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This article is part of our free participatory development course for local nonprofits


Participatory Development and Gender Considerations

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

As we have seen throughout this course, fostering participation of individuals and communities in every phase of development projects should be a central part of the work we do. While the goals, objectives, products, indicators of change and the like are certainly important instruments to help us plan out the work we do, it is essential for us to understand that any project that doesn´t contribute to the empowerment of local communities through encouraging participation and autonomous decision making will be limited in its scope of effectiveness.


One fundamental aspect of participatory development that is often avoided, ignored, or disregarded by NGO´s is the issue of gender inequality. In this last module, we will look at how participatory development runs the risk of overlooking the voices of women in communities and how special efforts should be made to ensure that the voices of women are equally included in any process of development.


The Influence of Patriarchy


One of the most common grievances voiced by professional development workers is that many times women simply don´t participate in the projects effected in their communities. We might spend long hours visiting their homes explaining how a certain project could benefit them, only to find that after a few weeks, they simply stop participating while the male leadership in the community gradually takes the protagonist role in the project.


Even NGO´s who claim to make gender equality a central focal point of the work they do often times find that the extra effort required to stimulate the full and active participation of women in development projects simply is not feasible because of the deadlines, targets, and the constant pressure that is a part of managing several projects at once. When faced with a decision of whether to slow the project progress in order to ensure an equal participation of women or continue the course in order to meet the predetermined goals and objectives, many NGO´s will choose the latter.


According to Sylvia Walby, patriarchy is defined as “a system of interrelated social structures which allow men to exploit women.” Wikipedia goes on to mention that patriarch is “an unjust social system that enforces gender roles and is oppressive to both men and women. It often includes any social, political, or economic mechanism that evokes male dominance over women.”


These systems and structures have deep, historical roots and are often so embedded within cultures (including western culture, of course!) that certain facets of exploitation can appear to be the norm. In many rural communities around the world, women´s tasks are usually delimited to the household where the seemingly endless work of cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the like defines their lives. This is often simply seen an inevitable part of maintaining a household economy both by men and women alike and the elements of injustice, especially related to how this role prohibits women from participating in spaces of leadership and governance of communities, is often ignored.


A development organization who comes into the community to begin some sort of project might initially find the lack of women in spaces of leadership to be troublesome. If the organization is committed to fostering participative development, they might organize a study to see why women are essentially barred from spaces of participation and leadership. However, as the project develops; as timelines and indicators of change become the guiding principles of our work; many NGO´s will simply accede to the predominant community dynamics wherein men often rise to positions of control.


If one or two women actively participate in the project, we take this to be a sign of success when in reality our development project is contributing to further embedding patriarchal structures through enforcing and consenting to the predominant gender roles inherent to community dynamics. If a development organization is serious about wanting to promote true participatory development, then it simply cannot close its eyes to the historical dominion of the patriarchal structures within culture. Women make up at least 50% of any community, and if you cannot further participation rates of women, then your project should not be able to claim to be inclusive and participative.


What is gained through Women´s Participation?


In 2007, I was working on a small project in rural El Salvador trying to promote the diversification of family agriculture. After a year and a half of trying to get men to diversify their monoculture fields of corn and beans, which besides being unprofitable was also ecologically devastating, we had essentially very little success to report on. The project was originally designed to work with farmers in the region, and following from our own influence under Patriarchal structures, we simply assumed that farmers was equivalent with men.


The majority of men we had tried to influence in the project, however were most interested in trying out new varieties of hybridized corn developed by the big-ag corporations like Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta. When we finally were smart enough to turn our attention towards women in the community, we found that the spaces around their homes, often times large spaces upwards of an acre in size, were actually filled with dozens of different types of endemic plants, both edible and medicinal, that contributed to the household diet.


Women undoubtedly have a different perspective on their communities than do their male counterparts. In most cases, men are more influenced by elements that come from outside their communities while women are more in tune with the endogenous features of their community livelihoods. By shifting the focus of our project to the women household “farmers”, we were able to discover, and thus support, the incredibly valuable (and mostly imperceptible) work that women were doing to diversify agriculture, rescue native crops, and contribute to the food sovereignty of their families and their communities.


Fostering this sort of participation that allows us to gain insight into the unique perspectives on development that women bring, requires two essential shifts in how development work is done.  Firstly, we need to grapple with our own enslavement to the patriarchal structures. The pseudo-values of efficiency and productivity that drive so many development projects are characteristics related to the patriarchal worldview. If we want to foster women´s participation, we need to find other guiding values for the work we do.


Secondly, we need to find ways to make development projects fit in to the realities that women face. Instead of simply rallying against the unfair gender roles that make women enslaved to the household (which are unlikely to change overnight), why not take your development project into those spaces. A coworker of mine, when finding that women almost never participated in the meetings she organized decided to take the meetings down to the local river where women gathered daily to wash clothes. Through this simple change in tactic, the project was able to include the voices and perspectives of women who otherwise would have been left out.


Questions for Reflection

  • In what ways do you find the system of patriarchy to affect development work?

  • What types of unique perspectives do you think women add to how they view their community?

  • What other strategies can you come up with that would foster more opportunities for women to truly participate?


About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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