Reaching women in socially-conservative areas

This was originally posted on my blog in October 2009

While I was in Afghanistan, I was notorious for kicking-back field reports that stated “the community was consulted” about this or that project, but that never said if the decision-making included any women. Sadly, the report writers often came back to me with a scowl and lots of excuses about why women weren’t included when “the community was consulted.”

When you work in humanitarian and development efforts, you must always be aware that talking to the official leadership of a community, a region, whatever, does not mean you are hearing about the needs of all citizens, such as minority populations or even majority populations — women. There are ways to seek out and include women in even socially-conservative areas so that they can be a part of decision-making.

A good example of this is an intervention in Egypt which used Egyptian women to reach other women regarding eye care, highlighted in a brief article by the Community Eye Health Journal. The successful strategy they employed was this:

  • The team undertaking the intervention held various meetings and presentations to establish a trusting relationship with local policy makers, local health authorities, local community leaders, local non-government organizations (NGOs), etc.
  • The team used this network to explain that women weren’t receiving eye care at the same rate as men, and that saving or restoring women’s sight benefits the whole family.
  • The team used this network to identify local women with previous experience in community development projects who could be trained to reach female community members in the intervention villages, as they would be able to enter homes and meet with women without coming into conflict with local cultural practices.
  • 42 women were trained over three days, and 30 were selected as “health visitors,”
  • The health visitors then visited 90 per cent of the population in the two intervention villages from March to December 2007.
  • During each visit, health visitors explained to women that saving or restoring their own sight would benefit the whole family. Each family received a variety of educational materials, including a calendar with illustrations relating to eye care and information on the importance of seeking eye care for the women in the household.

The result of training local women to do the outreach to other local women was a huge surge in the number of women receiving eye care as part of this intervention. And maybe something more: a change in the way the community viewed the value of its women? That wasn’t measured, unfortunately.

Of course, Egypt isn’t Afghanistan. Every country presents special challenges when it comes to reaching women regarding development interventions. But there’s always a way! Regardless of your role in humanitarian or development efforts, always make reaching women a priority.

What’s your advice?

See also:
Folklore, Rumors (or Rumours) and Urban Myths Interfering with Development and Aid/Relief Efforts, and Government Initiatives (and how these are overcome)
and
Building Staff Capacities to Communicate and Present (materials developed for Afghanistan).

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