The power of collective action to achieve gender equality

February 06, 2019
Rosy, who comes from a line of traditional Indigenous midwives, became a professional midwife and offers her services at the Indigenous women’s house of San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero, Mexico.
Sarai Fabián/ Kinal Antzetik Distrito Federal A.C.

Women all over the world are harnessing their collective power to address inequalities.

In four southern Mexican states, Indigenous health promoters and midwives have joined together to increase women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and to legal services in cases of violence.

In India, local facilitators working for a government program have supported more than 1.2 million poor women in forming community-based groups to identify and address problems such as lack of water and sanitation, food supply, and violence.

Research supported by IDRC is highlighting how the power of collective action can successfully overcome the negative impacts of patriarchal and gender norms.

India: National women’s collective program focuses on process

Mahila Samakhya (which translates to “Equal Rights of Women”), founded in India in 1989, is a national program that gained global renown for working in 42,000 villages in 11 Indian states. It is because of the impressive scope of the program that the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) in Bangalore began a three-year evaluation of the program in 2014, with support from Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women, an initiative funded by IDRC, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Niveditha Menon is a senior research advisor at CBPS. Her knowledge of Mahila Samakhya has spawned a deep respect for how the program’s almost exclusive focus on process allowed women themselves to identify their most pressing issues and create important outcomes.

“What I want to capture is that the program — and I’m saying this because it was a government program — did not have any targets to meet. It did not have any predetermined outcomes,” she said during an IDRC-sponsored panel in October 2018. “The idea was that women’s sense of their lives and their belief systems were paramount in deciding what would occur."

Another of the program’s unique features was its open-ended acceptance that change would take time. “There was no time limit to what could be achieved,” she said. The model guiding Mahila Samakhya’s success involved training village-level facilitators. “They called them sisters, or someone who goes along with you,” she explained.

The “sisters” convinced marginalized and poor women in remote villages to sit in circles to talk about what mattered in their lives and to find ways of addressing the issues. They might discuss food rations that were late in arriving, the need for better toilets in a community, or safe schools for young women. Over time, many of the collectives formed women’s federations at regional levels. The federations created unique institutions such as literacy schools for girls and a women’s court that helped women deal with the judicial system when they were victims of violence or theft.

Impact evaluation ramped up into advocacy

CBPS was working on its impact evaluation when the newly elected national government announced plans to shut down the program. CBPS therefore participated in a large advocacy campaign to secure state funding for the program’s continuation, describing in a policy brief the scope, value, and impact of the Mahila Samakhya approach. Some states eventually agreed to fund regional programs.

Focusing on the program’s work in Bihar and Karnataka states, the CBPS team finished its impact evaluation at the end of 2017. Their 30-minute video captures the spirit and strength of previously marginalized women who are making collective action a new way of life in villages throughout India.

CBPS learned that providing women with the space and time to determine the means and ends of their own empowerment journey was key to its success and sustainability. The researchers also found that women’s empowerment initiatives must be locally grounded and supported. Upon entering a community the program needed the support of some of the local men and the local administration, known as panchayats and anganwadis, to enable the formation of a strong women’s group.

CBPS also sought to improve understanding of the meaning and process of empowerment, especially the impact on women’s mobility, decision-making, and participation in economic activities. In communities with long-standing women’s collectives, the researchers observed changes in household dynamics. Women gained bargaining power, likely connected to their increased social visibility and community acceptance. The daughters of group members also had better health and education than their peers.

Mexico: Women mobilizing to change health policy

The high maternal death rate among Indigenous women in Mexico — three times the national average — and high rates of domestic violence prompted community-based organizations to run Casas de la Mujer Indigena (Indigenous women’s houses). Working in some of the country’s poorest regions since 2004, the program is recognized nationally and globally as a successful strategy to strengthen the rights of Indigenous women.

Lina Rosa Berrio Palomo, research professor at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City, says that many of the shifts that have institutionalized Indigenous women’s rights in the country’s health policy got their start at these village-level groups.

“The work originates in small groups of Indigenous women in their communities talking about empowerment, about economic development, about health, about many different topics,” she told the audience at the October panel.

Combining evidence, action, and policy influence

The casas serve as a bridge between the health system and Indigenous women. There are now 30 casas offering a variety of front-line health services such as birth control, information on family planning, health prevention campaigns, prenatal care, traditional ways of attending births, and midwifery. Actions against violence include public education campaigns, legal counselling, emotional support, and case documentation.

The casas have coupled action with advocacy to help the agencies that provide services to Indigenous women adopt a holistic approach, with public funding for Indigenous language translators, for example, and a growing legitimization of Indigenous midwives.

Although they started out as a pilot project, the casas obtained program status with fixed funding in 2012. “This is important because it's the continuity of the project, as a part of public policy to Indigenous people,” says Berrio. “How can we guarantee the continuity of our initiatives? By institutionalizing some of them."

Berrio was part of an IDRC-funded investigation launched in 2012 that examined how Mexican civil society organizations, networks, and collectives are influencing public health policy and improving Indigenous women’s health. The changes documented and analyzed across several cases capture the importance of addressing the root causes of inequality; creating safe spaces for women to exercise their rights and access services; and recognizing Indigenous peoples as enablers of change and of their own development.

“Nothing for us, without us”

Experiences in India and Mexico find echoes in the work of Women in Informal Employment, Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a network dedicated to empowering informal workers. Sofia Trevino, program support manager for WIEGO, who was also at the October panel, said that three conditions have guided the international group’s theory of change: voice, visibility, and validity.

In its work supporting female domestic workers’ organizations, WIEGO responds to what the women themselves propose. “One of the things the workers themselves say is, ‘Nothing for us, without us.’ We need inclusive policies,” said Trevino.

In diverse contexts — a national equity-seeking program in India, Indigenous women’s access to health in Mexico, and domestic workers internationally — women’s desire to have their voices heard is truly resulting in a new level of visibility.

Lina Rosa Berrio Palomo, Niveditha Menon, and Sofia Trevino were panelists in the “Solutions for Gender Equality” speaker series. They spoke at the panel discussion “Mobilizing women’s collective action for change” on October 10, 2018 in Ottawa, Canada. The speaker series builds a narrative of IDRC’s efforts to support gender equality globally, leading up to Women Deliver 2019, an international conference on gender equality to be held in Vancouver from June 3-6, 2019.