We were in a Bangladeshi village to interview the women about a new economic intervention on their behalf. However, when we sat down to begin, all the men came into the meeting space—a corrugated lean-to with some chairs and a long table—and sat down, leaving no room for any women. In fact, the women hung back, outside the space, as if they knew they were not supposed to intrude in any gathering important enough for all the men to be there.
But we were there to talk to women. And, actually, we needed the women to be able to speak freely, so we did not particularly want the men hanging around. Mind you, this was a research project, not a town hall. So, we asked our hosts from CARE Bangladesh to request that the men leave and allow the women to come forward and sit.
Reluctantly, the men stood and, with suspicious and somewhat affronted expressions, lined up behind the chairs. The CARE team beckoned to the women. One of them walked confidently up to the middle of the table and sat down, smiling, right in front of us. Seeing that, several others walked in, hesitantly, and sat beside her. Most women, however, continued to flit nervously behind the men.
As we began to talk, the men pushed forward, forming a wall of bodies roughly six feet high and about twelve feet wide, filling the whole breadth of the shelter and blocking much of the light. They stood behind the row of about eight women and leaned forward, until the females were bowed and the men could hear anything that might be said. Behind this “front line,” there were more men, about three or four deep.
The CARE leader and I began “shooing” the men back. We went through several repetitions of the shooing gesture, but the men pushed back each time we cleared the space. Finally, we just sat and began the interviews, starting with the confident woman, and working out. As we spoke, the men decided they were not very interested after all and began to disappear, replaced by women who had been too afraid to join with the men there. Thus, we finally were able to conduct all our interviews, but only by default.
CARE Bangladesh was completely committed to gender empowerment. So, their procedures always included some mechanism whereby the women would have representation in community decision-making, as well as a place in the local economy. That day, however, the CARE team confessed to us that, once they left a program to run by itself, the women were often pushed out again. If there were a woman on a council, she would be removed. If there were women-owned stalls in the market, they might be burned to the ground. A confident woman, like the one leading this group, might suffer from severe censure and possibly retaliation.
Nevertheless, CARE continued with their work, intervening with surgical precision and helping the women to negotiate the resistance. That meant CARE sometimes sat down with clergy to get their backing. It meant they sometimes had to call the village together to restore stolen goods. And so on. These teams operated under no illusion that they could achieve their goals without confronting the resistance. And, as a consequence, they were generally very effective. Some of the most innovative programs in gender empowerment have come out of the CARE Bangladesh office—conceived, constructed, and carried out by native Bangladeshis trying to work toward the best interests of their country.
We saw a very similar phenomenon when we began our work on sanitary pads in Africa. This time, we were beginning each project with a “town hall” meeting, to get permission to work with the girls in the schools. Since the purpose was all about menstruation and men everywhere are queasy about that topic, we expected the adult women to be the main ones making this decision. We were wrong.
We would come into the village to find all the men gathered under a tree, with a few seats left open for us. We would sit down, briefly introduce our mission, and then ask if it would not make sense to include some women. Always, the men would agree that the women should be included. But what often happened was that another group, this time all women, would take seats under the next tree—often too far away for them to hear what was going on—and we would be expected to see that as inclusion. We would then ask that the women come under the tree with everyone else. It was always ok to let the women come over. No one ever got their nose out of joint over that. But it took outsider insistence to break through the customary practice of excluding women from decision-making.
It is because of experiences like these that I am always skeptical of NGOs or other community groups who insist on working based on “community preferences” for gender programs. In fact, I am skeptical about any strategy for change that does not consciously and insistently include women in the process and do so in a way that not only ensures their voices are heard, but ensures their safety when speaking. Not only that, I feel that whoever is intervening, if it is a program with gender empowerment as a goal, must take steps to be sure that the best interests of women are genuinely served, even if the women are too intimidated to speak up for themselves.
All over the world, women are excluded from the decisions that govern social life, even when statutes give them the right to vote and hold office. This exclusion is effected, right down to the grassroots, by the common expectation that men—and men only—should lead communities and act for them. Thus the “community preference,” far from being a soft-hearted and all-inclusive kumbaya, is often every bit an expression of exclusive power.
Decisions made in this way are a form of tyranny. They should not be dignified with falsely inclusive language. Ensuring that “community preferences” are true reflections of the whole community—and not just the men—should be a consistent criterion for any women’s empowerment initiative.