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When women get together great things are possible - lessons from Raising Her Voice

Posted by Emily Brown Gender and Governance Adviser

11th Nov 2013

A rally for the domestic violence bill in Pakistan. Credit: Oxfam

For five years Raising Her Voice worked in 17 countries to promote women's participation and influence in decision making. Here Emily Brown, programme coordinator, shares her lessons as we launch the final programme evaluation and summary.

'A few years back when I visited their villages, these women used to hide their faces when I asked them to say something. Now, within a year or two, things have changed completely. Now I have to be well prepared before I go to hold a discussion session with them.'  Mr Mohan Lamsal, Village Development Committee Secretary, Nepal

'...these women used to hide their faces when I asked them to say something. Now... things have changed completely'As coordinator of Oxfam's Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme for the last three years I have had the huge pleasure of working alongside some inspirational colleagues and partners in 17 countries. Some Raising Her Voice (RHV) projects, have seen deeply transformative changes - like the change captured in the quote above from Nepal - in an incredibly short space of time. Others have worked in areas of governance - like changing the culture of municipal council engagement with local people in Honduras - where small successes are part of a much longer process of change. There are no recipes for success, but together, we've learnt some helpful lessons along the way - and many of the 17 projects have adapted and evolved accordingly.

The range of approaches, strategies, entry points and alliances used by RHV programme teams and partners globally have made making sense of such varied work a tricky task. But we've learnt huge amounts from this diversity too. The evaluation summary documents the powerful impacts of this combined work - and highlights five reasons why more should be done to ensure that women's voice and influence are an integral part of the way decisions are made.

Five reasons why we need to Raise Her Voice 

  1. It results in more public money that is better spent and improved local services.

  2. More women in decision-making spaces creates greater transparency and improved accountability in the countries and communities in which we work.

  3. The results of collaborations with 45 local partners, 141 community activist groups, and over 1,005 coalition members have powerfully demonstrated that when women get together great things are possible - and they're harder to ignore.  RHV legal successes across 17 countries include contributions to   ten new laws to prevent and protect against gender-based violence, and  nine laws on a wider spectrum of women's rights.   

  4. RHV projects have shown a stronger understanding over five years of how power works, where it lies and how to influence it. The evaluation documents numerous examples of RHV partners and coalitions successfully changing the rules of the game - addressing the structural as well as the practical barriers to gender equality.

  5. Efforts to prevent violence against women and girls and gender-based violence have been critical to our success. The evaluation recognises the significant barrier gender based violence poses a significant barrier to women's freedoms as well as the violence that women leaders and activists risk from those fearful of challenges to the status quo.

Colleagues and partners around the world have put immense amounts of time and generosity into thinking and documenting how they understand the changes -good, bad and ugly - happening in their communities, projects, organisations, institutions and countries. Our ning site www.raisinghervoice.ning/com shares many of these voices and reflections through numerous videos, case studies and blogs

This is all part of steadily-growing work in Oxfam and in the global women's movement to bring more women's voices into decision making spaces at all levels. But much more than that....it is about making sure that the women we work with - both as individuals and as groups, networks and coalitions - have the necessary long-term support to really influence the ways in which the game is played.

No one's articulated it more powerfully for me than Bertha Zapeta, an activist working with our project in Guatemala.

'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.'

Across the RHV community, we've paid deliberate attention to documenting what we've learned; knowing that evidencing the value and impact of our approaches, making the case for more and better investment of this kind is perhaps this programme's most powerful legacy.

Our combined reflection on what has worked most effectively in supporting programmes seeking to strengthen governance and challenge inequality could be summed up in the following five recommendations.

Five recommendations for strengthening governance and challenging inequality

Raising Her Voice final evaluation
  1. Women's voices need to be an integral part of the way decisions are made.

  2. All three spheres - the personal, social and political - and their inter-relationships need to be addressed.

  3. Future investments in women's empowerment programming should explicitly support change in the personal sphere.

  4. Recognise the critical importance of women's organisations, coalitions and activist networks. Particularly in a context of declining funding and the erosion of women's rights by economic crises and religious fundamentalism.

  5. It takes time to change women's abilities to participate in, influence and lead the decisions that affect their lives. Funded projects should be conceived as part of a longer-term, process of change.

The maths is simple - five reasons to do more to increase women's voice and influence and five ways to do it better. 

Or, in the words of a RHV community leader in Pakistan: 'One and one is eleven.  Alone one person is only one, but when another person joins they gain the power of eleven'.

Together, globally, the work continues! 

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Blog post written by Emily Brown

Gender and Governance Adviser

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Emily Brown