What have we learned about women’s empowerment from a 17 country global programme?

November 11, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam is increasingly going in for ‘global programmes’, bundling upPower to Persuade work on similar issues across various countries. More on that model tomorrow, but first I want to highlight the findings of a final evaluation (published today, right) of Raising Her Voice (RHV), a big (£5.8m), 5 year global programme to enhance women’s voice in decision-making, covering 17 countries and two regional projects across 4 continents.

Excerpts from the evaluation, plus running commentary from me in square brackets:

[building ‘power within’ – confidence and assertiveness + ‘power with’ via women’s organizations was key to getting progress on political voice]

‘RHV projects have been most effective where all three spheres (personal, social and political) are clearly addressed – usually in partnership with others – and where complementary work was carried out to link pressure for change at local, district, and national and international levels.

Work on personal empowerment is the bedrock for all change processes, recognising the importance of women’s knowledge and confidence in their ability to influence power relations and decision making.

• For women’s participation and leadership to be meaningful investment is required to ‘grow’ the political confidence and influencing capacities of women activists, including power mapping, social audits and mentoring, as much as increasing the number of women in decision-making spaces.

‘We need political education. Otherwise, once we manage to have dialogue and they start talking to us about things like municipal budgets, it’s like jumping out of a plane with no parachute. If they are talking about infrastructure, I have to know about infrastructure. If they are talking about territorial rights, I have to know about territorial rights.’

Bertha Zapeta, RHV Guatemala

• This core of activists and leaders needs long-term support to be effective as leaders, change agents and role models. A scatter gun approach of ad hoc interventions targeting large numbers of women does not lead to sustainable benefits.

[violence against women is a key obstacle and has to be addressed]

• Explicit attention must be given to developing a wide range of strategies to reduce the risk of violence for women and provide them with protection and support. Not only because the threat of violence negatively impacts on women’s participation, but because successful governance programming, which challenges the status quo, can provoke backlash.

In the social sphere ‘changes, especially in relation to networking and solidarity, are the glue enabling greater changes in the other two’.

• Collective action and voice is critical for women’s safety, for demands to be made unapologetically and for them to be taken seriously by those in power. The RHV evaluation found some of the strongest and most sustainable impact was where projects contributed meaningfully to the strengthening, collaboration, and organisation of civil society organisations working for women’s rights.

‘It was a huge challenge to acknowledge each other and stop labelling. Women do not necessarily trust each other, so you need to build bridges to strengthen the demands of all women without discrimination.’

RHV Bolivia

[alliances need to include ‘non-usual suspects’, including men]

• Greatest leverage is achieved through building broad-based and creative alliances which, although time consuming, are essential for strengthening the collective action needed to shift the structural and attitudinal barriers to effective governance.

• Signing up the powerful by forging constructive relationships from the outset with influential male opinion leaders and shapers was crucial for supporting these far-reaching change processes.

UgandaRHV Nepal rewarded male champions through media coverage of visits to, and support for, community initiatives benefiting women. In Nigeria, targeted influential individuals in the media joined project steering groups and acted as core campaign partners. More strategic political and media partnerships have helped to bring key opinion shapers on board to challenge gender stereotypes and promote positive, balanced voices on important gender equality issues.

Changes in the political sphere – in legal frameworks, power structures and accessibility of decision-making – are essential steps towards increasing women’s participation and influence, but progress is slow and multifaceted.

• The power of evidence-based advocacy is clear from the experience of numerous RHV country projects that used social audits to evidence underinvestment in, or poor quality of, local services and map (non)compliance with commitments to women’s rights.

Examples include analysis of political party manifestos relating to female genital mutilation in The Gambia and audits of nine health centres and three hospitals in Guatemala. In Chile, annual public surveys were used to shape influential campaigns on women’s participation, with both strong political legitimacy and high levels of public support – so that ‘the voice on the street and in the countryside is backed by the voice of academic authority.’

[one of the roles for outsiders is to link up grassroots activists with national politics]

• Linking community activism with sub-national and national calls for change to address the ‘missing middle’ of governance processes. In Pakistan, Women Leader Groups have worked at community, district and national level to bring invisible women’s voices directly and strategically to those with decision-making power. Strategies included the first National Women’s Manifesto, developed in 2012 through widespread consultation to provide political parties with an unapologetic list of demands for fairer rules of political engagement for women.

[formal politics matters]

• Unashamedly political – RHV partners have shown a stronger understanding over the five years of how power works, where it lies and how to influence it. In Nigeria, successful advocacy for the passing of the 2013 Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, led by RHV partner WRAPA, included hiring a former legislator to navigate the corridors of power, text message barraging of Ministers and highly publicised mock tribunals. Pre-election campaigns in Nigeria, Mozambique and Pakistan used ‘Vote for the Domestic Violence Bill or We Won’t Vote for You!’ slogans to push for legal reform in the face of continued impunity for rights violations.

Many projects engaged directly with political parties, recognising that these are critical spaces for long-term policy influencing. In South Africa and Honduras, RHV women’s networks signed agreements with newly elected councillors to ensure that representatives deliver on a list of clearly articulated commitments made on priority issues. RHV partners and activists have also taken advantage of decentralisation and constitutional review processes, and used public interest litigation to further prise open spaces to advance women’s rights.’

Impressive, more from RHV coordinator Emily Brown here, and at least some of the successes seem to stem from the global programme model – more on that tomorrow.