The term empowerment refers to measures designed to increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in people and in communities in order to enable them to represent their interests in a responsible and self-determined way, acting on their own authority. Empowerment as action refers both to the process of self-empowerment and to professional support of people, which enables them to overcome their sense of powerlessness and lack of influence, and to recognize and use their resources.

The term empowerment originates from American community psychology and is associated with the social scientist Julian Rappaport (1981). However, the roots of empowerment theory extend further into history and are linked to Marxist sociological theory. These sociological ideas have continued to be developed and refined through Neo-Marxist Theory (also known as Critical Theory). 

In social work, empowerment forms a practical approach of resource-oriented intervention. In the field of citizenship education and democratic education, empowerment is seen as a tool to increase the responsibility of the citizen. Empowerment is a key concept in the discourse on promoting civic engagement. Empowerment as a concept, which is characterized by a move away from a deficit-oriented towards a more strength-oriented perception, can increasingly be found in management concepts, as well as in the areas of continuing education and self-help.

The term empowerment has different meanings in different sociocultural and political contexts, and does not translate easily into all languages. An exploration of local terms associated with empowerment around the world always leads to lively discussion. These terms include self-strength, control, self-power, self-reliance, own choice, life of dignity in accordance with one’s values, capable of fighting for one’s rights, independence, own decision making, being free, awakening, and capability—to mention only a few. These definitions are embedded in local value and belief systems
Empowerment is of intrinsic value; it also has instrumental value. Empowerment is relevant at the individual and collective level, and can be economic, social, or political. The term can be used to characterize relations within households or between poor people and other actors at the global level. There are important gender differences in the causes, forms, and consequences of empowerment or dis-empowerment. Hence, there are obviously many possible definitions of empowerment, including rights-based definitions

In its broadest sense, empowerment is the expansion of freedom of choice and action. It means increasing one’s authority and control over the resources and decisions that affect one’s life. As people exercise real choice, they gain increased control over their lives. Poor people’s choices are extremely limited, both by their lack of assets and by their powerlessness to negotiate better terms for themselves with a range of institutions, both formal and informal. Since powerlessness is embedded in the nature of institutional relations, in the context of poverty reduction an institutional definition of empowerment is appropriate.

Empowerment is a construct shared by many disciplines and arenas: community development, psychology, education, economics, studies of social movements and organizations. Recent literature reviews of articles indicating a focus on empowerment, across several scholarly and practical disciplines, has demonstrated that there is no clear definition of the concept. Zimmerman (1984) has stated that asserting a single definition of empowerment may make attempts to achieve it formulaic or prescription-like, contradicting the very concept of empowerment. However, for health promotion practitioners, making empowerment operational in health promotion contexts is a crucial issue.

Empowerment, in its most general sense, refers to the ability of people to gain understanding and control over personal, social, economic and political forces in order to take action to improve their life situations (Israel et al., 1994). It is the process by which individuals and communities are enabled to take power and act effectively in gaining greater control, efficacy, and social justice in changing their lives and their environment (Solomon, 1976; Rappaport, 1981, 1985; Minkler, 1992; Fawcett et al., 1994; Israel et al., 1994). Central to empowerment process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organizational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets. 

According to Rappaport empowerment is a construct that links individual strengths and competencies, natural helping systems, and proactive behaviors to social policy and social change (Rappaport, 1981, 1984). He has noted that it is easy to define empowerment by its absence but difficult to define it in action as it takes on different forms in different people and contexts.

Czuba (1999) suggest that three components of empowerment definition are basic to any understanding of the concept: empowerment is multi-dimensional, social, and a process. It is multi-dimensional in that it occurs within sociological, psychological, economic, and other dimensions. Empowerment also occurs at various levels, such as individual, group, and community. Empowerment is a social process, since it occurs in relationship to others, and it is a process along the continuum. Other aspects of empowerment may vary according to the specific context and people involved, but these three remain constant. How empowerment is understood also arise among perspectives and context.

The idea of “power” is at the root of the term empowerment. Power can be understood as operating in a number of different ways:
1. Power over: This power involves an either/or relationship of domination/subordination. Ultimately, it is based on socially sanctioned threats of violence and intimidation, it requires constant vigilance to maintain, and it invites active and passive resistance;
2.     Power to: This power relates to having decision-making authority, power to solve problems and can be creative and enabling;
3.     Power with: This power involves people organising with a common purpose or common understanding to achieve collective goals;
4.  Power within: This power refers to self confidence, self awareness and assertiveness. It relates to how can individuals can recognise through analysing their experience how power operates in their lives, and gain the confidence to act to influence and change this. (Williams et al, 1994).

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