In early March, H&M Foundation’s Strategy Lead, Maria Bystedt, and Saamuhika Shakti Executive Director, Lakshmi Pattabi Raman, joined UN Foundation’s Michelle Milford Morse, VP, Girls and Women Strategy, and Tea Trumbic, Program Manager for Women, Business and the Law, The World Bank, to talk about the many overlapping challenges that contribute to hindering women’s economic participation.
The talk was part of the UN Foundation’s International Women’s Day #EqualEverywhere campaign that sought to highlight how, despite some progress, gender equality is still far from being achieved around the world.
Maria and Lakshmi spoke about designing programs that consider what women really want and need, and the importance of collective action for women. Here are some key takeaways from the session.
In focus is gender equality.
Gender equality is when women and men of all ages, abilities and social backgrounds enjoy the same opportunities and power to shape society and their own lives; it is when women and men have the same rights and equal access to economic, political, and social participation, control over resources and freedom of movement, and when their needs are equally valued and favoured in society.
To create inclusive societies for women and girls, they need to be given the opportunity to co-create solutions. Very often, women and girls are expected to do more to overcome the constraints of their circumstances and access economic opportunities. That in itself ends up imposing a greater burden on them, and it is therefore important to listen, to understand their lived reality, before designing a program.
Saamuhika Shakti works with Bengaluru’s informal waste pickers - a significant number of whom are women – and attempts to create more sustainable and systemic change by working not just with the women but also with all stakeholders around them - their spouses, parents, and children, the community leaders, teachers, potential employers and even, residents of the city.
This helps to create a truly enabling environment that addresses the prevailing barriers for women to access economic opportunities.
Saamuhika Shakti also follows a multidimensional approach that simultaneously addresses several other challenges women face in addition to creating livelihood opportunities through vocational training and life skills training.
Here, while it's important to study and analyze the challenges women might be facing and what their priorities are, it is equally important to actively listen to the views and opinions of the women with respect to their own education, social security, health care, menstrual hygiene - and design the response accordingly.
One of the key learnings for H&M Foundation based on their experience over the past few years has been that social problems exist within complex systems of interrelated barriers and it is important the solutions address those complex systems holistically in order to create a sustainable impact.
An example is H&M Foundation’s global program on women's economic empowerment with CARE, which has shown it's not enough to, for example, only provide skilling programs and offer women business management or leadership skills, but work is required on building enabling environments around women.
We have to work on the implicit levels of mental models and create perception change, not only with the power holders, including the husbands and men in the community but also with the women themselves to build confidence and trust in themselves.
While there is good headway in terms of shifting to an approach that focuses on systems change that centers equity within it, this is a challenging, slow game that requires actors that have traditionally held more power - such as donors and development institutions - to relinquish some of their power to the primary actors i.e the community the programs will serve.
To allow for this power shift, the usual processes of how things are done need to change. Donors must change how they fund and dare to take the leap to fund complex, sometimes cumbersome, and slow solutions that social change requires.
This is not simple, as the results may be less tangible and take a much longer time to materialize. However, H&M Foundation believes this is the only way forward and hopes to inspire other donors by demonstrating that such an approach can work through examples of working with collective impact projects like Saamuhika Shakti.
There are several encouraging signs with regards to approaching equity as a collective, with every partner willing to learn from each other and modify their way of working in order to enable a more equitable society. Even more inspiring are the early adopters of the program - the women who joined programs early and have grown to become entrepreneurs running diverse businesses and role models taking the lead in solving issues in their own communities.