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Harnessing local activism - the impact of Women Leader Groups in Pakistan

Posted by Emily Brown Gender and Governance Adviser

7th Mar 2012

Women's community meeting in Pakistan

Raising Her Voice (RHV) aims to promote the rights and capacity of poor women to engage effectively in governance at all levels. RHV projects run in 17 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In the run up to International Women's Day, RHV Coordinator for Oxfam GB Emily Brown gives a personal reflection on the impact the programme is having in Pakistan.


The most striking thing about my first visit to Pakistan was the contradiction between an almost total lack of women in public spaces, high rates of violence against women,  a government structure increasingly committed to promoting de facto gender equality and my interactions with so many extremely confident, politically astute women. 

Oxfam GB and the Aurat Foundation are trying to bridge this gap via a Raising Her Voice programme that harnesses the talents of community activists and women leaders.

There have been critical gains to promote women's rights in Pakistan, rolling back restrictive legislation of the 1980s following the 1979 Hudood Ordinances. These include the 2010 Anti-Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act, the Acid Control and Crime Prevention Bill and the Anti-Customary Practices Bill.  

But challenges remain, for example, of 25 'gender crime cell' government posts nationally only two are currently estimated to be filled.  And concerns about increasing insecurity - both real and perceived - impacts on women's freedom to move and participate in public life. 

The RHV programme is part of a wider Oxfam programme of work to end violence against women and builds on the Aurat Foundation's existing Community Action Committees (vibrant structures designed to foster local activism and volunteerism) by supporting the establishment of 50 Women Leader Groups (WLGs) in 30 districts of Pakistan. 

The 1,500 women leaders - teachers, community leaders, home workers, former councillors - are all community activists, highly committed, well-connected and very inventive in finding solutions to local problems. They have strong links to their local Community Action Committees, providing them with a grounding in community needs and concerns and a good support base for local advocacy - their social capital.

One way for the Women Leader Groups to reach out to their communities is via ID card registration. Without ID cards women cannot vote, travel, access social assistance grants. RHV works closely with another AF programme to register women without ID cards with the national registration body, NADRA. Over 107,000 women and men have benefited from the collaboration. 

The registration programme provides a tangible entry point for the women leaders: the concrete benefits help to build relationships and trust in her ability to advocate alongside them in future. 

Another central function of the WLGs is to map and increase awareness of access to existing local resources - including the Benazir Income Support Programme, Zakat committee social welfare grants and little-known statutory maternity leave grants.

The WLGs were established to support women in local government elections - but elections have not been held since 2008. However, Asim Malik, the RHV national coordinator feels confident that around 70% of the 1,500 women leaders will maintain their involvement with the programme and with their community action committees after RHV finishes in 2013. Seats have also been allocated for women in the 2013 provincial elections and several WLGs members are likely to stand. 

The women I met were incredibly motivated - and inspired by the strong sense of "its 'we', not 'I'" created through the WLG structures. I witnessed a strong sense of ownership and pride in their significant achievements. Membership of the WLGs has given many women leaders new personal, public, and political standing and influence; all the more significant in Pakistan as public spaces and roles for women remain limited. 

Members of the Multan WLG group explained they had formed subgroups of women working specifically on education, health, legal rights and social organising. Members write articles and some hold study circles for women in their community.

A few examples of the high levels of engagement and value of the wider network that struck me:

  • WLGs are developing informal directories of member's skills and contacts so that they can pool resources, cross-refer cases and increase mutual support. In some areas formal directories of local service providers and available assistance have also been produced. 
  • Women from 2 different communities are working to resolve cases of sexual abuse (by management staff) in local schools. 
  • Another filed a court stay order to ensure 15% representation for women in her Hafizabad Zakat (Islamic relief fund) Committee which had been recently established with an entirely unelected male membership. 4 women have since been appointed.
  • Male members of local government attest to the value of having WLG members providing outside pressure and media attention on specific cases and bottlenecks - helping them move things internally. 

The project also recognises that community activism is most effective when complimented by targeted work to challenge the structural, systemic exclusion of women from power and decision making. WLGs are now targeting Pakistan's political parties: one of the most powerful spaces for policy making (and blocking) with a comprehensive manifesto which they are calling for parties to sign up to. 

Commitments include an increase of women's political representation to 50 % in legislative structures and to ensure that the election commission take steps to stop holding elections in constituencies where women are not allowed to vote. In Lahore I joined a Provincial Assembly of women leaders gathered to learn more about the proposed Domestic Violence Act. Strategically invited cross-party representation from women Provincial MPs (PMPs) on the panel has helped to strengthen political support for the WLGs and provided an opportunity for women leaders to speak directly to PMPs. 

 I was incredibly impressed by the project model: the women leaders are both well grounded in their local communities - working closely alongside them to help them protect their rights - and also finding powerful ways to influence longer term, structural changes through local and district decision-making. 

See the RHV ning site for six videos documenting some of this political work including: http://raisinghervoice.ning.com/video/turning-lives-around-oxfam

Blog post written by Emily Brown

Gender and Governance Adviser

More by Emily Brown

Emily Brown