Women’s Groups Need More Support to Lead Social Change
On March 8, 2017 in Accra, Ghana, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) organised a forum on the many intersections and challenges around Faith, Feminisms and Fundamentalisms to commemorate International Women’s Day. I was invited to attend the event and thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives from the various panellists.
It was revealing to hear about the strides that are being made to empower African women to claim and defend their rights by women’s groups of various societal and religious persuasions. The gathering revealed that female life expectancy is increasing, more girls are going to school, more women are in the paid workforce and many countries have introduced laws to protect women’s rights.
However, it was interesting to note that gender disparities remain with insignificant breakthrough in women’s participation in decision-making processes and little progress on legislation in favour of women’s rights to own land and property. At the end of the event, I understood the critical need for women’s groups to be supported to fight against inequality to transform our societies.
Historically, women’s groups in West Africa existed as distinct, autonomous, formal and informal units for organising social relations and productive work. Traditional African women's groups were classified as anti-power movements, that is, groups engaged in struggles not to gain power but simply to defend and maintain their autonomy. With the advent of colonisation, they began to play important roles in production and distribution.
In response to their new roles, women's organisations such as market women's associations, farmers' groups, and hawkers' associations emerged. Although these organisations were essentially economic in their aims, they often played political, social and development roles.
In recent times, women’s groups have emerged as important constituents of civil society. Their networks, coalitions and support groups have impacted women’s right’s leadership. These groups have been encouraging and training significant numbers of women for informed leadership positions even though they are inherently smaller and weaker than most civil society formations. Despite the challenges they face, they continue to make significant contributions to civil society as a whole and society at large.
However, these groups face peculiar leadership, accountability and legitimacy challenges that have inhibited their growth and relevance. These groups also struggle with mobilising resources, financial record keeping and reporting, a clear understanding of the gender dimensions of leadership and the evolving dynamics of public policy making.
These challenges continue to hamper the ability of women’s groups to deliver on their mandates and affect their credibility with key stakeholders such as governments and development partners. It has become clear thatin a fast changing, male-dominated environment, women’s groups need specialised skills, in advocacy, leadership, management, networking and alliance building. Above all, they need to consistently dialogue in a deliberate manner with like-minded groups locally, nationally and regionally.
In response to this, WACSI continues to engage with women’s groups to integrate gender concerns in its programming and actively facilitate governance and leadership development within their constituencies. For example, in 2008 and 2009, AWDF provided WACSI with financial and technical support to organise a capacity development programme to strengthen governance and leadership within women’s formations. This initiative recorded successes including providing leaders of women’s groups the opportunity to conduct self-analyses of the operational challenges and strengths of their respective organisations.
Feedback from the participating organisations prompted AWDF and WACSI to organise further capacity development interventions in 2011for women’s groups in post conflict countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The initiative improved the effectiveness of oversight bodies and management of participating organisations like Women and Children Advocacy (WOCAD), Liberia and the Association of Female Lawyers of Cote d’Ivoire (AFJ-CI). According to Hawa K. Doe of WOCAD, the programme had strengthened her capability to effectively manage organisational resources, initiate a culture of strategic planning and results-based management. In addition, the initiative was also successful in providing WACSI and AWDF with additional insights on the specific capacity needs of women’s formations in the region.
In 2016, WACSI once again approached the AWDF to support the participation of women leaders and grassroots activists to attend and participate in the International Society for Third Sector Research Africa Network conference to leverage on the platform to share experiences as members of women’s movements and to tell their own stories.
The enormous evidence of women’s formations contributing to reducing inequality calls for the boosting of initiatives that strengthen their leadership, accountability and technical capacities. Over the years, women’s groups, even though considerably constrained, have proven their robustness and resilience. Sadly, too many women are prevented from claiming their full human rights because of poverty, violence and inequality. Therefore, for women’s groups to lead social change, there is need for more coordinated and sustainable support especially in marginalised communities in rights-based education, livelihood and leadership development opportunities.
*The Author, Charles Kojo Vandyck is WACSI’s Head of Capacity Development