After twenty-five years working on women’s rights and development issues, I feel hopeful that we are close to a breakthrough. This is in part due to the growing movements triggered by #MeToo and #TimesUp, but also because women around the world -- from India, Tunisia, and Nigeria, to Ireland and the United States -- are organizing, protesting, and demanding their rights. They are participating in peace processes, advocating for political power, and demanding more just laws. Unfortunately, these movements often lack the voices and stories of the large group of marginalized women who live in conflict-affected areas and below the poverty line.
Whether in Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the majority of impoverished and conflict-affected women are deprived of the opportunities, skills, and networks needed for political participation and social mobilization. They are vulnerable not only to challenging gender norms, but also to war, food insecurity, climate change, and extreme poverty. To ensure we achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 – achieving gender equality and parity – we must ensure women who are traditionally marginalized – including those living in conflict-affected areas – have the opportunity to gain the skills, tools, and support needed to be decision-makers within their own communities and beyond. And in most cases, that process begins at home.
If women do not have the power to make decisions about their own economic and social participation, and if their husbands and families prevent them from getting an education, earning an income, running for office, or being part of public life, how can they contribute to political change?
The real question -- how do you shift decision-making power within the home?
Review after review reveal that the place where we see the least change is in women’s decision-making power at home. Take micro-finance programing for example: through this model more money is brought into the house, however there is no guarantee that women will have the power or opportunity to make decisions about how that income is spent.
If we want to strengthen women’s political participation and decision-making power and ensure they have a seat at the “table”, then we cannot leave out the women who still don’t have the pathways to get to that seat, the language to speak at the table, and the tools and networks to amplify their voices.
This is why Women for Women International starts at the micro level and strives to ensure women are empowered to influence decision-making in their homes and in their communities through a one year social and economic empowerment program. Through this program, women earn and save money, develop health and wellbeing, create and connect to networks of support and increase their decision-making power. For example, establishing or joining village savings and loans associations (VSLAs) or being referred to local healthcare providers to learn how to manage their reproductive health, and family hygiene. Importantly, the participants also learn about their fundamental rights and the importance of civic participation, voting, and supporting other women to do the same.
Program evaluations reveal that upon graduating from the comprehensive course, more women engage in their families’ financial decision making (63% before and 91% after) and more women have a voice in their household family planning decisions (53% before the program and 93% after). These changes in women’s decision-making power positively impacts not only themselves but also their families and communities.
Research shows that when women are socially and economically empowered, they invest in their families and communities and advocate for the rights of the disadvantaged. Women for Women International’s graduates prove this every day. More than 475,000 women in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan have gained critical skills and the decision-making power needed to pursues a brighter, healthier, and more secure future for their families.
Take the experience of Hosai Bayani from Afghanistan. Hosai’s husband abandoned her without explanation. She and her two children were forced to move in with her in-laws who resented their imposition. In need of new opportunities, Hosai signed up for the Women for Women International training program which not only provided her with new skills but also cultivated a passion for helping survivors of violence. This eventually led to a job with Women for Women International as a trainer. With new earning power, she gained the respect of her in-laws and the community which ultimately inspired her to run for a local government office. Today, Hosai is building peace and bringing change in her community. She is a respected decision-maker in her home, her community, and in her government demonstrating the impact of investing in women’s agency and the leadership skills needed to have her voice heard and respected.
Hosai is just one example but the same story and impact of women taking on leadership roles in their neighborhoods, villages, towns, and countries remains true in other conflict-affected and impoverished communities around the world. Women survivors of war have the resilience and courage to be leaders. They just need the support to develop skills and to be connected to networks that will amplify their voices.
At this critical moment of global conversation for accountability for sexual harassment and violence and changing laws around the world to protect women’s rights, we must also hold our movements accountable and ensure we include the marginalized women who are often silenced by war and poverty. If we truly want to set the agenda for change and women’s empowerment, this inclusion is the only way we will ensure that movement drives change for and with women everywhere.