8 Lessons Learned from Gender Equality Heroes

Non-gender professionals can also work to promote gender equality.
Non-gender professionals can also work to promote gender equality.

By Marie Antonette Reyes

Professionals who don’t work on gender can still do a lot to promote gender equality.

Last month, I got  to chat with a dozen ADB  project officers hailed as “unsung gender heroes” – so called because they managed to push for gender equality in their work even if their job didn’t require them to do so. 

One of them was Irum Ahsan, a lawyer who shared how she once helped prepare a human rights petition against swara, the Pakistani custom of giving women/girls as compensation for murder committed by a male family member. When the Supreme Court banned it and ordered the release of all victims of swara, Irum watched an 80-year old woman, jailed since the age of 11, kiss the lawyer’s forehead to thank him for her freedom. That moment is indelibly etched in her mind and drives her to work for gender equality, which she does today through legal literacy.

Irum’s passion, a spark that I saw in all the project officers I talked to, made me think how people like myself who don’t work on gender can actually still work for gender equality. Allow me to share eight lessons gleaned from their experiences that show how it can be done.

1. Gender equality makes good economic sense. This echoed strongly across the project officers’ experiences. Chris Spohr cited the Philippines’ conditional cash transfer program, where 9 out of 10 grantees are women. The cash grants led to greater investment in children’s education, nutrition, and health, thus helping break multi-generational poverty traps. In Bangladesh, Shahid Alam shared how women, including landless widows, revived the country’s floriculture industry and are now prominent market leaders in the traditionally male-dominated agriculture sector.

2. There are many affordable, simple ways to push gender equality. Communication tools such as social marketing and media campaigns are particularly useful and may even empower women. Literacy is another. Steven Beck and Edward Faber showed that practical HR recommendations on concerns such as maternity leaves are welcomed by women. Frank discussions should not be overlooked, added Martin Lemoine. Raushan Mamatkulov pointed out that of course, work at the policy level should be pursued to ensure that gender equality becomes part of a country’s laws.

3. Results matter. Convincing skeptical government officials becomes much easier when you have results to show. Karin Schelzig underscored how empirical evidence and impact evaluation can be used to thwart detractors of good programs. Sani Ismail added that persuading skeptics can be done using concrete facts on the benefits of a policy or a program. And yes, facts are often more effective and compelling than pure emotion.

4. Solutions can’t be copy-pasted. What works in Thailand will not necessarily work in the Pacific because the context is different, Andrew McIntyre has learned. Problems need to be thought about from different angles. Besides, gender-related issues are often highly nuanced and interlinked with other dimensions of poverty. This is why an in-depth understanding of what is at stake is essential.

5. We must understand women’s needs. Anouj Mehta highlighted that spending time on the ground to meet potential users of projects is key to really understanding their needs, especially for certain subsegments—like older women, entrepreneurs, or women with young children—with special requirements. We need to listen to, be curious about, and really hear and understand the voices of women and men from different cultures and persuasions.

6. Men should be a part of the push as much as women. After all, men have daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, who they do not want to be at a disadvantage simply because they happen to be female. Most importantly, we need to remember that addressing gender issues means confronting challenges facing both females and males – it’s never about pitting one gender against the other.

7. Commitment is crucial.  Changing traditional mindsets about gender issues can take time, and the sad truth is that gender is hardly ever on top of anyone’s agenda. But as Adnan Tareen has learned, one should not stop plugging away. It is also important not to take opposition to one’s views personally, and to learn to listen to what others have to say.

8. Actions speak louder than words. The sign of real commitment to gender equality, Farzana Ahmed emphasized, is when we “walk the talk” and embrace gender equality within our own circles before pushing it to others. This, I feel, is the true heart of the matter.

I’m interested to know how other non-gender professionals like myself can work for gender equality, and would be happy to hear your thoughts.