Improving how we work for – and with – indigenous and local women in their communities
As a human rights organisation, gender justice is a fundamental principle of our work, and we have long been conscious of, and sought to address, the barriers to effective participation in decision-making by women, as well as the other human rights violations they may face on account of their gender.
This blog summarises some of the experiences and learnings from our fieldwork in the Congo Basin over the past 5 years, on how to improve women’s effective participation at the community level. Some of these points may be new, though many reflect recommendations made by other actors working in this field. However, we feel that it’s helpful to remind ourselves of how important all of these factors can be in the pursuit of gender justice.
Holding separate meetings with women is a well-known strategy for improving women’s participation, but it’s importance really cannot be overstated – particularly in communities where women haven’t had a lot of specific experience in the past.
It has regularly been the case that we have had only one or two limited comments from women when mixed meetings were held, but a huge amount to say when they were on their own.
After experiencing one women-only meeting, women in communities we work with consistently ask to have them regularly.
Trust-building takes time. We have found that the first women’s only meeting may not be a resounding success. But if you keep working with the same group of women, it doesn’t take long (2-3 meetings) before they’ll be speaking up in women’s meetings, and starting to take a more active role. Women’s groups are frequently the most dynamic associations in the community, and it is unsurprising that if they feel empowered to speak up, women will also often become the most dynamic participants in the work.
We have also found that holding separate women’s meeting is good, but holding separate men’s and women’s meetings followed by a general meeting where each side can exchange and reflect on their discussions is even better. It institutionalises a practice of listening to both women and men in the community, and provides a safe environment for women to practice speaking up in community discussions. Over time, we have found this to be a exceptionally effective process.
One point to consider in the Congo Basin – when working with both an indigenous and Bantu community within the same village – is that it’s also useful to have separate meetings for the indigenous women and the Bantu women. Because of the dynamics within many of these communities, indigenous women are actually more likely to speak up in front of indigenous men than Bantu women – and the effects of these power dynamics need to be thought through carefully.
Of course, sometimes resource and time constraints mean that it’s not always possible to have separate meetings in every community. It’s okay not to do this every time, especially where we have already spent some time working with groups separately and are beginning to see some of the more diffident factions becoming more confident to participate. However, it’s good to go back periodically to holding separate meetings to “check in” with these different groups, and ensure they are feeling comfortable and confident with the process.
Have a woman on the field team!
Having a woman in the field team – and especially a local woman, whose role model value cannot be underestimated – is a huge asset to working with women in communities. It provides an example of women and men working together as collaborators and colleagues, and it also allows women in the community to discuss more sensitive issues they may be experiencing with another woman.
Of course, it’s not always possible to do this. If our own staff, or that of local partners, don’t include women, we can’t always change that overnight. However, there are ways to mitigate it such as by hiring a dynamic local woman (and there almost always is one - waiting in the wings of a local association) to accompany the work for a few days and assist. Not only does this provide an extra pair of (female) hands with work in the community, it also provides useful training and short-term employment to a budding member of local civil society.
Coach women to speak in meetings and other confidence building exercises
Direct discrimination is not the only barrier to women’s effective participation – sometimes it is also inexperience, and the lack of confidence that comes with it. Time spent helping women to gain this confidence and experience is paid back ten-fold. This can involve clearly explaining new processes that they are undertaking (for example, what they can expect to happen when they meet with someone from a local forestry ministry), accompanying them on their first visits, and encouraging peer-to-peer learning and support from other women - especially those who have participated in such processes before. It could also involve role-playing during a separate women’s meeting, to practice what they are going to say in a larger joint community meeting; or offering extra support or practice for whatever they are proposing to embark on, and ensuring women are included in any training opportunities offered to members of the community (see also gender quotas below).
Training women on women’s human rights – even if it may not seem like core work at first glance
Being aware of your human rights can have a transformational impact on the way individuals behave. As a human rights organisation focussed on the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, especially in relation to land, we know that – and training communities around these issues is a core part of our work, but it’s no less valid an idea in relation to women’s human rights.
At first glance it might seem that women’s human rights are a bit of a tangent from community land rights, but from a human rights perspective, it doesn’t work like that because human rights are indivisible. And from a practical perspective it is absolutely essential, as our work relies on ensuring inclusive participation and good local governance by communities, in order to facilitate the governance and management of their own lands and territories. We simply can’t work on women’s effective participation without talking more broadly about women’s human rights.
Providing women – and men – in communities with some basic training on women’s human rights can have a big impact, especially in the long term. It is generally helpful to do this training separately with women and men, but it is important to discuss these issues with men as well, as the training is effective precisely because it prompts whole-community thinking (or re-thinking) around some of these issues. It is often incredibly empowering for women in communities to hear a non-technical summary of some of the core rights in CEDAW – around health, education, economic and political participation, violence – especially when illustrated with examples of the problem they seek to address. One time after in a training, a woman’s response was:
“It’s like they came right here to our community and wrote down all the things that happen.”
For women, understanding that there are international human rights treaties which provide for their equality, and that discrimination against them is a violation of their rights, can cause a transformation in their perspective – in exactly the same way that explaining to an indigenous community – under international law, its customary lands belong to it regardless of what the government says – can be transformational. We shouldn’t neglect this as a key element of our work on improving women’s participation and promoting their equal enjoyment of human rights.
Gender quotas can be controversial – including in communities – and they need to be used carefully. Imposing a gender quota for participation in a training or event can backfire badly if it’s met with outrage. On the other hand, if the power relationship between external NGOs and local communities is often problematic, this is one instance in which it can also be used for good.
When organising external events or trainings involving community representatives, we frequently found that if no quota was given, communities would offer up only men (even if encouraged to think about including women). When asked, men in the community would say that they had asked the women but no one wanted to attend. However, when we spoke to the women, many would say they had wanted to go but the men had not given them the choice. There is an element of economic marginalisation at play here, because sometimes such events are seen by communities as an opportunity to earn cash, since they offer per diems (although very limited, these still offer cash to community members who do not always have easy access to it). Women, who are often economically marginalised, may consequently not have the power to insist on attending. But by not attending, any side benefits remain in the hands of men, and not be shared with women.
Faced with this, we have increasingly proposed equal quotas for the participation of women community representatives in events or trainings we are organising (also for indigenous people where there are both Bantu and indigenous communities involved). Although the actual result isn’t always entirely consistent with the quotas, it has had a remarkable effect on improving women’s participation, and it hasn’t had any significant pushback from communities (indeed, it has a great deal of support from women). We implemented it largely in the context of communities we knew well already – and where a lot of ground work on gender issues had already been laid – and with partners who were sympathetic to gender justice concerns, and this has no doubt helped this approach to be a success. It remains however, something that needs to be considered and approached sensitively.
Gender equitable eating
In the Congo Basin, it is customary when visiting communities for the visitors (whether NGOs, researchers or companies) to contribute towards a community meal. This is done in recognition that, by asking them to attend your meeting, you are preventing community members from undertaking their daily activities to support their livelihoods. In addition, the visitors themselves will want to eat for the duration of their stay. In many cases this may be done by buying from the community, or bringing in fresh produce, to be cooked up for a community meal at the end of the meeting.
But … who cooks the meal?
Usually, it involves a not inconsiderable number of women from the community, working through the meeting itself and preparing the food for all to eat afterwards. This means, of course, that they are unable to participate in the meeting.
We noticed this pattern on a number of occasions, and realised that we were contributing to many women being unable to participate effectively. So, we decided on a new scheme. From the next visit onwards, for each visit we hired a cook or cooks from the next village to prepare the food for the community meal (and for us if necessary). This small additional cost not only meant that every woman in the community could participate in the meeting if she wanted to, it also provided some short-term employment to women from the neighbouring villages. There are of course other ways to arrange things, such as holding meetings after a meal (but beware the attraction of sleep on a full belly!).
Doing things at home
In many villages in the Congo Basin, it can be difficult for women to leave their homes alone to travel to events outside their village. This can be the case for many reasons – because of home and care commitments, because of security concerns, or because there are familial or cultural constraints on them travelling outside their community without their husbands.
For example, in late 2016 we organised a training of more than 30 community representatives in a small community in southern Cameroon. Among the representatives who had travelled from other villages, almost all were men. But every day after finishing in the fields, almost every woman from the community came to sit in and listen to the workshop. Women have a real desire to participate. We spoke to the women who came – they said it was hard for them to go elsewhere, but they liked to attend the meetings when they were in their own villages.
From that time, we’ve made a real effort to increase the number of trainings held at the village level – as well as to vary the villages they are held in – so that as many women as possible have the opportunity to participate. And of course, we’re also initiating discussions about women travelling outside the village as well, to help reduce some of these constraints in the longer term.
Listening and learning!
It can be easy as an outsider to apply your own cultural ideas to the situation you find in a community, and to bear witness to what you consider to be bare-faced and horrible gender discrimination. And sometimes you will be right – as there is plenty of discrimination against women in communities in the Congo Basin – but it’s important to remember as well that things are not always as they appear. For example, Baka communities in Cameroon are traditionally matrilineal, and as a colleague explained to me, the men usually do most of the talking outside, but it is their wives who often really make the decisions. However, discussions between husbands and wives generally take place behind closed doors, in the privacy of the household – so it’s easy to think from a superficial glance that women have no say.
The point is simply that we need to be very careful about making assumptions about what is going on, even where we have been working with communities for many years. It’s important to ask questions, to listen to what women (and men) in each community say, and to recognise that we will always have much to learn. Moreover, ownership of the process is key, as much with gender norms as any other area of work.
Changes in gender relations within a community are much more likely to be deep and lasting if they come from the women and the men in that community, and are negotiated by women within their own cultural context.
Even if the results can sometimes look imperfect from the outside, each little step is a step forward, and success should be primarily measured from the perspective of the women whose lives it will impact.
 The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.