measuring empowerment.It is shown that operationalisation of these concepts in empirical research covering all states of India is quite difficult and given the limitation of data sources only some dimensions of empowerment can be empirically tested at all India level.

This paper uses NFHS-3 data set to do so. Using variables of empowerment and autonomy from NFHS-3 we attempt to observe its percentage incidence across fifteen major states of India. Since there are multiple indicators of both terms, we further indexed them to get one value for each state. To make the comparison and mapping of empowerment in Indian states, we use the technique of Displaced Ideal (Nathan et al. 2008), which is the inverse of the Euclidian distance from the ideal. The DI method is based on the concept that the better system should have less distance from ideal. In a three- dimensional space, the ideal ‘1’ denotes full attainment on all the three dimensions. Under the DI technique, the complementarities in different dimensions are captured so that lacking in one dimension cannot be compensated by the higher value attained in another dimension unlike in the linear average technique of HDI. 

In the earlier work on empowerment, agency and autonomy, these concepts have been treated as coterminous or have been used interchangeably, broadly including the ability to make authentic choices and to have resources to exercise these choices. Our study shows that, they can substantially diverge from each other and one may not necessarily reflect the other. For instance, women in south India have a high index of accessibility to resources, but lower level of autonomy. The paradox inverts itself in Assam and Haryana, where enhanced levels of autonomy are enjoyed by women despite their poor access to resources. These findings suggest that aggregate level analysis is problematic and there are grey areas in conceptualisation and operationalisation of these concepts in empirical research. This highlights the need for identification of sources of change occurring in Indian society to clearly understand empowerment and autonomy. It also shows that empowerment and autonomy are not proxy of each other, rather sufficiently different. Only half of Indian women fall into category of empowered, later defined in terms of having higher education, exposure to mass media, decent job and freedom of movement. Still, a large part of them do not have sufficient autonomy regarding the valued choices for their own life, given that autonomy stands for ability to make decisions in accordance with one’s authentic interests or integrated values. The selected indicators of autonomy and access to resources reflect a very contrasting pattern across the various regions and states of India. 

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