Electronic Journal of Polish Agricultural Universities (EJPAU) founded by all Polish Agriculture Universities presents original papers and review articles relevant to all aspects of agricultural sciences. It is target for persons working both in science and industry,regulatory agencies or teaching in agricultural sector. Covered by IFIS Publishing (Food Science and Technology Abstracts), ELSEVIER Science - Food Science and Technology Program, CAS USA (Chemical Abstracts), CABI Publishing UK and ALPSP (Association of Learned and Professional Society Publisher - full membership). Presented in the Master List of Thomson ISI.
Volume 8
Issue 3
Available Online: http://www.ejpau.media.pl/volume8/issue3/art-30.html


Sabine de Rooij
Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands



Basically, women’s empowerment is the process (and its outcomes) in which women – individually and collectively- become active, knowledgeable and goal-oriented actors who take and/ or support initiatives to overcoming gender inequalities. Hence, women’s empowerment refers to a strategy to achieve gender equality as well as to the inherent capacity building processes. Institutional capacity aimed at women’s empowerment is not a clearly defined concept. Yet, effective capacity building requires conceptual clarification and common understanding among institutional actors. Therefore the following questions need to be answered: what do I mean by institutional capacity? How can it be developed? More specifically, how can it contribute to rural women’s empowerment and gender equality?

Key words: gender, institutions, rural areas, women empowerment.


Basically, women’s empowerment is the process (and its outcomes) in which women – individually and collectively- become active, knowledgeable and goal-oriented actors who take and/ or support initiatives to overcoming gender inequalities. Hence, women’s empowerment refers to a strategy to achieve gender equality as well as to the inherent capacity building processes. The Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 proclaimed women’s empowerment, together with gender mainstreaming and partnership (involvement of both women and men) as the most effective approaches to eradicate ‘society-wide entrenched gender inequalities’ [9,24,38,36]. Particularly a multi-track strategy is considered having great potential to achieve gender equality [6,7]. For a comprehensive discussion of the concept see [1,14,31].

Institutional capacity aimed at women’s empowerment is not a clearly defined concept. Yet, effective capacity building requires conceptual clarification and common understanding among institutional actors. Therefore the following questions need to be answered: what do I mean by institutional capacity? How can it be developed? More specifically, how can it contribute to rural women’s empowerment and gender equality?

The concept of institutional capacity gains transparency by distinguishing institutions from organisations. This distinction is also of strategic significance. Up to now, many women’s empowerment capacity building efforts had a focus on the organisational aspect. But practice indicates that this approach is too limited to accomplish real transformation: this requires a change of ‘deep structures’ [30]. Institutional change thus emerges as constituent in the process of transforming gender inequality and -inequity into gender equality and -equity. Capacity building actors must be aware of and responsive to this.


Although repeatedly equated, ‘institutions’ and ‘organisations’ refer to different dimensions of social reality. Institutions are ‘systems of rules shaping behaviour, including the mechanisms for rural enforcement’.They are rooted in social interactions and emerge from agreements regarding norms, values and customs [4]. These ‘rules of the game’ “provide structure to everyday life, making certain forms of behaviour predictable and routine, institutionalising them” [9]. Written and unwritten rules that maintain power relations, including gender power relations, are part of institutions. Kabeer [14] emphasizes that institutional rules determine what is done, in what way, by whom (not), they specify the use of resources, determine who is responsible and who benefits, who set priorities and makes the rules. They further determine how value is assigned [28].

Organisation, on the other hand, refers to the material expressions institutions can take; to the forms that legitimate institutions (e.g. organisations, laws, policies, contracts, covenants). They are, so to speak, the sites where institutional rules are played out [29]. They might be either adequate or badly functioning expressions of institutions.

Agrarian policy for instance is an institution that reflects a basic institutional need to bring the agricultural sector in line with the wishes of society (e.g. cheap and safe food, clean environment, animal welfare). The Ministry of Agriculture is then the most important organisation which should deal with these institutional needs.

Looking at society in terms of ‘organisation’ means a focus on hierarchies of power and decision making, formal structures of command, procedures, divisions of domains and tasks or functions [45].

Organisation can include single organisations, systems of organisations or organisational arrangements cross-cutting different organisations. Institutions or institutional rules thus exist within single organisations or can be expressed through a range of interacting (mutually) strengthening or conflicting organisations.

From this it follows that the concept of ‘institutional capacity building’ is somewhat confusing. On the one hand, capacity building clearly refers to goal-oriented actions that aim to achieve clear goals. On the other hand, though, many institutions (understood as ‘rules of the game’) are hardly to change deliberately, let alone on the short run.


Effective capacity building recognises that institutions operate (or better: provide sets of rules) in different spheres of life (economic, political, social, cultural, legal, technological) and are mostly multi-level. They thus provide a multi-layered set of rules either enabling or constraining rural women’s spaces and room for manoeuvre. Potential successful women’s empowerment interventions must be performed at the different – interrelated- levels:

Finally, it must not be ignored that institutions mostly concern a multitude of actors. This makes building networks and forming strategic alliances, crucial elements of the institutional capacity building process [27]. Considering the range of actors (go’s, ngo’s, cbo’s), the networks need to be cross cutting the indicated levels in order to be effective and efficient.


The agricultural professional world as a representation of a system of organisations embraces the (supra) national, regional and local level and consists of a range of different organisations as ministries (e.g. Agriculture; Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment; Economic Affairs), various governmental and private agencies, private industries, banking and financial institutions, farmers’ unions, rural women’s organisations, farmers’ co-operatives and family farms. Each level and each separate organisation has its own institutional rules based on specific needs and interests. Effective sector institutional capacity that would support rural women’s empowerment would require a shared understanding and commitment to gender equality as well as the capacity to make this a guiding principle for all policies, programmes and activities for each organisational unit at the separate levels. So far, many obstacles stand in the way. An important hindrance is the male culture in the agricultural professional world for instance expressed by the dominant perception of a farmer being a male person and the male superiority in influential positions within organisational units at all levels. Similarly, a preference for a ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ vision on farm development (larger, more and latest technology) which is developed by mainstream research institutes and disseminated through the linked educational institutes and the agricultural professional press is a good demonstration. It results among others in a marginalisation of farming womern within the farm [32,34]. Other handicaps are among others, insufficient powerful and progressive opposition from farming women, the lack of strong rural women’s leadership, and the technical approach of agricultural and rural development issues. The latter is very well expressed by the organisational structure of the (Dutch) Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Departments are organised around technical issues such as clean and sufficient water, minerals and ammonia, healthy soil and air, space and quietness, organisational development, farm management and development, economy and structure, animal welfare, etc. The officials involved in the various policy fields have a strong focus on their own domain and often the (will to) link (it) to other policy fields is weak. In such a highly segmented structure, the link of gender equality with their field of expertise is unclear (what is the connection between manure policy and gender equality?) and it seems more obvious to create a separate structure for women’s issues. According to gender experts from within the agricultural professional world, a radical reorganisation of the Ministry itself and policy making that puts the people involved in farming and living in rural areas in the centre would make a gender equality policy easier to understand and to implement.


To effectively challenge institutional rules of organisational arrangements or organisations, it is necessary to continuously denounce and combat forms of social organisation that discriminate against (rural) women and “[t]o encourage the routinization of gender-equitable forms of social interactio[n]” [9].

Rao and Kelleher [29] identify three patterns as core obstacles to such gender-equitable forms: a) Cultural systems – in particular the gender division of labour and the separation between work and family need to be changed; b) Cognitive structures – the gender-biased definition of work need to be addressed c) Deficient accountability systems within organisations.

A main question is how to overcome these obstacles? How to accomplish transformation of deeply rooted patterns as for instance the gender division of labour which is relevant at different institutional levels and fields and involving various institutional actors? A wellknown strategy to reduce women’s care taking responsibilities within the family is the creation of affordable and nearby care facilities and associated services. On its own, this strategy cannot – as past experiences in Central and Eastern Europe has shown- accomplish real change. This would require more simultaneous interventions. One could think of the creation of part-time jobs for both women and men, of flexible working hours and decentralisation of industries and services. But structural (enduring) capacity asks for a change of the self-evident perception of care tasks as typical women’s tasks. Gender sensitive education (at home, in schools) and actively using the media to breaking gender stereotypes, are ways to reach this. Adjustment of state regulations concerning parental leave could also stimulate such a change. In Sweden, a father’s month requirement was introduced into the Parental Leave Act in 1995. The father must take at least 30 days of parental leave. If not, the parents lose their entitlement to parental allowance for that month (there is a corresponding obligation for mothers). In Iceland, women and men have fixed parental leave quota (both 1/3 which is not non-transferable, the rest is free). Also Norway and Denmark have introduced suchlike rules. The so-called ‘daddy leave’ appears to be more effective than parental leave while it also changes the social definition of being ‘a good father’ [18].

Actually, each institution contains its starting points for change (i.e. the counter point). There will always be people – e.g. young people, critical thinkers or outsiders coming in - who question the dominant pattern and initiate change. At rural grassroots level, overcoming core obstacles for gender equality can be started or advanced by for instance farm daughters with non-traditional schooling and training starting new economic activities, farming women with an urban background or other former city dwellers now living in the countryside, strong progressive leaders, organisations that fight trafficking of (rural) women and girls and women’s ngo’s or activists fighting for (new, adjustment, enforcement of) legislation in this field, or nature conservation, environmental and/ or consumers groups that co-operate with farmer’s or rural women’s organisations. Another impetus for institutional change at grassroots level is included in the already existing heterogeneity i.e. existing deviations from the dominant – mainstream – patterns. For instance female rural leaders who can serve as role models; farms lead by women or by a female – male partnership; influential women’s ngo’s or organisations with good mainstreaming policies and policies; work situations that facilitate combining work and care (child care facilities, flexible working hours, care leave possibilities); local or regional policies aimed at strengthening local services or that stimulate rural industrial settlement.

Increasing the visibility of problems and needs through e.g. research, documentation and dissemination of information, advocacy and lobbying can help to further an enabling environment supporting the changes. Spreading information about examples of empowered rural women – of those who managed to gain an influential political position or who built up a successful enterprise – might help as well.

It goes without saying that an active and progressive women’s movement is a pre-condition for real change.


Effective institutional capacity building for women’s empowerment should be targeted at the different levels and dimensions. It needs awareness of enabling and constraining factors at each level. Approaches to institutional capacity building (including new norms, values, attitudes, behaviour as well as organisational changes) distinguish different layers at which it should be targeted [3]:


Various theoretical approaches rooted in different disciplines and ‘schools of thought’ on development2 stress different aspects of capacity. The core of the discussions focuses on ‘what’ “capacity building” to develop and ‘how to do that’?

The organisational approach focuses on capacities of individual organisations, the institutional approach on capacities to change the rules of a society i.e. laws, regulations, policies, attitudes, norms, incentive systems, etc. The systems approach on the other hand stresses that capacity building needs to be a multi-level process and, therefore aware of and responsive to the existing interrelations. The participatory approach considers capacity building a participatory and empowering process that builds on the grassroots expertise. At the same time, the ongoing debate implies that capacity building is a dynamic concept [3,17].

In practice, capacity building processes reflect often a mixture of these methods. Concerning women’s empowerment, this seems the best method. The multi-dimensional and multi-level character of gender asks for a holistic approach.


Women’s empowerment aims at control of one’s own body and to be free from violence; equal access and control over resources, equal participation, voice and influence in societal decision-making processes, agenda setting and leadership; elimination of gender stereotypical roles, norms and symbols. This is also referred to as ‘power to’ [44]. To achieve these goals, women need to develop (a sense of) agency. That is, the ability to get things done, to achieve the goals set. Agency is thus a core element of women’s empowerment. Hence involved capacity building must be aimed at developing women’s agency. Such capacity to act includes both individual and collective capacity. Individual women with agency have the disposal of different skills and more intangible capacities as awareness and understanding of the gendered nature of worldviews, structures, attitudes, values, behaviours, emotions, interests; a sense of self-esteem, feelings of entitlement and assertiveness. This is also referred to as ‘power within’. Women’s agency at a collective level – the ‘power with’ – includes awareness of women’s shared interests, organisation and effective strategies and common negotiation of these interests [1,21,26,44].

Besides agency, process is a core characteristic of women’s empowerment. Process stresses the dynamic character of empowerment (struggle, change). It takes time to get empowered whilst empowerment needs are changing constantly. Advancement and regression are both part of the empowerment process: empowerment gained in certain fields can get lost and then need to be regained again.The multi-layered character of empowerment brings about its own dynamic. Empowerment in one specific dimension and/ or at one specific level opens up opportunities to get empowered in other dimensions and at other levels. Specific intersections of class, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual preference, geographic location, etc. will vary the empowerment focus, process and scope. Hence, capacity building is context specific. Insight in this context and especially in the problems arising from converging identities is a prerequisite (Kerr 2001). Similarly, indicators of empowerment are diverse and variable in time [11,20]. Capacity building efforts should be aware of this.

Although women’s empowerment is a process activated and owned by women themselves, external actors are needed to support this process. This includes governments, (semi)governmental organisations and civil society organisations. They can help to “create the conditions whereby women can become the agents of their own development and empowerment [38]. Through rules and regulations, policies, strategies, programmes and other activities they can help to improve women’s rights and opportunities and increase their skills and capacities to make use of the new conditions. For external actors, the adoption of the empowerment concept means a shift in role and methods. Their role should be more supportive i.e. creating the right conditions and making their methods more participatory as for instance, more co-operation with women’s NGOs [24].Effective external support assumes gender sensitive, competent, committed and accountable actors with gender equality as an integral objective of their institutional rules, procedures, policies, programmes and other activities. In general, such capacity requires basic changes in organisational arrangements and in the organisational structures, procedures and cultures of the external organisations and must thus be built as well [24,38]. Gender mainstreaming is an important strategy to embedding gender equality in organisational structures and routines. (Inter)national women’s machinery, gender focal points and gender-responsive budgeting as well as poA are efforts to improve organisational infrastructures and routines.


With a focus on rural women, actors engaged in institutional capacity building need to recognise that ‘rural women’ is a heterogeneous social category. Farming and non-farming rural women for instance are, at least partly, connected to different institutional worlds from which specific capacity needs emerge. Also farming women are diverse [16,22,23,37,39,41,43]. The specific context within which rural women are living and operating implies that capacity building efforts aimed at rural women’s empowerment must take account of ongoing agricultural and rural transformation processes and women’s priorities and needs arising from these.

Rural women in Europe have own needs and interests [2,8,25,33,37]. In different places specific expressions and combinations of the following key areas of concern emerge:

These concerns imply that programmes and activities for rural women’s empowerment should at least a) increase women’s self-confidence, skills and understanding of disempowering structures and institutions; b) break gender stereotypes; c) focus on rural labour and labour market issues; d) improve the quality of services including education and re-training; e) support women’s political participation and influence; f) stop violence against women; g) remove legal barriers and insist on implementation and enforcement of equal opportunity legislation; h) promote rural women's collective organisation and participation in progressive networks and alliances.


From the foregoing it appears that institutional capacity building is a multi-actor, multi-dimensional and multi-level activity or intervention while changing the underlying rules of the game is a crucial part of the process. Relevant rural women’s empowerment capacity building efforts should include:

  1. Building educational capacity: increase women’s access to education, training, information and create gender sensitive education programmes for youth and adults (both women and men) through e.g. adjustment of school books, lessons, curricula; fight gender stereotyping of education and training through e.g. promotion of women into education for male-defined professions and vice versa; good role models among others among teachers; more women in higher positions within educational sector (not only in ministries but also in the linked implementing organisations);

  2. Encouragement of male participation in care taking in all possible ways;

  3. Continued efforts to change the gendered norms, values and power relations entrenched in organisational rules of the game through e.g. encouragement awareness raising, understanding and attitude change; political commitment to gender equality at all levels; setting clear gender equality targets; gender budgeting; creating accountability structures to fulfill the organisation’s gender equality contract; regular assessment and evaluation of efficacy of gender equality programs and procedures and improvement of strategies;

  4. Co-ordination of rural gender equality policies between involved ministries and governments; developing procedures to overcome obstacles for achieving gender equality caused by organisational segmentation of relevant Ministries; promotion of a sector wide approach to advance gender equality; inclusion of the issue of work-family divide in the political agenda’s

  5. Establishment of progressive rural and farming women’s organisations or strengthening of existing one’s. Powerful organisations have good leadership and are functioning well (democratic, participatory, transparent, accountable) among others resulting in a clear presentation of rural women’s needs, priorities, views and perspectives and good strategies and skills to give rural women a voice and influence in mainstream organisations and gremia. Rural women’s organisations should reflect existing diversity among rural women.

  6. Twinning or building (inter)national, regional networks or local organisations and agencies that work towards similar objectives such as e.g. organisations that fight against violence against women (Tampep, La Strada) or women’s rights organisations. Rural women’s groups active in this field can join these networks and be involved in their activities;

  7. Building women’s networks and alliances with other progressive groups involved in women’s issues and agricultural and rural development, including progressive men and the younger generation. For instance progressive women’s organisations and networks, new rural and farmers organisations, progressive politicians and policy makers, progressive consumer groups, environmental, animal welfare and nature organisations, etc. in order to better influence the political agenda [27].

  8. Development of procedures that routinize the inclusion of existing rural women’s organisations or networks in intended or standing rural and agricultural development programs as for instance area-based rural programs [40].

  9. Enforcement of application of gender equality principle in Structural Funds (clear set targets; accountability structures; critical review of criteria used on the presence and operation of masculine perceptions and images, etc) and removing regulatory barriers that impede rural development initiatives of women (EWL 2002).

  10. Advancement of political and administrative support for the multi-functional farming development model. Research shows that on-farm gender relations become more equal: own work domain for women; visible contribution to family income; more influence in farm decision-making process; women enlarge their network; increase in women’s feeling of self-worth [32,34].

  11. Building adequate rural gender desegregated data base (adjustment of existing data collection methods, including review of gender biased-definitions) so as to generate new knowledge; allocation of resources for research on rural gender issues is crucial.

  12. Creation of independent budget streams through e.g. the establishment of regional women's funds that support grassroots rural women’s empowerment initiatives.


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1Interview with E. Sprenger. See also J. Hunt [12] Institutionalising gender equality commitments in development organisations & programs.
2See Lusthaus et al. [19] for an overview; CIDA gives an overview of the development of the concept of institutional development.

Sabine de Rooij
Rural Sociology Group,
Wageningen University and Research,
Wageningen, The Netherlands
Mansholtlaan 10-12, 6708 PA Wageningen, The Netherlands
email: Sabine.deRooij@wur.nl

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