The United States Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability fulfills the Global Fragility Act of 2019’s mandate to establish an interagency Global Fragility Strategy. Strengthening women’s leadership, particularly in governance reforms to enhance legitimacy of fragile states is a key objective in the new Strategy. The following case study from one of Counterpart’s programs in Niger, which seeks to elevate women’s roles in peace and security, may provide policymakers and practitioners with transferrable lessons learned and recommendations for strengthening the implementation of Global Fragility Act (GFA)-funded programs.

Counterpart’s programs in fragile and conflict-affected states support locally-driven solutions, crafted with meaningful engagement of women and other historically marginalized stakeholders, to collaboratively enhance citizen-responsive governance through our Inclusive Social Accountability framework. Since 2016, Counterpart has been implementing the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Participatory Responsive Governance Program – Principle Activity (PRG-PA) to strengthen service delivery in the health, education, and security sectors in Niger. At a time when violent extremists gain support by challenging the government’s capacity to provide key services, the program seeks to bridge the gap between communities and government, increase government legitimacy through participatory governance, and prevent fragility.

PRG-PA coordinates multi-stakeholder dialogues with community leaders to identify development priorities, and supports the establishment of Community Monitoring Committees or Comités de Veille Citoyens, (commonly referred to as “CVCs”), which are responsible for monitoring the public sector’s commitments to improving service delivery.

Given that PRG-PA is a cooperative agreement, Counterpart has had flexibility to adapt program implementation in response to changes in our operating context.  We applied USAID’s Collaboration, Learning and Adaptability (CLA) approach[1] which helped us determine necessary programmatic adaptations. One area where we saw a growing need for program flexibility was to improve women’s meaningful engagement in local decision making. Reflections from our staff indicated that we had to do something differently: gender quotas for activities were not resulting in women having an opportunity to actively or meaningfully lead in community dialogues and outcomes.

Strengthening Women’s Inclusion

Improving women’s engagement was significant to the program context considering that women and girls have unique access to multiple local sources of information (e.g. at the market or through family discussions) and are often the first to recognize radicalization in their families and social networks. In remote regions, they are also often the first to identify when foreign fighters may be moving into an area. However, despite women and girls’ pivotal roles, they are not well integrated into dialogue processes to prioritize community needs, resolve local issues, and improve service delivery.

By increasing women’s engagement on security-related issues, we believed they can play a pivotal role in preventing radicalization to violence. They can also collaborate with key stakeholders to strengthen gender-responsive services and improve communication between the government, security forces, and their communities. In addition, women can support activities that increase protective factors and mitigate the risk factors that influence radicalization of both men and women. To achieve this vision, as the program entered its second phase in 2019, Counterpart explored an opportunity to apply for additional funding and co-designed a WPS component for PRG-PA to address these challenges.

As we designed our program, we knew that bringing diverse stakeholders into the room, and establishing minimum quotas for women’s participation, would not necessary mean that the historically marginalized voices would have a chance to be heard. In particular, if women are not provided training to build their soft skills, or if they lack an enabling environment where male champions support their involvement, they lack the opportunity to have meaningful engagement. This assumption also dictated that before we work with the women, we assess their level of knowledge or prior experiences in order to tailor our interventions to their needs.

While a formal gender analysis was not conducted, we considered numerous structural factors that limit women’s meaningful engagement in local decisions and peacebuilding. For example, Niger has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage – limiting their agency in decision-making that affects their lives and further restricting the social development of girls.[2] We also looked at other gender-differential roles, responsibilities, rights, and opportunities, patterns of decision-making and leadership, and access to resources and services, informed by USAID’s ADS Chapter 205, Integrating Gender Equality and Female Empowerment in USAID’s Program Cycle. For example, we observed that with Niger’s high birth rate and social norms that emphasize women’s roles as primary care providers, women have limited control over their time to determine when and how to participate in civic activities. Moreover, during social restrictions resulting from COVID-19, we learned that women often face an increased burden of caretaker responsibilities in the home, which reduces their ability to contribute their time to civic activities.

Illustrative questions that informed our design:

•       How do roles, responsibilities and time use differ by gender, and how that could prevent or facilitate participation?

•       What is the status of women and men and their differential access to/control over assets, resources, opportunities and services relevant to the project, such as access to training (e.g. civic engagement; advocacy; elections, etc.)?

•       What are the laws, policies, and institutional practices that relate to political participation and civic engagement that may contain implicit or explicit gender biases and that may need to be addressed by the project?

•       What are the patterns of power and decision-making in society, family, in politics, and in civil society organizations?

 

Our Approach

To address these challenges, we developed an inter-generational approach where our activities were organized at a time and place that was conducive to women’s engagement. We identified avenues to engage emerging women leaders from local Village and Savings Loans Associations (VSLAs) and supported the next generation of young women’s leadership through establish girls’ peace clubs in schools. At the same time, we applied a rigorous gender transformational approach by engaging traditional stakeholders who could champion women’s inclusive engagement. Religious leaders were brought in to champion women’s roles in local decision-making by emphasizing the value of representative consensus-building in Islamic cultural traditions. As a result, women now constitute 40% of Niger’s CVCs.

To further strengthen women’s leadership, Counterpart provided training to build up women’s soft skills, connected them to peer mentors so that they have the assets and resources to become effective stakeholders, and then fostered meaningful opportunities for engagement with government and security sector officials.

[1] “Understanding CLA” USAID, https://usaidlearninglab.org/qrg/understanding-cla-0

[2] https://www.worldvision.org/child-protection-news-stories/10-worst-places-child-marriage

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