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August 29, 2023

Locally Led Approaches to Women’s Empowerment Programs

Promising Practices for Measuring Empowerment, Advancing Legal Reform, and Increasing Women’s Economic Empowerment

A shift toward local approaches

Historically, donor funded foreign assistance programs have centered Western ideas and ideals in the design, implementation, and measurement of progress. This has resulted in international development programs that lack sufficient contextualization to properly account for local operational realities and are unable to reflect the lived realities of the people, priorities, and needs they are designed to benefit. This type of top-down approach has left local stakeholders, such as governments, civil society, and communities, feeling as though they are passive recipients of international funding and technical assistance.

Over the last decade there has been a growing recognition that government donors and implementers alike ought to shift to an approach that prioritizes locally led approaches. Donor governments, including the US Government (USG), have begun to take steps in this direction by awarding more funding directly to local organizations, promoting local leadership within programs, and requiring co-creation between local stakeholders and international program implementers. The USAID New Partnerships Initiative and the Driving Progress Beyond Programs policy framework reflect these and other actions designed to promote locally led approaches.

The development of any society is challenging and complex and requires institutional, structural, and socio-cultural change to build more equitable, inclusive, and democratic societies. Where women’s empowerment is concerned, this type of change entails shifts in values and power structures and dynamics across multiple levels in society including the individual, household, community, organizational, and institutional. Such transformational work requires multi-generational investments that cannot solely be program bound or donor dependent but necessitate local ownership and investment for change to take root and be sustainable.

How has the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) Global Consortium implemented locally led approaches within integrated women’s empowerment programs?

WAGE localized approaches involve participatory research methods, prioritizing self-identified needs of women and their communities, consultative methods and approaches, and supporting locally led and evidenced-based advocacy. All of our programs begin with a participatory rapid needs assessment (RNA), which is a country-level analysis that validates and expands on each program’s gender and inclusion analysis. The RNA utilizes a mixed methods research approach and gathers data about women’s lived experiences in the communities where WAGE implements. The findings are then used to inform program design. Because our programs seek to transform power dynamics that disempower women and prevent them from fully participating in economic, political, and civic life including peacebuilding approaches, the RNA utilizes the five key domains required by USAID Automated Directives System (ADS) 205. These domains include Laws, Policies, Regulations, and Institutional Practices; Cultural Norms and Beliefs; Gender Roles, Responsibilities, and Time Use; Access to and Control over Assets and Resources; and Patterns of Power and Decision-Making. As issues of power and decision-making often cross-cut other domains, we have combined the domains of Gender Roles, Responsibilities, and Time Use and Patterns of Power and Decision-Making into a domain entitled Gender Roles and Power Dynamics. We have added additional domains to look specifically at Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Violence Against Women (VAW), Conflict, Crime, Instability, and Diversity and Inclusion.

Other participatory research methodologies used by WAGE include the Grounded Accountability Model (GAM). Deployed in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, GAM is a participatory research methodology utilized in the peacebuilding field to design programs that are tailored to the needs and priorities of communities. The WAGE Sri Lanka program strengthened the capacity of local women political, civil society, and economic leaders to advance women peace and security (WPS), women’s economic empowerment (WEE), and GBV awareness and prevention. Through a series of focus group discussions (FGDs), WAGE program staff, led by Search for Common Ground, consulted with communities and ascertained their definition, understanding, and experience with peace and of women’s economic empowerment. Through the FGDs, WAGE co-created indicators with local women leaders and other community members involved in the program that indicate the type of change or conditions present in their communities for them to feel peace and for women to experience empowerment.

Our localized approach in Sri Lanka also included the establishment of Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) Clubs at the community and district level in three different districts. The community-level WILL Club model was designed and rolled out by WAGE Consortium partner Grameen Foundation and drew broadly from WAGE Consortium partner Search for Common Ground’s previous experience implementing peacebuilding activities in Sri Lanka. Community-level WILL Club membership included women political, economic, and civil society leaders. The WILL Clubs were catalytic in uniting women leaders and entrepreneurs into productive groups and linking them to government stakeholders, business development services, and financial services through WEE activities led by the Grameen Foundation. The women leaders utilized these structures to cascade the skills and knowledge they gained on financial literacy, leadership, business skills, WPS, GBV, and WEE to other women in their community, generating a multiplier effect. Additionally, using a people-to-people peacebuilding approach, the Clubs served as a safe space for women leaders who would otherwise not interact due to ethnic, caste, and religious divides. By getting to know each other and collaborating to jointly solve challenges their communities were facing, they were able to interrogate their previously held stereotypes, many of which were at the root of conflict in Sri Lanka. Many of the participants reported an increased level of confidence which empowered them to effectively advocate to government. 

A major component of WAGE’s program in Eswatini focused on amending the Legal Practitioners Act (LPA) to legalize legal aid services for marginalized populations and, in particular, women at risk of GBV. Led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), WAGE’s consultative approach prioritized local consultations and inputs, which laid the foundation for the establishment of cross-sectoral advocacy coalition. Comprised of civil society organizations (CSOs), faith-based organizations (FBOs), the private sector, development partners including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Eswatini’s Human Rights Commission, and the Eswatini Law Society (Bar Association), the coalition’s growth in membership and advocacy engagement strategy were all locally led. Research generated by the program was also locally led. Conducted by a local research firm, the Legal Aid Needs Assessment is Eswatini’s first nationally representative study on legal aid and confirmed overwhelming public demand for legal aid and, specifically, legal representation in court proceedings. Through the combination of effective locally led and evidence-based advocacy, the program was able to secure the political will of the Minister of Justice. Additionally, the Ministry of Finance announced the Government’s plan to set aside resources for legal aid. At program end, the LPA had been tabled before Cabinet. Past attempts to amend the LPA, which were primarily donor/implementer-led, have not achieved this level of visibility within government.

The WAGE Consortium’s focus in Moldova and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) was to create an enabling environment to increase women’s economic empowerment. Both programs were integrated and worked at the intersection of WEE and GBV. WAGE Consortium partner the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) deployed its National Women’s Business Agenda (NWBA) methodology. The NWBA methodology is a highly localized consultative process that culminates in the development of a legislative agenda that the business community and civil society, through alliances or coalitions, utilize as an advocacy platform for joint action. The NWBA process is boosted with additional support to the participating business associations by strengthening their operations in targeted areas that are essential to their sustainability, ability to service their members, and operate in a gender-sensitive manner. Under WAGE, similar capacity building was provided to CSOs. The goal of this support was to better position local partners to continue their joint advocacy after the program ended. The NWBA also provides hands on guidance and support to coalitions to establish secretariats/steering committees and operational processes. Additionally, as programs near their end, the NWBA’s process involves developing a well thought out plan for continuity of advocacy efforts. WAGE saw significant momentum for legislative reform in Moldova and Central Asia. For example, domestic violence legislation in Uzbekistan was enacted into law. In Tajikistan, the recommendations from the NWBA were included in the “State Program for the Development of Women’s Entrepreneurship for 2023-2030”.

What has worked and what could have been done better?

To advance our Learning Agenda, WAGE convened a panel on August 9 that featured these programs and contributed to two Learning Agenda to questions.

  • Question 2a – What are some of the most promising practices in measuring women’s empowerment, including but not limited to WEE at the institutional, family and individual levels? And how do these practices manifest differently or similarly comparatively across regions?
  • Question 6 – How does wide stakeholder consultation and inclusion as well as targeted private sector engagement and public-private partnerships improve the development impact, local ownership and sustainability of project results and project learning for women’s empowerment programs?

Moderated by WAGE Director, Muthoni Kamuyu-Ojuolo (ABA ROLI), our panel included Dr. Aisalkyn Botoeva, Research Evaluation and Learning Specialist (Search for Common Ground), Bindi Jhaveri, Senior Technical Advisor Financial Services (Grameen Foundation), Armand Perry Project Coordinator and Legal Advisor (ABA ROLI), and Natalia Otel Belan, Regional Director Europe and Eurasia (CIPE). The panel explored local perspectives of what women’s empowerment means, how should these perspectives inform program design, and lessons learned from localized approaches implemented in sensitive political and cultural contexts.

When discussing the GAM in the context of Sri Lanka, Dr. Botoeva noted that while there was a degree of alignment between the GAM/localized indicators, the government policies in Sri Lanka, and the findings from the WAGE rapid needs assessment carried out towards the start of the initiative, in general the team found that the GAM methodology would be most beneficial during the program design phase in order to better guide the priorities of programs and track change over time. Botoeva also noted “localized indicators are quite different in some cases than maybe our conventional indicators that we decide to track, sometimes in a top-down manner.” For example, the participants of GAM workshops highlighted community conflicts that spark due to environmental issues. One of the indicators of peace co-developed with the participants stated, “peace is when there are lower numbers of conflicts due to environmental issues such as garbage dumping.” This indicator, along with others, suggested the need for effective environmental management and resolution of conflicts related to environmental issues. Furthermore, the participants provided specific examples of what indicates women’s empowerment. For instance, the participants noted that women are empowered when “women politicians can help local people with disabilities to obtain wheelchairs.” Botoeva closed by noting that locally developed indicators are a great source for guiding actions and promoting accountability to local communities. She also noted that “government and other donors’ objectives do not always align with community and program participants’ needs or perspectives. … Donors, implementers, and policy makers need to give more thought to how these two aspects can align better.”

In discussing lessons learned from the WILL Clubs, Jhaveri noted “we found that uniting the women political and economic leaders together into a single bargaining group really enhanced the power of both groups and allowed them to work together towards their objectives.” Where sustainability is concerned, Jhaveri noted that while in some ways sustainability was built into the program design, there were also missed opportunities WAGE could have leveraged. For example, there were few costs in the management of the WILL Clubs as, in many cases, the local government or community provided spaces for the WILL Clubs to meet. Also, the women leaders and entrepreneurs were linked to service providers who provided free trainings and support due to either their mandate or interest in working with these WILL Clubs. However, the messaging to local implementing partners and community leaders about the WILL Clubs could have more intentionally emphasized local ownership and their continued role with the WILL Clubs following the project’s end. Jhaveri also noted that registering the WILL Clubs, integrating savings and loans activities, and having microfinance groups in each of the WILL Clubs would have likely increased the sustainability of the WILL Clubs.

Perry highlighted the importance of understanding the political context in Eswatini as critical to the program’s design and effectiveness. In Eswatini, the leadership of public institutions is heavily influenced by the King. Law making is often done ‘behind closed doors’ and led by the executive. “Where other political contexts might allow for publications of white papers or green papers…that would provide policy statements or direction of where potential new laws or amendments might go, Eswatini does not have a public process before laws reach Parliament.” In addition, legislation in Eswatini goes through a heavy vetting process through Ministries and the Cabinet before they reach Parliament. Perry noted building trust among government actors and getting their buy-in was a challenge that required a lot of investment on the partnership side. Providing government evidence that public demand existed for legal aid put the government on solid ground for lending its political will to these efforts.

In Moldova and Central Asia, Otel Belan noted that one of the key challenges was that there was not a clear understanding within the women’s business community about the type of role they could play in addressing GBV, including sexual harassment. In both contexts GBV is a very sensitive topic, and the private sector often finds it irrelevant to its immediate growth goals. Otel Belan also noted that “many parts of civil society have not worked on this issue and have not collaborated with the private sector on this and they would like the organizational capacity to address these challenges.” WAGE introduced several strategies to address this including holding trainings and inter-organizational dialogues on WEE and GBV and developing resources for the private sector on how to address GBV as a barrier to women’s social and economic participation. Male engagement was also a key consideration for the programs in Moldova and Central Asia. This meant having male allies that not only supported the women in the coalitions, but who also worked together with the coalitions to advance women’s economic empowerment goals. Otel Belan noted one example in Kazakhstan where a male ally helped coalition members become part of a government working group to advance some of their priorities - "Prior to the program [the coalition members] didn’t have access to this, these organizations didn’t know how to engage with government, so this male ally helped to pave that channel of communication and these women became members of the working group.”

Published on August 30, 2023.

About the Author

Muthoni Kamuyu-Ojuolo, Program Director, Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), has close to two decades in the field of international development with regional expertise in Africa. Over the course of her career, she has focused on democracy and governance, women’s empowerment, and rule of law. Prior to joining ABA ROLI, Muthoni served as the Director for Africa and Accountable Governance at PartnersGlobal, where she led a range of rule of law programs designed to improve inter-agency coordination on criminal justice reform. During her 10 year tenure at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), she designed and managed political inclusion programs that increased the participation of women, youth, and people with disabilities in elections and prepared women to run for elected office. As the lead for NDI’s extractive industry governance programs, she drove consensus among government, corporations, and communities to secure the environmental rights and protections of mining and oil communities and in particular women living in these communities. At the Center for International Private Enterprise, Muthoni’s work focused on organizing informal sector workers for joint action to advance policy, legislative, and regulatory priorities that would enable them to enter the formal economy. Muthoni has led and managed programs in several African countries including The Gambia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia to name a few.  She earned a BA in International Business with a concentration in Finance from Eastern Michigan University and is a proud alum of Howard University where she earned a MA in African Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution. 

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.