“There is no ‘ideal’ woman”: Reconsidering the meaning of agency and empowerment

Author: Nitya Yerabandi, GEH/UCSD | Posted: Mar 2023

Over the past summer, I overheard my mom and aunt talking about a relative of ours who had recently gotten married at 22. The first thought that came to my mind was why did she marry so early? She should have waited. Today, eight months later, I wish I had asked myself, what did she want and what did she choose? Did she even get a choice?

Growing up, I always imagined myself becoming an “ideal” woman who was strong, brave, independent, and intelligent. I labeled myself a feminist before I even knew what feminism meant and made it my mission to break as many gender norms as possible.

I joined the Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH) in the fall quarter of my freshman year at UCSD, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of women’s empowerment. I first began assisting with a scoping review under the Agency for All project, which involved screening articles for conceptualizations and measures of agency. When I started reviewing literature, I found it incredibly difficult to comprehend the complexity of agency because I misunderstood agency as acting in accordance with societally determined positive outcomes, such as using contraceptives and undergoing HIV treatment. However, the past several months of analyzing studies and conceptualizations has made me restructure my own understanding of agency, feminism, and empowerment.

 Key takeaways from my research experience

  1. Agency goes beyond decision-making. One of the most common measures of agency in quantitative studies is women’s participation in decisions regarding household purchases, child’s health care, family planning, visiting family and friends, and spending income among many other domains. Although actions that women take are extremely important in measuring their ability to achieve goals, the “Can” and “Resist” components of agency are equally important. “Can” represents an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a goal, and “Resist” describes an individual’s persistence in working towards a goal despite facing backlash. In conjunction, Can, Act, and Resist provide a more holistic and accurate representation of factors that influence one’s ability to set and achieve goals.
  2. We need to broaden our understanding of agency in research by being more inclusive of people’s choices. Many measure items and conceptualizations of agency are worded in such a way that agency is associated with a “correct” decision as defined by researchers and/or society. As a result, individuals who may willingly choose not to make that decision are perceived as lacking agency when in reality, any decision that is taken free of coercion can be considered as agency. For example, many human rights campaigns discuss children’s agency to not marry, but rarely discuss their right to choose whether and when to marry, despite portions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledging children’s rights. Additionally, in studies of women’s agency in resistance to intimate partner violence (IPV), many research questions embody western-centrism as they define agency as acting in direct resistance to IPV and leaving abusive relationships. These studies fail to notice that many women in low and middle income countries who choose to stay or are unable to leave such relationships still engage in agency through covert resistance strategies, which focus on modifying one’s behavior to reduce stressors.
  3. Agency and feminism are not one-dimensional. Unlike what I believed growing up, there is no “ideal” woman. In reality, concepts like agency and feminism are flexible, as they mean something different to everyone. Having agency can mean choosing to marry early to start a family, choosing to delay marriage to pursue graduate school, or choosing not to marry at all. Being empowered is about having the support and resources needed to achieve such goals. Promoting a particular ideology of what “successful” women should look like to young girls is dangerous as it creates a new stereotype for girls to follow. Instead, we need to teach younger generations that feminism is about embracing yourselves for who you are and being treated equally despite our differences.

Why this matters

In the future, I hope to engage in research that ensures that intervention programs introduced in low and middle income countries are adequately addressing the needs of the local community and promoting long-term sustainable strategies. In order to do so, it is extremely important that we understand what agency means to that community and measure agency accurately. Having accurate and reliable data will in turn allow us to assess how and where our programs can fill in the gaps. By adopting a culturally inclusive approach, I hope to be a part of a solution that respects communities’ cultural values, provides support in ways that are needed, and encourages emerging scholars to be globally aware. Spreading an open-minded perspective of agency among youth will in turn create a ripple effect on my generation and many generations to come, laying the foundation for a gender-equal society.

Author: Nitya Yerabandi

Nitya Yerabandi is a first year undergraduate student at UCSD, majoring in Human Biology. She joined the Center on Gender Equity and Health in her fall quarter in order to explore her interests in women’s agency and empowerment. Under the mentorship of Dr. Rebecka Lundgren and Dr. Lotus McDougal, Nitya is currently assisting with screening articles for the scoping review on Conceptualizations and Measures of Agency. As a pre-med student and an aspiring physician, she hopes to engage in research on gender-based violence interventions and reproductive and maternal health in LMIC. In her free time, Nitya enjoys watching Indian movies and playing badminton with her dad.