Malawi President Joyce Banda and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered blunt advice Monday to those seeking ways to translate the principle of gender equality into practice: “Listen to the women.”
Africa's first two female heads of state addressed a gathering hosted by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency charged with delivering development assistance in partnership with countries committed to the rule of law and good economic and democratic governance.
The session, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, was entitled “Holding Ourselves Accountable for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: Views from Government, Donors and the Private Sector.”
“Listen to the women. Reflect what they want. Whatever the support programs or interventions, they will be successful because they come from them,” Sirleaf told the audience.
Speaking to western governments and aid agencies, Banda said, “My question is: when you come, can we talk and you listen? Because we know what the needs are.”
Neglecting such advice has resulted in past projects gone awry and revised policies and models to correct that, according to a new MCC briefing paper “Principles into Practice: Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction through Growth”.
For example, in the eight years since it was founded, MCC has learned a number of lessons about designing projects, according to Virginia Seitz, senior director and practice leader for social and gender assessment at MCC.
One of them is that “gender-neutral design is not neutral.” An example was an agricultural project in Nicaragua that almost was derailed because it assumed that a “farmer was a gender-free beneficiary” and overlooked the very different realities of the crops grown by men and women, assets and access to finance.
The original terms of the MCC project inadvertently limited participation by women because of requirements relating to land size, numbers of cows and land-ownership versus land-use rights. A new, more inclusive approach succeeded, boosting women's participation in livestock activity from 8 percent to 22 percent under the program.
Similarly, in Honduras, an MCC program designed to promote the hiring of women as agricultural extension agents discovered that women couldn't meet the required professional criteria, such as 10 years experience, because women simply hadn't had the opportunity to gain experience.
The solution was to create junior staff positions that would allow women to qualify. The program also expanded the targeted crops to include the tropical flowers and aromatic herbs typically produced by female farmers and enlisted women's cooperatives to include women who did not meet the program's requirements.
The problems, MCC said, were the result of inadequate gender analysis. MCC has since expanded its use of social and gender assessment teams on all projects to improve design, identify problems and reduce barriers to women's participation. And, in 2011, MCC updated its gender policy to incorporate new "Gender Integration Guidelines" that more closely consider the realities on the ground.
But these kinds of problems might have been averted had MCC and other aid agencies simply consulted the women, the two presidents said.
“There are Joyce Bandas and Ellen Sirleafs all over Africa. They just need someone to listen,” said Banda, who became Malawi's president last April.
She pointed out, for example, that some U.S. programs are concentrating on primary education, which is free in most countries, when it is the lack of girls being able to afford or being encouraged to go on to secondary education that is increasingly crucial.
Secondary education is the ticket many girls need to avoid early marriage and to develop skills to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, she said.
She offered the example of a childhood friend, a girl she said who was smarter than she was. But her friend dropped out after primary school, got married and ended up living in poverty with seven children to feed.
“I went on and now I'm president of the country,” she said.