Women's involvement in local leadership (WILL): Facilitating effective and sustainable participation in community organizations and democratic culture building
The research was designed to examine the impact that CHF International's programmatic approaches for enhancing the skills, experience and confidence of women have had on their ability to contribute effectively as leaders in organizations building sustainable, representative and democratic change in their communities. Interviews in the three countries studied confirmed previous findings in the literature and the research team's assumptions that while the path to leadership for women is facilitated by a range of factors, particularly critical are access to education, some level of economic independence, and the existence of programs designed to give women leadership roles in their communities. Beyond these conditions, the WILL research led to several conclusions that have implications for future programming.
Several conclusions were derived from the WILL research. Some provided new detail in the analysis of the role of women and many confirmed factors identified by previous research.
> In all three countries, women who attained local leadership were sometimes seen by their male counterparts as credible leaders who bring new and valuable perspectives to the tasks at hand, though that credibility typically came only after time had allowed successful women leaders to demonstrate value. This credibility was built around perceptions that women in community decision-making bodies brought substantive attention to a range of issues that may not have been considered without female participation, such as the improvement of education and healthcare facilities, and practical community development needs. Women attributed their unique abilities in part to positive qualities associated with the nature of their family responsibilities, such as responsibility, discipline, reliable work habits and ability to solve practical problems. Due to dangers often inherent in challenging existing mores, programs that built on traditional family responsibilities avoided risks (see subsequent conclusions below).
> NGO programs were credited for creating the necessary space to exercise and develop their leadership skills within organizations, which was previously lacking due to the conflict or traditional gender norms.
> The research team found strong across-the-board commitment among female interviewees to leadership defined as service to the community, communication skills and rights advocacy, ideas which are congruent with democratic values.
> Most female interviewees were ambivalent about national level female political leadership, often attributing women's involvement at this level to mere quota-filling by male-dominated, often corrupt leadership. This view is compounded by a widespread distrust of national level politics reported by both men and women, although many hoped to see increased credibility for national female political leadership over time. Overall, interviewees in all three countries had much more trust in and higher expectations for leadership at the local and municipal levels.
> Establishing a quota for women's participation appears to be a useful, although not sufficient, strategy to work toward gender equity in visible leadership roles. To be effective, quotas should be coupled with sustained enforcement measures and interventions where necessary. Even within the quota system - and sometime due to the onus of perceptions of forced participation - women required support to find and perform in leadership roles.
> A particularly effective approach to building credibility was through programs that combined tangible services for income-generation and micro-enterprise projects with leadership building. These approaches were more effective
Iraq in opening doors for women, particularly among vulnerable groups. Building incomes provided leverage for women in systems where credibility was difficult to attain. Training and support for tangible gains in health, education, and personal rights were also effective programmatic tools.
> Programs that built women's ability to assume leadership roles came with risks in societies where visible female leadership was not accepted.
> Programs aimed exclusively at giving women leadership roles are sometimes perceived as threatening to family unity. To be effective, programs should consider adding to the community participation approach by including appropriate interventions that help men in conflict-affected communities accept and appreciate leadership roles for women. This may mean taking a family-centered approach in order to foster an integrated development solution that offers men incentives to change their attitudes toward women and reduces the potential for domestic backlash against women who become local leaders. The dynamics in conflict situations are especially complex and solutions must be creative, adaptive and risk-aware.
> Establishing support systems, mentorship programs, and exchange of experiences with other women in leadership may be helpful in building the confidence of women to seek and value leadership positions.
> As has been identified before, common obstacles to women's involvement in local leadership include: traditional social and family structures, lack of financial resources, low levels of self-esteem, and contradictory pressures to provide economically for their children while also giving precedence to the demands of childrearing over employment opportunities, education and community participation.
The WILL study was made possible by support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and was conducted through a partnership between CHF International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) and the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), a Georgetown University-based research center. The findings are based on open-ended, in-person interviews with male and female program participants, NGO staff, and government stakeholders.
The location of the interviews and the particular people to be interviewed were determined prior to the arrival of the research teams by CHF field offices in the three countries. The team intentionally chose to interview women who had achieved some measure of leadership and sought to understand the factors that accounted for their achievements. The research team did not go to the field with a specific definition of the concept of female leader. Rather, in order to work with definitions appropriate to each of the cultures and contexts studied, researchers asked the interviewees themselves to define leadership and the characteristics of a female leader.
> In Colombia, where an estimated two to three million people have been displaced due to the ongoing violence that has marred the country's last 40 years, CHF is managing a national program to provide humanitarian and developmental assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs). The WILL study focused primarily on women who had been displaced from the rural to the urban and peri-urban areas and were being served by a range of NGOs, including CHF International. Researchers identified women who had remade their lives, acquired advanced levels of education, assumed managerial responsibilities, and were directly helping other women develop their skills and experience.
> In Serbia, the research was conducted in a number of towns in the east and south of the country, a region heavily affected by unemployment and low wages due to the consequences of post-war economic transition. CHF's programs in Serbia have supported female leadership primarily through the establishment of Community Development Councils (CDCs) that are democratically selected to prioritize and manage large-scale community infrastructure projects. The CDCs require 30% of membership to be reserved for women, which combined with other components that award grants to burgeoning entrepreneurs, are addressing some of the clear obstacles women face in their paths to leadership.
> In Iraq, the WILL study was conducted in the more conservative rural areas where there are religious restrictions on free movement and social interaction. Even in these regions, CHF's activities are giving women the opportunity to participate in activities that benefit their society collectively. Women are actively encouraged to join Community Action Groups (CAGs), similar to CDCs, with the understanding that men and women will not necessarily meet together but must still coordinate with each other on community decisions. The CHF practice of imposing a 30% quota for female participation in the CAGs is gradually being put into effect over the next three years.