Women speaking up for themselves and for those around them is the strongest force we have to change the world.
Recently we celebrated Human Rights Day. One way that women’s human rights are put at risk is that they are more likely to be marginalized from decision-making spaces. Although this may pose a greater threat for poor and vulnerable women who have few resources to protect themselves against harm, even those women with high-powered positions face marginalization and invisibility at times.
About a month ago I joined a team visiting a road project proposed to a small rural village in Guatemala, reachable solely by donkey, foot or motorcycle. The team organized a meeting for the community to express their opinions about having a road built. Many leaders and individuals from the community spoke when it was their turn, powerfully calling on us to take their message back to our workplaces, that the road project is urgently needed. Please, begin construction as soon as possible, they insisted.
Every single speaker was a man.
Our team member who had organized the meeting then invited some of the women present at the meeting to have the chance to speak their views. First, one woman stood up and spoke just as powerfully as the men, and then another woman. They addressed more precisely the crisis that the community faced because it could not easily take sick family members and children to the hospital. Women die in childbirth, and they have to expend energy and time just to get to the market to buy needed food and supplies. The suffering of being cut off from food and health services was something they could articulate particularly well. However, without an explicit and proactive invitation by the leader running the meeting to create a space for women to speak, they likely would not have mentioned those critical issues.
Of course, this situation is not unique to this community or to Guatemala. Even high ranking women at progressive institutions like the United States Executive Branch under Barack Obama face particular challenges to be heard and have a voice in decisions.
Take women working in the White House. Women officials there have started to use a strategy they call “amplification” in meetings where male voices tend to dominate and where male participants overlook or take credit for the ideas and contributions from women. The technique involves women, when they speak, to refer back to the ideas and contributions of other women, attributing the recognition they deserve. A Washington Post article mentions how President Barack Obama himself noticed his female colleagues using this strategy and became aware of the tendency of men to leave out women’s voices. He started to ask their opinions and views more directly to make sure he was listening.
As the women at the White House did, in community consultations we must take extra steps to make sure that women are included in decisions that affect them and have a voice that is recognized and valued.
In the consultations to be held for this road project in Guatemala, the participation of two women will be required at a minimum (along with two men, two youths, and one elder person) to ensure the voices of women are present.
Other IDB projects are implementing similar gender inclusion measures:
- In the Caracol Industrial Park project in Haiti, meetings were held with women separately to inspire and ensure their participation in the development of the project.
- The Border Integration Program of Costa Rica and the Road Infrastructure Program to Support Development and Management of the Primary Road Network in Bolivia are projects that explicitly address the potential need to hold separate meetings for women as part of the consultations, to make sure there is a safe space for them to participate and share their views.
Whatever our strategy, taking extra steps to create safe spaces for women to express their views protects them from being invisible and left out of decisions that affect them. This is an essential goal in itself, but it is also a practical means to achieve projects that more completely address the concerns of the community, and therefore projects that enjoy broad community support.