Empowerment refers to a process through which people gain greater control over the decisions and actions affecting their health. The actions include expressing health needs, presenting their concerns, devising strategies for involvement in decision-making, and taking action to meet health needs. Central to empowerment are the social, cultural, psychological, and political processes through which individuals, alone or in social groups, can enhance their own capacity.

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WHO Definitions of Empowerment

WHO Health promotion website [1]

'Empowerment' refers to the process by which people gain control over the factors and decisions that shape their lives. It is the process by which they increase their assets and attributes and build capacities to gain access, partners, networks and/or a voice, in order to gain control.

WHO Ageing & Health Glossary [2]

Empowerment for health: A process through which people gain greater control over decisions and actions affecting their lives. It is the process by which disadvantaged individuals or groups acquire the knowledge and skills needed to assert their rights.  

Other Definitions of Empowerment


Empowerment: A process/phenomenon that allows people to take greater control over the decisions, assets, policies, processes and institutions that affect their lives.


Empowerment: Refers to increasing the personal, political, social or economic strength of individuals and communities. Empowerment of women and girls concerns women and girls gaining power and control over their own lives. It involves awareness-raising, building self-confidence, expansion of choices, increased access to and control over resources and actions to transform the structures and institutions which reinforce and perpetuate gender discrimination and inequality. The core of empowerment lies in the ability of a person to control their own destiny. This implies that to be empowered women and girls must not only have equal capabilities (such as education and health) and equal access to resources and opportunities (such as land and employment), but they must also have the agency to use these rights, capabilities, resources and opportunities to make strategic choices and decisions (such as is provided through leadership opportunities and participation in political institutions).

Government of Canada [5]

Empowerment: A process through which people gain greater control over decisions and actions affecting their health. Empowerment may be a social, cultural, psychological or political process through which individuals and social groups are able to express their needs, present their concerns, devise strategies for involvement in decision-making, and achieve political, social and cultural action to meet those needs.

PubMed MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)

Process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions as designed by the individuals or groups.

Note: Year introduced: 2020


Additional Notes on Empowerment

RAND [6]

The World Bank (2013) argues that empowerment is the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Central to this process are actions which both build individual and collective assets, and improve the efficiency and fairness of the organisational and institutional context which govern the use of these assets.… In essence, empowerment speaks to self-determined change. It implies bringing together the supply and demand sides of development – changing the environment within which poor people live and helping them build and capitalise on their own attributes. Empowerment is a cross-cutting issue. From education and healthcare to governance and economic policy, activities that seek to empower poor people are expected to increase development opportunities, enhance development outcomes and improve people’s quality of life. While its framework of empowerment-enhancing policies encompasses a wide range of issues, the major focus of the World Bank remains on access to information, inclusion and participation, accountability and local organisational capacity (World Bank 2013)..When looking at these three definitions, a number of similarities may be observed at first glance: for the first two organisations, education, participation, gender equality and some measure of quality of life such as health or life expectancy seem to be linked to the empowerment of individuals. 

Note: Authors suggest a preference for *Preference for UNDP definition over World Bank definition.

Center for American Progress [7]

"The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “empower” as “to give official authority or legal power to” or “to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” Simply put, to empower someone is to give that person authority that is officially or legally sanctioned—authority that enables them to exert influence that is backed by an official imprimatur of legitimacy."

Chiapperino & Tengland (2015) [8]

"Historical distinction between two concepts of empowerment, namely, what we call the radical empowerment approach and the new wave of empowerment. Building on this distinction, we present a research agenda for ethicists and policymakers, highlighting three domains of controversy raised by the new wave of empowerment, namely: (1) the relationship between empowerment and paternalistic interferences on the part of professionals; (2) the evaluative commitment of empowerment strategies to the achievement of health-related goals; and (3) the problems arising from the emphasis on responsibility for health in recent uses of empowerment."

Note: Authors highlight the tension between empowerment and control.

Open Society [9]

Open Society distinguishes "social accountability" and "legal empowerment". On legal empowerment: “The transfer of power from the usual gatekeepers of the law—lawyers, judges, police,  and state officials—to ordinary people who make the law meaningful on a local level and  enhance the agency of disadvantaged populations.”

[1] https://www.who.int/healthpromotion/conferences/7gchp/track1/en/

[2] WHO Centre for Health Development (‎‎‎Kobe, Japan)‎‎‎. (‎2004)‎. A glossary of terms for community health care and services for older persons. Kobe, Japan : WHO Centre for Health Development. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/68896

[3] Glossary. Handbook for Planning and Implementing Development Assistance for Refugees (DAR) Programmes. UNHCR


[5] https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/public-health-practice/skills-online/glossary-terms.html#e

[6] Graf M, Ghez J, Khodyakov D, Yaqub O. Individual Empowerment. Global Societal Trends to 2030: Thematic Report 3. RAND Europe. 2015.

[7] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2017/04/28/431547/defining-power-matters-securing-womens-equality-womens-futures/

[8] Chiapperino, L., & Tengland, P. (2015). Empowerment in healthcare policy making: Three domains of substantive controversy. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 26(3), 210-215. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/HE15035

[9] The Donor Landscape for Access to Justice and Health Jun 2013