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Publication: Gender & Behaviour
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 93409
ISSN: 15969231
Journal code: GNBV

The debate on women empowerment has permeated the discourse of development for many decades. A bone of contention in this debate has largely been how best to implement the empowerment strategy in order to ensure that female members of society benefit meaningfully from the initiatives at their disposal. Various scholars (Kabeer, 1999; Fonjong, 2001; Bartlett, 2008) have strongly argued in support of active participation of community members in women empowerment programmes. It is believed that through their participation, community members are able to paint a true picture of the reality on the ground. Oakley (1991) adds weight to the argument and asserts that participation for empowerment can assist in giving voice to the disadvantaged people and help them to decide on the actions to take in order to enhance their development. In the same vein, Fonjong (2001: 230) believes that "participation for genuine empowerment requires that the general population as well as women themselves, know the extent of their problems, so that proper strategies can be adopted to reverse the situation." In light of these views, the current study sought to investigate the perceptions of a broad range of cohorts of rural communities regarding the state of women empowerment in Wards 1, 29 and 37 of Makhado Municipality in Limpopo Province of South Africa.

What is Women Empowerment?

Various authors (Kabeer, 1999; Malhotra, Schuler and Boender, 2002; Mosedale, 2005) point out that empowerment is a multidimensional and complex process which can be interpreted differently by different people. Kabeer (1999: 437) views empowerment as "the expansion in people's ability to make strategic life choices in a context where this ability was previously denied to them." Mosedale (2005: 252) posits that women empowerment is "the process by which women redefine and extend what is possible for them to be and do in situations where they have been restricted, compared to men, from being and doing."

The definitions presented above reveal that empowerment is a process that involves changes in power relations, allowing those that have been deprived by the systems in place at that particular time, to make decisions and act on them for the betterment of their livelihoods. The affected people reflect on their situations and are made aware of their capabilities, after which they take corrective measures to improve their existing situations (Mosedale, 2005). Given this reality, it is therefore crucial that the disadvantaged members of the society, women in particular, get the opportunity to determine the course of their destiny through making decisions on issues pertaining to their livelihoods. The multi-dimensional nature of empowerment and socio-cultural intricacies that come into play as the process unfolds make this even more compelling. To a large extent, the socio-cultural complexities determine the level of women's empowerment.

Since the advent of her democracy in 1994, South Africa has been promoting women empowerment. The fact that most women reside in the rural countiyside where economic activity is limited and infrastructure is poor influenced this bias (Oberhauser and Pratt, 2004; Dlamini-Zuma, 2007). Successive post-apartheid South African governments have sought to correct the inherited inequalities through developing various women empowerment interventions. It has also been observed that women in South Africa run various empowerment projects such as pottery making, sewing and farming (Oberhauser and Pratt, 2004). Apart from this, they participate in adult literacy programmes (Shilubane, 2007).

Although many intervention strategies have been put in place to address their plight, women continue to face immense challenges. Among the challenges are high rates of illiteracy, exclusion from decision-making processes, lack of resources and a host of socio-cultural bottlenecks (McEwan, 2003; Oberhäuser and Pratt, 2004; Mathaulula, 2008). Such impediments make it difficult for women to realise their empowerment goals. Thus, it is crucial that women and other community members are afforded the chance to make inputs regarding their real needs. Failure to involve women in issues of their empowerment impacts negatively on their advancement and also retards the growth of the communities they reside in.

In line with the arguments highlighted above, a follow up study to the qualitative and exploratoiy investigation that Mathaulula (2008) conducted in Wards 1, 29 and 37 of Makhado Municipality where this study was conducted. This paper reports on this confirmatoiy study.

Theoretical Framework underpinning the Study

The current study was anchored on the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Women Empowerment Framework (WEEF, 1994). This framework measures women empowerment at the levels of welfare; access; awareness raising; participation and control. Guided by the UNICEF empowerment framework, the women empowerment perceptions that the Mathaulula (2008) study distilled were categorised into access, awareness raising, participation and control classes.

Materials and Methods

Description of the Study Area

The study was conducted in some rural areas of Makhado Municipality located within Vhembe District. Vhembe District comprises four local Municipalities, with Makhado being one of them. The Municipality is almost 70 % rural and Louis Trichardt is its administrative headquarters. Makhado Municipality is subdivided into four administrative regions, namely Makhado, Dzanani, Vuwani and Waterval. There two hundred and seventy nine (279) villages located in thirty seven (37) Wards (Municipal Demarcation Board, 2006). This study was carried out in Wards 1 and 29 (both situated in Vuwani administrative region) and Ward 37 (found in Dzanani region).

Population and Sampling

The purposive study sample was selected from residents of Wards 1, 29 and 37 who were already actively participating in a community development-oriented project known as Amplifying Community Voices in Makhado Municipality (Francis, Dube, Mokganyetji and Chitapa, 2010). The project was the brainchild of the Centre for Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation (CRDPA) at the University of Venda working in conjunction with Makhado Municipality.

The study included all the forty one (41) villages that made up the three Wards of the Municipality. Almost 15 % of the Wards' population of 38 760 voluntarily participated in the data collection-focused community-based research workshops. The participants included 7-10 year old boys and girls; 11-14 year old boys and girls; male and female youth in and out of school; women; men and leaders (see Table 1). These participants were mobilised through open invitations sent through locally recognised communication channels such as schools, churches and community leadership institutions. The participants were classified based on their ages, sexes and the positions of authority they held in their villages.

Data Collection Tools

Since interest group-specific perceptions were required, data were collected through interest group-based reflection circles. A questionnaire that required responses on a Likert-type scale of 1 (not true) to 4 (veiy true) was used to collect data. The results of the Mathaulula (2008) exploratoiy study were used to develop the questionnaire. The perceptions were then disaggregated into the respective dimensions of the UNICEF (1994) Women Empowerment Framework. The questionnaire was translated into Tshivenda and Tsonga, the two local languages commonly spoken in the studied Wards. This helped to accommodate the local people who could not read, write, speak or understand English.

Pretesting the Data Collection Procedure

Well-trained University of Venda undergraduate students served as research assistants. Before the village-level data collection sessions, a workshop was held to orientate the research assistants with knowledge on the procedures to be followed during the village level engagements. The preparatoiy training session brought together various representatives of stakeholders from the participating Wards. The purpose of the orientation was to gauge the time it took to complete the questionnaire, check whether participants understood the questions correctly and also whether there were any other issues that needed clarification. Municipal Ward Councillors, Ward Committee members, Traditional Leaders and members of Civic Associations participated in the workshop in order to ensure that they understood all the procedures to be followed during the village level data collection workshops. Also, their participation ensured that they developed a sense of ownership of the research and development process.

Village-level Data Collection

The research participants were divided according to specific cohorts (that is children, youth, women, men and community leaders) of reflection circles. Reed and Koliba (1995) point out that a reflection circle comprises people sitting in a circular set up collectively deliberating on the issue at hand, drawing from individuals' lived experiences. The duty of the facilitator was to sit with the group and manage the deliberations, ensuring that all the members of reflection circles had a say in the collectively adopted responses to perceptions in the questionnaire.

Data Analysis

Ordinal data were collected in this study and were appropriately coded before being stored in a computer as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Thereafter, the data were imported into the Statistical Package for Social Scientists version 17.0 (SPSS, 2010) for analysis. Frequencies were calculated per perception of women empowerment.


The following section presents the findings of the study whose aim was to find out what the grassroots community members' perceptions were regarding the state of women empowerment in their communities. Biographical information of the participants is presented first followed by the outputs of perception-specific analysis.

Biographical Information

Out of the 5 924 people who participated in this study, 41 %, 28 % and 31 % were from Wards 1, 29 and 37, respectively. Females made up 54 % of the total number of interviewees. The respective proportions of female participants in each Ward were 56 %, 55 % and 51 % for Wards 1, 37 and 29. Also, 38 % of the research participants were children compared to youth (27 %), adults (26 %) and community leaders (9 %).

Access to Resources as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Most participants in Ward 1 (77 %) agreed with the perception that few women are unemployed while 51 % disagreed that women have easy access to old age grant. The most popular (76 %) perception among the respondents in Ward 29 was most women can read and unite whilst the least common perception (53 %) was women are never overworked. Slightly more than three quarters (76 %) of the reflection circles in Ward 37 agreed with the perception that few women are unemployed.

Awareness-raising as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Respondents in Ward 29 agreed most (59 %) with the perception that women are rarely physically, emotionally and sexually abused by men. The proportions of reflection circles in Wards 1 and 37 that agreed with this perception were the same (56 %). Regarding the perception that women are aware of all the government and private sector opportunities for their empowerment, Wards 29 and 37 had similar views. However, 52 % of the reflection circles from Ward 1 disagreed with this perception.

Participation as a Factor of Women Empowerment

In Ward 1, 58 % of the respondents confirmed the perception that women are not undermined by men and society in general. The least held view (55 %) was women are always given the chance to make firm decisions at home and in the communities. Also, 59 % of the respondents from Ward 29 agreed that women occupy powerful leadership positions such as Principals and Councillors. The least supported perception (52 %) was that women are not undermined by men and society in general. About 62 % of the research participants in Ward 37believed that women occupy powerful leadership positions such as Principals and Councillors. The least held perception (51 %) was women are always given the chance to make firm decisions at home and in the communities.

Control as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Most research participants (70 %) in Ward 1 agreed with the perception that most women are excellent role models for children and youth. Women are financially independent was the least common perception (41 %). In Ward 29, the widely held view (73 %) was that women are well respected when they become leaders and the least one was women have the power and ability to develop their communities. In Ward 37, the research participants were mostly in agreement (71 %) with the perception that most women are excellent role models for children and youth. Almost half (51 %) of the respondents in this Ward agreed with the perception that women have the power and ability to develop their communities. However, 59 % of the respondents from Ward 1 disagreed with the perception that women are financially independent.


This study sought to find answers to the research question: What do community members residing in the villages located in Wards 1, 29 and 37 of Makhado Municipality perceive to be the local state of women empowerment?

Research Participants

Within and across Wards 1, 29 and 37 of Makhado Municipality, more females than males participated in the study. This state of affairs might be attributed to the fact that most males had migrated to urban areas in search of greener pastures, in particular jobs and better living conditions. Quite often when this happens women are left to take care of family affairs at home. Kongolo and Bamgose (2002: 81) support this view when they say that "women significantly outnumber men in most rural areas of South Africa, because they always remain behind, while men are away in search of jobs in urban areas." The results of this study suggest that this situation has not changed even today.

Access to Resources as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Access to resources is a crucial step in the women empowerment process. Perceptions such as "most women can read and write; women are multi-skilled and talented and women know their rights and exercise the rights and responsibilities freely," mainly focus on the education and training dimensions of the process. The positive responses to the perceptions by the respondents in Ward 29 might be attributed to a stronger influence of urban life on the Ward compared to the other two. Women in this Ward were likely to make use of the available adult learning centres in order to improve their literacy levels, apart from utilising the print and electronic media as sources of information to keep in touch with current issues. It is possible that by virtue of being much closer to Thohoyandou and Makhado towns the women in Ward 29 were able to access crucial information and services more easily compared to those in Wards 1 and 37. Chaudhry and Nosheen (2009: 224) believe that "education can play a vital role in bringing about the desirable behavioural changes among women and make them well-equipped in terms of knowledge, competence and capacity to deal with socio-economic problems." Because of its ability to enhance comprehension of issues, education is likely to promote development in the communities where women come from. Thus, education might increase women's awareness of issues that affect their well-being.

Wards 1 and 37 are rural, with the latter being more remote. Poor infrastructure, absence of proper facilities and lack of economic development characterise the two Wards. Taking this into account, it was surprising that the residents of these Wards affirmed perceptions such as women know their rights and exercise the rights and responsibilities freely; women are multi-skilled and talented and women can read and write. These findings contrast the observations of Penzhorn (2005) who points out that female illiteracy is a reality in South Africa. This is the case particularly in rural areas where traditional attitudes project women's mainly domestic role in society. This study did not establish why the participants responded the way they did. Thus, studies that attempt to clarify this issue might help build a much clearer understanding.

The results obtained in this study opposed the findings of Jiyane and Mostert (2008). In their study carried out in Umhlatuze Municipality of South Africa, the latter authors observed that women were unable to read, which forced them to rely on friends and relatives for information. The contraiy views expressed in this study compared to Jiyane and Mostert (2008) might be due to the fact that the perceptions of men, children, youth and community leaders were obtained. The past study did not include the views of these interest groups. It is possible that these interest groups might have failed to comprehend the magnitude of women's problems. Also, the opposite might be true, which suggests that this reflects the reality on the ground.

The respondents in Wards 1 and 37 agreed strongly with the perception that "few women are unemployed". These results were inconsistent with the apparent reality in the Wards because it was not clear where the women secured their employment from. In this study, what employment actually meant for the residents of the three studied Wards was not articulated. Presumably, if this had been uncovered it might have helped build a clearer understanding of this perception. The fact that most people in Wards 1, 29 and 37 mainly relied on social grants for their livelihoods made it difficult to understand what compelled them to agree that most of them were employed. Probably, the women relied more on self-employment.

Other popular perceptions among the respondents in the three Wards were "women have access to life improvement opportunities and women have a lot of time to do the things they want to". The positive response to the perception, "women have a lot of time to do the things they want to" contradicted the views of Gueye (2000: 99) who argues that "most women in rural Africa are over-burdened with a wide range of activities and tasks in agriculture, animal husbandly and in the household". Because of their multiple burdens, women are likely not to find time to do other tasks that would help them improve their livelihoods. While acknowledging the importance that resources play in creating an enabling environment for empowerment to take place, Kabeer (1999) and Longwe (2000) believe that having control of resources and ability to decide on how to use them are crucial for women empowerment to take place.

Awareness-raising as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Awareness-raising is crucial for the empowerment process. When women become aware of the injustices surrounding them, they are likely to come up with workable solutions that overcome the challenges they face.

In general, most participants in the current study affirmed the perception that "women are rarely physically, emotionally and sexually abused by men". The Makofane (2001) study produced results that opposed this view, with some women reporting that their spouses abused them and they did not have information on how to defend themselves from such abuse. Abuse of women is common in South Africa (OSW, 2000). Such abuse is prevalent among rural women because they depend to a large extent on their husbands for upkeep (Adegoroye and Adegoroye, 2008) and are not aware of their rights (Commission on Gender Equality: CGE, 2000; Makofane, 2001).

There were mixed reactions regarding the perception that "women are aware of all government and private sector opportunities for their empowerment". Higher proportions of research participants in Wards 29 and 37 agreed with these perceptions compared to their counterparts in Ward 1. The views that the respondents in Ward 1 expressed were consistent with those of McEwan (2003) who found that women were ignorant of the programmes that their local municipalities implemented. In addition, Oberhauser and Pratt (2004) reported that women in Limpopo Province were unaware of the credit programmes at their disposal which they could use to facilitate their empowerment. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that the information the women require to run their business projects effectively is made available to them. There is also need to cariy out awareness campaigns aimed at educating women about where to access the information. Such information can be disseminated through workshops, pamphlets, and print and electronic media, among others.

Participation as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Participation of people affected by a problem is a key feature of governance in development work (Bowen, 2008). Oakley (1991) argues that this increases the people's sense of control over issues which affect their lives and helps them to learn how to plan and implement them. The following perceptions, "women occupy powerful leadership positions such as Principals and Councillors; women are always given the chance to make firm decisions at home and in communities; and women are not undermined by men and society in general" suggested that women were involved in the development process. The community members in the three Wards unanimously agreed with all these perceptions. These results confirm the findings of a study carried out in the rural areas of Sekhukhune District in Limpopo Province of South Africa (Pronyk, Hargreaves, Kim, Morison, Phetla, Watts Busza and Porter, 2006). The study revealed that as women's incomes increased, their self-confidence also improved, resulting in women's ability to contribute to decision-making processes in their families. They were also able to challenge some traditional gender norms. Thus, participation in the development process promotes women's self-esteem.

Control as a Factor of Women Empowerment

Having control of resources and deciding on their usage to improve one's quality of life is the ultimate goal of the empowerment process. It is eveiy woman's desire to become empowered. However, many factors frustrate the achievement of this goal.

Apart from the perception that women are financially independent, which most participants in Ward 1 disagreed with, the majority of the interviewees from all the Wards agreed with the perceptions that "women have the power and ability to develop their communities; women have a lot of knowledge on human rights and apply this to improve their welfare and most women are excellent role models for children and youth". These views were not consistent with those of Zaman (2000) and Makofane (2001). Presumably, participation of a broader range of community members might explain why there were divergent views in the current study compared to earlier ones that sought the perceptions of women only.


The current study revealed that although considerable inroads have been made into the empowerment of women in the studied Wards in Makhado Municipality, there is still considerable room for improvement. Therefore, there is need for mounting capacity enhancement interventions that might address the challenges that rural area-based women experience.

This study has highlighted the fact that children, youth, women, men and community leaders have considerable knowledge on women empowerment issues. Such knowledge must be properly harnessed and deployed to develop interventions that address women empowerment issues. This study has demonstrated that creating platforms where children, youth, men, women and leaders collectively deliberate on societal problems could lead to better and more comprehensive understanding. Such understanding might lead to improved social cohesion which is a fundamental primer and determinant of sustainable community development. This confirms the need for policy makers to meaningfully engage and respect the views of a broader range of community members on issues that affect their livelihoods.

This study was mainly descriptive. Many questions relating to the perceptions investigated in this study still remain unanswered. For example, there is need to establish if there are any differences in the perceptions on women empowerment among the various community interest groups. Also, since this study obtained the perceptions of community members in three Wards of Makhado Municipality only, there might be merit in undertaking a similar study covering a larger geographical area such as all the 37 Wards in Makhado Municipality. The results of such a broader study would yield more generalizable results compared to the lower level case studies reported in this paper.


The authors feel greatly indebted to the residents of Wards 1, 29 and 37 in Makhado Municipality who provided the data used to develop this paper. We appreciate the support of Makhado Municipality and community leaders in creating an enabling environment for undertaking the study. Many University of Venda students and "Foot Soldiers" worked tirelessly to make this study a success. This study benefitted from financial assistance from the WK Kellogg Foundation Africa Programme (Project P3003373).


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Author affiliation:

1 Christabelle Moyo*, 1 Joseph Francis and 2 Principal Ndlovu

1 University of Venda, Centre for Rural Development and Poverty

Alleviation, School of Agriculture, Private Bag X5050,

Thohoyandou 0950, SOUTH AFRICA

2 UNISA, Department of Statistics, P. O. Box 329, UNISA, 0003,


Author affiliation:

* Email address:

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