How collective advocacy can amplify the voices of women and girls

Women attend a special village council meeting in India. Gender equality has long been a buzz phrase in the development community, but more needs to be done to include women's priorities and solutions in the most pressing development challenges. Photo by: Gaganjit Singh / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

For too long, global decision-making has ignored or excluded women and girls’ voices in grass-roots advocacy. Collective advocacy can change that.

One of the largest critiques of the Millennium Development Goals crafting process is that it did not adequately include input from grass-roots advocates in developing countries. Despite the success of the MDGs, I’m convinced that some of the unrealized targets and pitfalls that emerged could have been avoided if more voices — and particularly women’s voices — had been at the decision-making table from the start.

Gender equality has been a buzz phrase in the development community for years now, but I know from more than 20 years in the business that we still need concerted efforts to include women’s priorities and solutions to the most pressing development challenges in equal numbers to men’s in policy development forums. It just doesn’t happen on its own.  

The problem is that many grass-roots organizations that have a pulse on communities’ needs and priorities lack the resources and ability to engage policymakers and affect decision-making at the highest levels, including at the United Nations.

That’s why Women Thrive decided nearly four years ago to leverage women’s collective voice to ensure the path to the Sustainable Development Goals was different. We did this through collective advocacy with partners in developing countries.

With 58 million primary school-age children out of school, and so many of them girls who are likely to never start school, we wanted to focus our efforts on education in the SDGs.

In 2012, we identified several groups in Africa that had a long history of advocating for equitable education and learning priorities. Groups such as the Forum for African Women Educationalists are plugged into the grass-roots efforts, bringing needed insight from local women and girls into the advocacy process.

Together, Women Thrive, FAWE, and our other partners agreed on language about education and learning that we wanted included in the SDGs. We mapped out key decision-makers and forums and conferences where we could get face time with them. We developed strong, targeted messages and published resources to get those messages out.

The result of our hard work was SDG 4, which ensures “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote[s] lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Collective advocacy secured a major win for women and girls everywhere. In developing countries, education advocates who want to see women’s priorities and solutions incorporated into global decision-making can point to its effectiveness.

Now, at the 60th Session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, there are valuable lessons to share. Women Thrive’s new report “Getting equitable education on the global agenda: Lessons from collective advocacy at the United Nations” presents a blueprint for grass-roots advocates to identify opportunities for collective advocacy and the steps they can take to win the day.

Our lessons include:

1. Take the time to build relationships, not just the number of coalition members. Only by cultivating relationships between advocacy partners can there truly be power in numbers.

2. Evidence-based messaging counts and works. When messages link high-level policy, community level empowerment and participation, decision-makers listen and incorporate recommendations in policy development.

3. Diversity is the foundation of an effective collective voice. The more diverse the advocates, the more relevant the collective voice.

4. Advocates should have access to multidimensional advocacy capacity strengthening. To be effective, collective advocacy research, training, coaching, tools, and engagement should be collaborative, representative, and hands-on.

5. Whose message and who’s the messenger matter. Messaging and capacity strengthening efforts must prioritize the importance of advancing the priorities and solutions of people living in poverty — especially women and girls — if development policy is to work for everyone.

By utilizing these lessons on collective advocacy, the voices of women and girls can be fostered through capacity building training, amplified through collective action, and ultimately heeded by policymakers.

My hope is that the lessons in Women Thrive’s report will inspire advocates around the world — women, men, and youth — to add their voices to the global movement for gender equality. No level is too high to reach because collective advocacy allows us to bring together our knowledge, resources, and skills. When we speak with one united, loud voice, we can be heard around the globe.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • Patricia T. Morris

    Patricia T. Morris is president of Women Thrive Worldwide and an internationally known gender and development expert with more than 20 years experience working across five continents.