Women’s Participation: Why Quality Counts More Than Numbers

By Laurence Levaque

Nana lives in a remote village. She is married with three children. Both she and her husband are farmers. Nana went to school up to grade 3. Every now and then, the households in her community are asked to attend a meeting. One day, the village leader requested her to attend a meeting the next day.

Nana lives in a remote village. She is married with three children. Both she and her husband are farmers. Nana went to school up to grade 3. Every now and then, the households in her community are asked to attend a meeting. One day, the village leader requested her to attend a meeting the next day.  

Nana did not know what the meeting was about. She was excited because she would be getting a free lunch and a good opportunity to chat with her neighbors. But, these meetings usually take up a lot of her time and take her away from her many other responsibilities. Besides farming, Nana needs to cook, clean, fetch fire wood, and take care of her children and her sick mother. The meeting was being held at a venue that is one hour walking distance from her village. 

Nana went to the meeting; she took her 1-year-old girl and 4-year-old son. Many women from the community (her village and other villages nearby) attended. They also brought their small children. So, there were a number of children playing in the same room during the meeting.

Nana had a good time. She did not understand everything. But she learned how important it is to wash hands, have clean surroundings, and use a clean and proper toilet. At the meeting, participants were encouraged to build a new toilet or upgrade existing ones. After the meeting, Nana made a mental note that when she has a bit of spare cash in the future, she would make sure to buy soap for washing hands. She also contemplated having a new toilet, but did not know how to broach the subject with her husband and how he would react to this idea. 

Does any of this sound familiar to you? This story brings home why we need to move beyond just numbers of women attending consultation meetings. Simply meeting gender targets or quotas is not enough. The village leader was told by the local administration authorities that there should be at least 40% women participants at the meeting. So, he made sure there were 40% women present. 

But, what about quality? Is women’s physical presence enough? Are women briefed and familiarized with the meeting topic prior to being summoned to attend meetings? Or, are they just there to meet the target set for women’s participation? Are women encouraged to speak and give their views at the meetings? Does the socio-cultural environment pose any constraints to women speaking in public meetings? Do we know who in the household makes key decisions related to household expenditures? 

Of course we want women to be physically present and attend meetings on issues concerning their lives and communities. But we also want to create a conducive environment to enable them to participate in a meaningful manner. Let’s strive to go beyond the numbers and targets. How can we do this? Below are a few practical actions that can be taken. 

Literacy level and local language are key factors to ensuring quality participation. In our story, Nana studied up to grade 3; the majority of women in this community cannot read or write. Other factors to consider include:

  • Holding pre-meetings/sessions with women to familiarize them with the workshop topic and the objective of the meeting, as well as explain the different potential implications of their decisions. Women need the additional information to enable them to make informed decisions.
  • In certain socio-cultural contexts, it may also be good to hold separate meetings for women and men or have them discuss and work in separate groups during the meeting/workshop.
  • In our story, Nana came to the meeting with her two children. She did not have much of a choice since there is no day care center in her community. Meaningful participation can be a challenge for mothers having to simultaneously take care of their children while trying to focus on meeting proceedings. Consider an arrangement to take care of the children as part of the workshops/meetings’ arrangements—even if it is informal. 
  • Nana had to walk one hour to the meeting venue and does not have much free time to attend meetings. Therefore, timing and location of the meeting/workshop are important elements to consider for encouraging women’s active participation. 
  • Having both women and men facilitate the meetings/workshops will make women feel more comfortable to participate actively and to voice their opinions. 
  • We need to be cognizant of who in the household is responsible for making which decisions. We need to reach out to the decision makers if we are to have lasting results.

For example, it is men who generally decide about infrastructure investments—even toilet construction. So in our story, the facilitators need to ensure Nana and the other female participants have the necessary knowledge and skills to influence and negotiate with the men in their household about the construction of a new toilet. In cases where women are not the main decision makers, transferring sufficient knowledge and negotiation skills should be an integral part of the meeting/workshop. Alternatively, the project needs to also target men.

Nana eventually managed to convince her husband to build a new toilet. But this was only after he got seriously ill with recurrent episodes of diarrhea.  She was clever and had found the right moment to approach him. But, if the meeting had helped to enhance the quality of Nana’s participation rather than just meeting the number targets, then, it would not have taken Nana two years to approach her husband!

A development project can also influence existing intra-household dynamics (i.e., men within the households making decisions about for example toilet construction) and build women’s negotiation skills and capabilities. The project will then not only address a practical need of women (e.g., access to adequate sanitation facilities) but would also increase women’s voice in the home. This in turn can lead to increased women’s voice at community, local and national levels.