What does gender equity mean to you? What does progress look like to you?
These are questions that most women, and many men, ask themselves and contemplate all over the globe. No matter where you live, gender equity is a daily fight. However, given our different cultural contexts, the answers to these questions may differ depending on where you live. We wanted to know how women in our partner communities define gender equity, so we asked them. We held focus group discussions with female community members in two of our partner communities and asked them various questions to make sure we are defining the concept in a way that aligns with the views of the women with whom we work. Some responses surprised us, some felt familiar, but our biggest take-away is that women’s voices have the potential to make some bigtime change. So in honor of International Women’s Day this year, we’re sharing with you the inspiring results of those discussions.
What is the general attitude of people in the community about women (positive and negative)?
“Women should not be outspoken. Women should always be in the kitchen. Women should not hold leadership positions.” As we said, many of the responses felt very familiar to perceptions of women we know all too well in any culture. It’s not all bad, though. Focus group participants also brought up the positive attitudes that people in their communities have about women. They said, “behind any successful man there must be a successful woman,” and “women are the tools of development and the running of a successful home.” The women in the focus groups cited that women are generally seen as resourceful and save money better than men. They also said that women are seen as peaceful, committed, and influential when in leadership positions.
What do women want to do that they currently can’t do?
Responses to this question mainly fell into two categories, communal decision making and financial independence, but the respondents also stated they want to “speak with one voice” as women. As per communal decision making, the women spoke about how they want to be delegated roles and responsibilities that allow them to have a bigger part in community planning and the decision making process, as well as, wanting to be representatives for their communities at external meetings with local government. When speaking about financial independence, the women stated that they want to start businesses, receive skills trainings, and have a better handle on income received from selling agricultural products.
“We would use our voice to ensure development is achieved.”
What is limiting them from doing these things?
So what’s holding these women back? In some ways, men. They said things like “men stop women from talking in public gatherings because they believe it is not their place to talk,” and they are often “only told about decisions that have already been made by men.” They also said there are certain institutional barriers holding them back: lack of business skills, lack of startup capital for businesses, lack of women in leadership positions, and a deficit of educated and literate women.
What are ways women can break down these barriers?
The most prevalent solution to break down the barriers to gender equity was for women to come together and support each other to make changes. Women working together to better their collective circumstances in society? Now that’s something we can get behind.
The Sierra Leonean culture calls for people to be respectful to people that are male, elder, and have money; this puts women at a disadvantage from the start, and navigating this cultural context can be challenging. However, the women stated that change will not happen if only women commit to the vision. Men need to make space for women and give them a seat at the table.
“Our voices can be used to break barriers.”
What does progress look like to you?
The women cited that gender equity has to be recognized inside the homes, as well as on a community level. They recognize that progress is taking place when they see women given leadership positions in the community and increased confidence of women to lead development activities. In the household context, they said progress is when men and women make decisions in the home equally, and men are listening to women. They also said that progress is when equal opportunities are being provided for both women and men, specifically when it comes to education. Right now, less than 25% of women in Sierra Leone are literate due the historical emphasis on education for boys. Women in the focus groups want to see increased education and literacy rates amongst their girls.
“Your voice has the power to completely change what others think of you.”
There is clear evidence that women want to speak in public, be heard by men, and have a role in communal and household decision making. We are proud to say that OneVillage Partners programs work towards these goals by encouraging increased financial planning in the Nurturing Opportunities for Women program and increasing female participation in communal decision making through the Community Action program.
When the facilitators asked the women what it would mean to be considered a valuable and equal member of society, the ideas they shared were inspiring. They talked about giving back to their community, resolving conflicts, and having the trust and respect of their community members. This is the world OneVillage Partners is working towards, and these women are making that vision a reality.