I feel empowered. I have the power. I am empowered.

I have empowered you. I’ve been empowered. We empower refugees.

The word empower is often thrown around. Understanding the meaning of empowerment is an important part of embarking in community legal empowerment (CLE) programming.

Empowerment is a reflexive process. An empowered individual exercises agency and asserts her own rights. She has the freedom to improve and live her life, unburdened by unjust limitations. It is a reflexive notion – one where an individual becomes empowered or takes power back in their own hands. She becomes the primary agent in her life to choose what is best for herself.

Ultimately, an empowered person has the choice to exercise her full human rights, including beyond those immediately available to her.

Legal empowerment is used as both a process and a goal. By facilitating tools, resources, and forums, CLE programs support a process by which individuals are agents of their destinies through the use of the law and policies that impact them directly. These programs, through education and capacity and leadership building, focus on what individuals can do for themselves and not what others can do for them. The goal is for individuals to become their own best advocates and take steps to rebuild their lives.

Refugees and empowerment

In the refugee context, a refugee may experience various stages of disempowerment. First, a refugee can experience disempowerment through individual loss caused by the displacement of one’s home, work, and social networks. Second, in a foreign country she may be challenged with disenfranchisement, isolation, increased impoverishment and trauma leading to increased disempowerment. Unaddressed and without effective legal protections, the process of being displaced in combination with state of displacement contribute to an actual loss of agency and empowerment. In short, not only has the refugee lost power to make decisions in her life, but also the sense or feeling that she has that power.

Based on her refugee status alone (and its accompanying negative stigma), she may find her voice and power suppressed due to the fear of arrest and refoulement. Her legal status (or lack thereof), in addition to other refugee qualities, make her vulnerable and victim to powerful state and non-state actors discriminatory actions. Even if there are fair laws in place, a refugee sometimes finds it impossible to enforce her rights before law enforcement and courts. As a result, the combination of a lack of legal and social protections with depleted internal mechanisms leads to the disempowerment of refugees.

Legal empowerment is a vehicle and a goal by which refugees can gain access to justice. It begins when refugees have information on the laws, policies and other dynamics that influence their rights. The law is used as a means to seize and transfer power – understanding that the law and legal mechanisms are a basis for control and development in society. When refugees understand their rights and options in their new legal contexts, they are able to seize power to make better-informed decisions to rebuild their lives. As empowered individuals, refugees understand their rights and are active participants in using the law to claim what is due to them, particularly in contexts where actors systematically marginalize and disenfranchise refugees. Through effective CLE programming, refugees take part to break down these power structures and promote their rights and the accountability of powerful actors and institutions.