Women’s empowerment as a concept had its roots in the Third world feminist movement that advocated for collective action against gender subordination and unequal power relations. During late 1980s, the empowerment discourse which till then was in the margins of development and limited to feminists’ realm entered the mainstream development thinking and practice. In the recent times, it is increasingly being used in mainstream development discourse and practice as a poverty reduction and gender equality strategy. This “development” focused women’s empowerment discourse also gained ground in Nepal post-1990 and remains widely cemented in the development practice. However, there has been very little conceptual scrutiny about the term within the development sector and at the same time there is a growing concern about the effectiveness of such approaches in improving women’s lives. In addition, development projects on empowerment also are criticized for their top-down and expert design nature and that they rarely take into consideration the voices of the people they aim to “empower”. As the way issues are conceptualized have a key bearing in how they shape practice, critical review of usages of the concept by the development actors is necessary.

In this context, the research seeks to examine varying ways in which women’s empowerment has been understood a) by development organizations and translated into their policies/programs as well as b) by the women participants of these programs. Guided by the feminist empowerment literature, I aim to review policies of a few international organizations, such as the World Bank, DFID, USAID and CARE Nepal that have a specific focus on women’s empowerment.  Taking a case study of Poverty Alleviation Fund (PAF) and based on interviews with women of different castes/ethnicity and class in two hamlets in Dadeldhura, I will also explore perceptions of the women participants about their experiences, perceived changes through PAF particularly in terms of changes in gender relations, and what meanings empowerment holds for them. Through this study, I argue that although development projects on empowerment have linear and technocratic conceptualization of empowerment and they construct depoliticized subjects h empowerment in practice has complex and unpredictable effect, which largely depend upon people’s diverse social positionings, local gender relations and their agency.