The Commonwealth Foundation’s Participatory Governance and Gender Programme focusses on developing the capacities of civic voices to constructively engage with institutions, with each other, and with policy-makers to get their voices heard and ultimately influence policy.
‘Civic voices’ in this context is a broad concept, which does not only include civil society organisations but also individuals such as writers and filmmakers, who have a public voice and can influence public discourse towards policy change. The Foundation recognises that there are voices in the margins, voices who are more excluded than others, because they may not only be female, but female and from a poor rural background, or female and disabled, or young in societies where older people are more likely to be respected and listened to. Therefore, an intersectional analysis lies at the heart of our work.
‘local ownership is critical and movements need to identify their own agendas and solve their own problems’
In line with this broader understanding of civic voices, the programme worked with the West African Civil Society Institute in Ghana to organise a three-day dialogue in Accra. A diverse group of women’s rights activists, networks, journalists and writers from five West African countries, both young and older, were invited to the conversation to explore strategies to amplify their voice, advance the women’s rights agenda across the region, and identify challenges to the women’s movement. In the spirit of South to South learning, women’s rights networks from Southern and East Africa were also invited to share their learning on monitoring the gender commitments of their governments.
Movement-building is critical to strengthening the collective voice of women. The added value of the Foundation is to facilitate processes that enable women from across the Commonwealth to come together to learn from each other and strategise together. This is part of the Foundation’s capacity development approach, which is a holistic process of change whereby people and institutions develop their abilities to do what they already do even better, to help them solve problems, and set and achieve their goals. This also means that local ownership is critical and movements need to identify their own agendas and solve their own problems. The conversation in Accra was organised on this basis; there was an explicit acknowledgment of this from participants: ‘[we need to] redefine feminism for ourselves, set our own agenda and harness our own resources and inspiration.’
‘In the spirit of South to South learning, women’s rights networks from Southern and East Africa were also invited to share their learning on monitoring the gender commitments of their governments.’
A key result of the dialogue was an in depth analysis of the main challenges facing the West African women’s movement. There was agreement that the women’s movement had been fragmented and was characterised by numerous cleavages, especially along intergenerational and class lines.
‘It is imperative to start a serious intergenerational dialogue, so the next generation of young women will get to understand what we have fought for and the need to continue the fight if the gains are to be sustained.’
The discussion therefore focussed on developing strategies to bridge these gaps–between women of different ages who had a different understanding of feminism and experiences of being a woman; the gap and mistrust between female politicians and women’s rights activists; the gap between rural and urban, rich and poor women – in order to effectively mobilise women to develop an inclusive agenda that all could support. Therefore, engaging more with younger women and expanding the dialogue on equalities-taking into consideration the various diversities-was seen to be critical to furthering the agenda.
Ultimately, the dialogue created the space for a renewed commitment to the women’s movement at national and regional levels, which enabled each country to develop a road map to strengthen its women’s movement. The Foundation is currently supporting some countries to develop these plans further into proposals that can be supported over the medium-term.
Malou Schueller is a Senior Programme Officer for the Partipatory Governance and Gender team at the Commonwealth Foundation.