Top Ten Interventions for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality

Proven ways to make programs work and empower women

By John Coonrod, Executive Vice President, The Hunger Project

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Monday Developments Magazine

Gender discrimination is a root cause of hunger and poverty. Women and girls—the majority of the poor—face a lifetime of marginalization, often reinforced by violence or the threat of violence. As pointed out 40 years ago by Ester Boserup, development activities that fail to deliver the majority of their inputs to females are actually making things worse by widening the gender gap.

Progress is being made, particularly through increasing girls’ enrollment in school. Far too little progress, however, has been made in other critical sectors such as a woman’s health and nutrition, income generation and having voice in the decisions that affect her life. Here are ten vital interventions (not in any necessary order) that are making a difference.

1. Gender analysis. Too often, gender is an afterthought in project design. Projects that intend to include women are designed to work within a prevailing culture that advantages men and presents numerous obstacles to women’s participation—not the least of which is women’s triple burden of income generation, subsistence farming and caring for the family. Often, mid-project it is discovered that women are not participating and then steps are taken to empower women to participate in a program that simply does not work for them, only adding further burden and anxiety.

As Bela Abzug said, “I don’t want to be mainstreamed into a polluted stream.” The first step in the design of EVERY project must be to identify the specific gender barriers to women’s participation in the initiative and the most high-leverage actions needed to eliminate them. Hopefully, the project also identifies the most promising trends in the society that are bending the arc of history towards gender justice and puts wind in the sails of those trends. Project design must start with the reality faced by women. It must also build institutions around women that are within their reach, which work for women and which women control. Programs that work within the extreme constraints faced by women inevitably work for men as well and men can then be included.

2. Reducing drudgery. Women don’t have time for development. They are the first to rise and the last to go to bed, working on average twice the hours of men, often with the most backbreaking work: hauling water and firewood, pounding grain, weeding farms using short-handed hoes and with children on their back, head-carrying produce to market and working as laborers.

Technology is only appropriate if it is appropriate for women. Investments in daycare centers, grain mills, wheeled carts, nearby water supplies and sustainable woodlots can free up women’s time for training, leadership and new enterprises.

3. Rights awareness. Many of the world’s most impoverished women are confined to their households. They lack mobility and freedom of association and have no opportunity to learn their rights and take action to improve their lives and those of their family members.

One successful strategy implemented by The Hunger Project in Bangladesh is “court yard meetings” led by “Barefoot Lawyers.” In this program, at least two of the most dynamic women volunteers in each village receive intensive training in the legal and reproductive rights of women. Given the trust and respect they already have in the village, they bring rights awareness to the doorstep of women currently confined to their homes. The Barefoot Lawyers become the one link impoverished women have to the worldwide movement for social justice, as well as to resources and educational opportunities.

4. Equal leadership. Women are denied a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. The best way to transform this condition is to uncompromisingly require that at least 50 percent of leadership positions be reserved for women: from village councils to parliaments. Studies show that when women becomes leaders in their local community, they transform the development agenda—focusing on water, sanitation, health, education and nutrition, and combating corruption, social exclusion and domestic violence.

A woman’s journey in finding her leadership voice can be greatly accelerated by mentoring, building an organized constituency among the women of the community, leadership training and building federations with other women leaders.

5. Organize. In unity, there is strength: economic, political and social. Investments in building strong grassroots women’s organizations, federations and cooperatives provide women sustainable platforms for advocacy and mutual empowerment.

6. Financial services. Muhammad Yunus has called access to financial services a human right. The recent book, Portfolios of the Poor shows how women need credit not only for starting or supporting small enterprises, but also for coping with great seasonal fluctuations in family income. Poor women often juggle multiple loans at usurious rates just to survive.

Numerous studies show that when women control money, it is far more likely to be invested in the health, nutrition and education of children than when men control the money. And in cultures where women even touching money has been taboo, the visible presence of women as economic players in the community, to the benefit of all, catalyzes progress towards social and political equality.

7. Functional adult literacy. Hundreds of millions of women have never had the opportunity of formal education. Women are twice as likely to be non-literate as men. Literacy is more than skill acquisition; it is the reclamation of autonomous selfhood and agency. This means women experiencing themselves as makers of history rather than the victims of it. It means they can avoid being cheated in the marketplace, learn far more rapidly, and connect and find themselves in the great currents of human discourse worldwide. Recent innovations are speeding the end of illiteracy, such as subtitling Hindi films in Hindi, so that women learn to read as they sing along.

8. Health services. Access to affordable health services is a fundamental human right for women and their children, a right that is out of reach for hundreds of millions of women. Treating the illness of a child can bankrupt a family. The lack of prenatal care and attended childbirth can be fatal. Most women are constrained by the distance they are able to walk back and forth in a day with their child—meaning it is vitally important that health care be within 10 kilometers, including reproductive health and pre-natal care, nutrition training and micronutrient supplements.

Expanding the number of nurse midwives and providing them with a suitable clinic, housing, basic supplies and regular supervision can meet the vast majority of unmet medical needs—and is already doing so for millions of people. Governments have learned that if they train middle-aged women as nurses, they will likely stay in the community where they have roots. When equipped with cell phones and access to physician consultations, they can save even more lives.

Scarce professional skills can be greatly leveraged by the voluntary efforts of community health committees and trained volunteers who can fan out from the nurse midwife and bring health education and services to the remotest locations. This is just one step needed to overcome the social barriers women face when coming to a health center to give birth.

9. Halting child marriage. Marriage before age 18 is a profound violation of human rights. It cuts short a girl’s education and freedom of choice. It also often costs her her life, because early pregnancy is a leading cause of maternal mortality. As women have organized and gained voice, they have made halting child marriage a top priority. Awareness campaigns are coupled with direct action to intervene and halt child marriage.

10. Prosecuting gender-based violence. In many cultures, domestic violence (including rape, incest and murder) is endemic and nearly always occurs with impunity. Women’s faces are burned with acid when they spurn romantic advances; honor killings occur if women fall in love. In many areas, if a woman were to report abuse or rape at a police station, she may be attacked again or imprisoned for having had unlawful sex.

Today, as women organize, they are finding others with whom they feel safe to reveal their secrets of abuse. They can act collectively to demand justice from the police. Women are connected to networks that can draw public attention to cases; and this glimmer of a chance for justice is encouraging more women to step from the shadows. Acid victims are pulling back their veils and forcing society to confront the private horrors women face. Today, these worst manifestations of inhumanity are losing their power to halt human progress and the momentum for gender justice is growing.

Learn more about The Hunger Project’s work using these interventions.