Members of a girls club at Tutis Primary School in Oromia, Ethiopia. What is the key to success when working with local communities on achieving gender parity? Photo by: Ose / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

With gender parity the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, it is an opportunity to reflect on how international development has transformed the lives of many women across the world. Recent United Nations statistics reveal that two-thirds of countries in developing regions have now achieved gender parity in primary education. Of course, this is something that should be celebrated. But it is equally important that success isn’t solely quantified in values that may not resonate with local cultures.

At present, success is nearly always measured by common indicators, such as how many women are in the workplace or enrolled in schools. Yet an international development project can make great progress in achieving gender parity within a community, which is not necessarily reflected in the statistics. The perception of success in one community may be the opposite in another. Taking into account the requirements of each local community on every scheme is therefore essential.

“When communities own and shape values themselves, programs become more sustainable, creating a meaningful legacy that will benefit future generations.”

— Linda Aaslien, AECOM's director of international development

Greater gender parity is vital to securing positive outcomes. Achieving it, however, requires great sensitivity and an understanding of specific local needs. We place gender specialists at the heart of our projects who play a vital role by identifying opportunities and challenges for gender integration. These specialists also provide guidance to project teams to strengthen gender mainstreaming in project activities, processes and procedures.

This integrated approach can help with engaging communities and delivering the step change that is needed. It is vital people do not view international development projects as a means of enforcing Western values onto their community, as this will most likely alienate them. Key to success is gaining an understanding of the cultural dynamics within the communities where an international development organisation is working. This requires a willingness to listen and invest time in understanding how people think, what they believe and how they behave.

Engaging with community groups and influential individuals within a community, such as tribal and religious leaders, before jointly planning to move ahead is important. Identifying the positive as well as the challenging cultural values within a community is also key. Encouraging communities to choose their own values, rather than imposing those of the people running the program, will make projects more likely to succeed. When communities own and shape values themselves, programs become more sustainable, creating a meaningful legacy that will benefit future generations.

Gender parity is of course determined by geographic and cultural context. Women and girls tend to suffer disproportionately in conflict and post-conflict situations in terms of poverty, access to justice and physical insecurity. Enabling women’s participation in conflict mitigation is therefore an important step to achieving parity.

In Sudan, under a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, AECOM focused considerable resources in projects to engage women and girls in peace-building activities. We trained young female leaders in conflict mitigation, peace building and women’s empowerment. One project brought together women from pastoralist tribes in the Salha area of Blue Nile State to build and strengthen relationships between ethnically diverse communities.

In collaboration with other projects in the region and the State Ministry of Agriculture, we supported a collectively managed 10-acre women’s “peace” farm, worked by 30 women who came from a 3,000-person community. The initiative helped the women develop valuable skills in farming and business management. They also set an important example for other local women. The impact of such programs on women’s roles in communities — and within their families — may not easily translate into measurable data. But the outcome is profound.

These initiatives play a crucial role in achieving gender parity, despite success being harder to evaluate as outputs are not measured solely in numbers. International development programs can make a greater impact by putting the value of success into the hands of the communities involved.

There is still a long way to go towards achieving gender parity globally. The international development sector must take the lead in making it happen — but cultural context must never be trumped by statistics.

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About the author

  • Linda Aaslien

    Linda Aaslien, AECOM’s director for international development in the U.K., has 14 years of experience working in international development. With a background in financial sector consultancy, she has a particular interest in strengthening the position of women and girls in all spheres of society, from economic activity to political participation. She has worked across a range of projects which have included providing opportunities for women — and in particular women business owners, including financial inclusion in Georgia, strengthening of livelihoods in Bangladesh and financing of energy in Poland, Bulgaria and Morocco.