Diving deep: lessons from working with marginalised women survivors of conflict

This blog is written by Carron Mann, Senior Manager for Policy and Advocacy, Women for Women International UK. It is the seventh in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment.


Women for Women International participants in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Rada Akbar

Women for Women International has worked with more than 462,000 women survivors of conflict across eight countries since 1993. Our core work is a year-long, holistic, rights-based programme that provides them with the knowledge, skills and resources to achieve four key outcomes: earning and saving money; developing health and well-being; influencing household and community decisions; and accessing social networks and safety nets. Our monitoring and evaluation shows promising results: for example, more than a quarter (26%) of graduates report earning $1.25 a day or more, compared to only 2% at enrolment.

Based on our experience and evidence, we offer 3 key recommendations for decision-makers, to ensure that women, even the most marginalised, inform policy and practice on women’s economic empowerment:

1.    Identification instruments should be flexible and holistic

Through the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the world has committed to leave no one behind: that the Goals cannot be considered successful if they do not deliver for everyone. This means that governments and practitioners must actively identify the most marginalised people and prioritise relevant and effective support. Instruments used to identify them must be flexible and holistic enough to accommodate different, context-specific definitions of marginalisation.

At Women for Women International, we use common eligibility criteria across all countries where we work to identify marginalised women survivors of war. This is based on key areas of vulnerability for women: conflict-affected, social exclusion and living in extreme poverty. To be eligible for our core programme women must satisfy at least two criteria from a longer list within each area, which allows for a more flexible approach that adapts to contexts rather than imposing one definition of marginalisation across very different environments. For example, the criteria for living in extreme poverty includes living below the international poverty line but also looks at women’s employment opportunities (e.g. high risk or unsafe occupations) and financial pressures, such as responsibility for dependents.

In combination, these criteria help us to identify and reach the most marginalised women in the conflict-affected communities where we work.

The first recommendation is for decision-makers to adopt instruments with flexible definitions of marginalisation that can be relevant in different contexts and promote a more holistic understanding of marginalisation i.e. social status, exposure to trauma, as well as economic opportunities.

2.    Use alternative data sources:

One of the biggest debates around SDG implementation is around the significant data gaps that challenge effective monitoring and reporting on progress. These gaps relate both to the way that data is collected (often unreliable, irregular, and missing large segments of populations) and to what data is collected (with insufficient data collected for vulnerable groups including women and girls). The ‘leave no one behind’ commitment challenges us all (practitioners, researchers, decision-makers) to prioritise those people.

While the data we collect are focused exclusively on marginalised women survivors of conflict (and therefore   not nationally representative) it can provide a valuable snapshot to help national and international policymakers understand hard-to-reach populations. We would like to see such data considered alongside official SDG data to provide a more nuanced picture in, for example, voluntary national reviews or as case studies in UN annual reports.

Our monitoring and evaluation data help to identify changes in marginalised women’s economic and social empowerment. We collect in-depth data from a large share (c.30%) of participants to gauge women’s progress through the programme as well as one and two years after graduation. We therefore have a sound understanding of the lives of the women we work with and effective ways in which they can change their lives. For example, almost all (99%) of the women we work with report practicing nutrition planning (sometimes or frequently) compared to only 28% twelve months earlier at enrolment. This helps us to identify where our programme is having most impact, and to support women better in the future.

Such data are vital but equally, it does not give a full picture of what life is like for individual women what are their priorities? What are their ambitions? We therefore commission research and evaluations with more qualitative tools (including feedback loops) to complement this data.

We recommend that decision-makers utilise data from a range of sources, including programming data, to support women’s economic empowerment, alongside more national-level data.

3.    Focus on empowerment not participation:

Our aim is for women’s economic empowerment, not simply increased economic participation. This is not just about increases in job opportunities or personal earnings, it is also about having greater influence over how individual and household earnings are saved, spent or invested.

For individual women, holistic support is needed. Sustainable change for women involves empowering them through developing skills and accessing resources to build self-confidence, understanding their rights, increasing their capacity to sustain a livelihood and gaining the respect of their family and community. Positive changes in the lives of the women we work with are reflected in our monitoring and evaluation of their decision-making and agency. For example, 91% of women graduates reported being involved in household financial decisions compared to only 63% at enrolment (12 months earlier).

We recommend that policies to implement the Global Goals focus on holistic support for women, specifically on building agency and decision-making alongside economic skills and opportunities.

In October 2017, Women for Women International will be launching the first in a series of report cards that situate our M&E data within the national averages being used to monitor progress of the Goals. To find out more about this, our other work, the women we serve, and how you can get involved please visit www.womenforwomen.org.uk

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