Building women’s leadership – what works?

May 15, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

What can an NGO like Oxfam do to help build women’s grassroots leadership and participation? Just been reading a series of case studies from around the world, which throw up a strikingly similar set of conclusions. Drawing on experiences in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the UK, the study finds that progress relies on tackling structural barriers to women’s participation – for example over 40 countries have now adopted quota laws to set minimum targets for the selection and election of women to political office. Making sure these are implemented has proven a fruitful area for activism. Decentralization processes also offer a lot of opportunities for increasing women’s representation.

Other barriers are cultural – stereotypes about women’s roles (often held by women as well as men) which see public office as a man’s job. In shifting these attitudes actions often speak louder than words – demonstrating the impact of women in leadership roles can be more persuasive than a dozen workshops (see the case study below). Identifying male ‘champions’ in positions of authority is another effective tactic. Other barriers include women’s ‘time poverty’ especially women with young children`- offering free childcare can have a huge impact on women’s participation.

Women getting into office is only half the battle – once elected, women frequently find that they are left to fend for themselves in what can be a very hostile environment. Many drop out. So establishing support networks for women in office can be vital: in Cambodia, Oxfam’s partner ‘Women for Prosperity’ established regular Female Councillor Forums where local councillors can gain experience of speaking in public and learn from and be supported by other councillors.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel (OPTI). Arab-Israeli women are one of the most marginalised and invisible groups within Israeli society. Many have been adversely affected by the ‘Wisconsin Plan’, a welfare-to-work programme introduced by the Israeli government in 2005, that Oxfam’s partner, Sawt el-Amel (the Labourer’s Voice), has been active in opposing.

Under the Plan, which aims to cut public spending on welfare benefits by a third, people receiving state unemployment benefits now have to attend the Wisconsin Plan centres for up to 40 hours a week, and have to accept any job offered to them by the employment agencies, or participate in voluntary work. Anyone who fails to do so loses the right to claim benefits. If a family is dependent on state benefits, both spouses have to attend, even if one is fully occupied caring for young children at home. This is what particularly enraged women – even if they were not seeking paid work, they had to leave their children unattended and go to the Wisconsin Centre in order for their partners to continue to receive welfare payments.

In response to the hardship that the plan has brought to themselves and their families, women have become active in leading popular opposition to the Plan. Early on in the campaign, a ‘Women’s Platform’ was formed, rapidly becoming a source of leadership for the campaign as a whole. This is a significant and unprecedented move in conservative communities, where women’s presence in the public sphere has traditionally not been accepted.

The campaign has scored some notable victories, winning a number of important test cases in the courts. In addition, lobbying informed by the Women’s Platform and its members’ experiences of the Wisconsin Plan has resulted in legislated changes to the Plan, meaning in particular that unemployed single women with children under the age of 12 are now no longer expected to attend the Wisconsin Centre full-time.

One interesting aspect was that much of the anger came from the way the Plan was seen as an attack on women’s traditional roles in home and family. This allayed men’s opposition to the women getting involved and led to a painless, but ‘unprecedented social revolution’ in gender relations and the attitudes of men towards women taking a more active role in public life, according to one Sawt el-Amel publication (although it doesn’t offer any evidence for this). The Oxfam analysis wryly concludes ‘As a strategy for bringing about change, it is debatable whether prompting a direct discussion on existing gender roles would have been anywhere near as effective.’

I’ve seen this elsewhere – in Argentina, the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo were able successfully to defy a bloody military dictatorship and protest at the disappearance of their children and grandchildren because they were acting in their traditional roles. Accustomed to preaching the benefits of ‘family and fatherland’, the generals did not know how to respond, and the madres opened up the first cracks in the dictatorship.

In the OPTI case, although there has clearly been a strengthening of women’s role in public and political life, but the way they’ve achieved this has also relied on traditional gender divisions in the family. The sustainability of these new roles, and efforts to strengthen women’s economic independence, will also depend on whether there are accompanying shifts in power relations between women and men at household level, with men and boys taking on some of the unpaid care work. There are indications that this is happening but it definitely needs more research. Otherwise, women could end up with the debilitating ‘triple day’ of unpaid work in the home, paid work in the economy, and community activism.


May 15, 2009
Duncan Green