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Integrating Gender Equality in Development Projects – A Practitioner’s View

This blog post originally appeared on the Edinburgh Research Office Blog. Loise Maina is Global Gender Advisor at the international NGO Practical Action, and she highlights the ways science and technology-based GCRF projects can consider gender equality in their design.

GCRF, and other ODA projects, are required by law through the International Development (Gender Equality) Act to “be likely to contribute to reducing poverty in a way which is likely to contribute to reducing inequality between persons of different gender.” Whilst most PIs are familiar with requirements to encourage gender balance on research teams, integrating gender equality considerations into the content of research projects can feel like a new challenge for many.

To mark the launch of our Gender in GCRF and Newton Projects resource page, Rosalind Cavaghan, visiting researcher with genderED, spoke to Loise about the ways Practical Action integrate gender into their projects and how GCRF projects – particularly those based in science and technology – can do the same.

Rosalind: Why does Practical Action integrate gender into its projects and how has PA’s approach to integrating gender into its work developed over the years?

Loise: Our approach has been evolving over time, influenced greatly by our own experiences and learning gained over the 50 plus years we have been in existence. We started off as a technology focused organisation and considered technology as a key tool to tackle poverty in the communities where we worked. However, this was a bit of a narrow focus because poverty is quite complex and multi-dimensional and requires a multi-faceted approach to address. We therefore broadened our focus and adopted more of a systems approach by looking at other underlying drivers of poverty and how they relate and reinforce each other.

This includes persistent gender inequalities that exist in communities especially around power relations and decision-making, access and control of resources and gender roles and division of labour. These are also further complicated by other aspects of intersectionality* which create overlapping and interdependent layers of discrimination or disadvantage like disability, race or class. Women and girls often bear the brunt of this inequality and so there is a need to focus on supporting them overcome these challenges and actively participate in their development.

So to achieve more equitable and inclusive change in our target communities, we embarked on a journey of learning more about gender and moving towards proactive promotion of gender equality in everything we do. This means we invested more in long-term and community driven approaches that help address these challenges and inequalities. We worked to increase knowledge on gender amongst our staff and developed relevant policies and strategies. Now, gender equality is a key consideration in everything we do.

Rosalind: What GCRF projects has Practical Action been involved in and what has PA’s role involved? How is gender relevant to those projects?

Loise: Practical Action has partnered with Edinburgh on a number of GCRF initiatives especially around our resilience programming and is also currently a technical partner on gender, sharing relevant lessons and experiences from our work, on how to strengthen gender integration in research projects.

Our experience has shown that poor people, particularly women and children, are the most vulnerable and hardest hit when disasters happen. In this work, we are looking at ways to reduce vulnerability and build resilience into the lives of people threatened by natural and climate related hazards. Our Nepal office has collaborated with Edinburgh in the establishment of a the Tomorrow’s Cities hub, which aims at catalysing a transition from crisis management to putting risk-informed planning at the center of urban policy and practice. We have also partnered on a flood modelling project to provide robust information on costs and benefits of flood preparedness, decision-making for disaster risk reduction, recovery and overall planning. Women often have lower access to productive assets and income leading to greater vulnerability in the face of shocks such as food shortages, crop failure, disasters such as floods, earthquakes, landslides. Women may also lack life-saving skills such as swimming and climbing and have the added responsibility of carrying children and elderly to safety. For these reasons it is important to include both women and men in the design and planning of disaster mitigation and response plans and also improve access to early warning information, with specific attention to gender, age, culture and literacy levels.

Rosalind: Funding schemes like GCRF emphasise partnership working with local communities. What does that mean for an organisation like Practical Action when you’re working on gender transformative projects?

Loise: Working with local communities is an important aspect of our strategy to enhance ownership and sustainability of our project interventions because communities are powerful agents of change and they are capable of driving their own developmental agenda.

In most cases, communities know what challenges are most pressing for them and they can elaborate solutions based on their context and value systems. What communities lack is the means and resources to move these ideas forward.  Organisations like Practical Action can leverage global expertise and resources to support communities to put these ingenious ideas to work, so that they can change their poverty situation.

Working with communities also means recognising that they are not homogeneous. Communities always comprise of various heterogeneous groups with diverse needs and aspirations. So we always think carefully about reaching different groups of people, particularly the poor and marginalised like women. Local women’s associations are often useful for this, to help us ensure that we understand their needs and tailor our interventions accordingly, for better impact. For example, we have installed solar street lighting in some refugee camps in Rwanda which has not only provided a better sense of safety and security for women at night but has also enabled them to run their businesses for extended periods in the evenings, leading to improved income opportunities.

Rosalind: What do you think are the biggest opportunities and biggest challenges for technology led development projects and gender equality?

Loise: Technology remains a big catalyst for change and provides numerous avenues to address some of the world’s pressing and complex challenges. Technology innovations have been applied in communities to improve access to early warning and climate related information, to improve market access and financial inclusion, to enhance agricultural production systems and to improve access to clean energy. Also there have been a number of labour and time saving technologies that have had positive impacts in reducing the drudgery that people face in their daily lives.

However, despite the numerous benefits that technologies bring, a number of key challenges still remain. For instance, women’s access to the internet and ownership of digital devices remain significantly lower. According to the World Bank, women in low and middle income countries are on average 10% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. This translates into 184 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone. The costs of technologies also mean they remain out of reach for some of the poor women and men who often have to rely on low income jobs for their survival. These people constantly are faced with hard choices on what to prioritise, with the obvious choice being basic needs like food and housing.

There are also other challenges like low literacy levels and existing negative social cultural norms and power dynamics that may hinder technology uptake. For example, in Bolivia, we learnt that it was important to invite couples to be trained as local developers of climate-related technologies. Working with couples, instead of only men or women, avoided family and community restrictions regarding women participation. As a result, half of the local developers are women, and are currently travelling to other communities, often by themselves, to improve technology uptake.

About intersectionality *

Intersectionality is a social scientific term used to draw attention to the ways that different identity markers (such as race, caste, disability, age, migration status, or sexuality) intersect with one another to structure privileges and disadvantages.

Further information and resources

Find out more about Practical Action.

GenderED and Edinburgh Research Office have worked together to provide a suite of resources to support academics in integrating gender equality considerations into their ODA research projects: View resources.