An Indian NGO’s program to train and financially support assistant teachers, like the woman shown here, has received active support from men and women. (Credit: Markus Liebl)

Grounded in the belief that women’s economic inclusion is one of the most unexploited opportunities for improving lives, women have become a major focus of development policy over the past two decades. Microfinance rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s based on its success working with women borrowers and microentrepreneurs. Plan International, a large NGO, shifted its focus to girl’s education and empowerment in 2012. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work promoting girl’s education. Many corporate-sponsored development programs—such as the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, and Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative—are aimed directly at women and girls. Under Justin Trudeau’s leadership, Canada recently launched a feminist international assistance policy.

And yet there is mounting evidence that directing development projects only toward women while neglecting men may actually be hurting the cause. When men do not have access to the same resources as women do, or feel that they are losing their power relative to women, they are more likely to undermine projects. In Guatemala, women withdrew from an income generation project because their husbands did not like the amount of time they were spending outside the house with men who were not family relations. A national survey of microfinance clients in Bangladesh found that some women were actually more susceptible to domestic violence after receiving loans, as the men in their lives sought to control the money women received or to punish women who could not repay.

Excluding men from development projects may also make projects less effective in helping women, especially when men still control important resources. In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, where we conducted 18 months of ethnographic research, a development NGO we call Pahari Sansthan created an agricultural cooperative aimed at helping female farmers get a better price for their crops. However, including only women in the co-op was ineffective. Although women did most of the farm labor because men migrated to cities for work, men still retained ownership over the family’s crops and made decisions about where to sell them. Female co-op members had trouble convincing their husbands to sell to the co-op instead of to private buyers, even though the private buyers offered lower prices and charged higher processing fees. This was because private buyers often gave loans to men in exchange for discounted crops. Other men were skeptical of the co-op because they were not involved in its planning, management, or training programs. As a result, the co-op was not able to source enough crops to achieve economic efficiency, which undermined its objective of helping female farmers.

An Australian-funded community health and development project in Zambia faced similar obstacles. The project offered loans and other benefits exclusively to women, generating resentment and opposition among local men. Male community members refused to help women who used their loans to start businesses; they also attempted to divert project funds for themselves. Without support from men—who still retained most of the power in existing social structures—local women could not capitalize on the project’s benefits.

Women may hold up half the sky, but they cannot hold it up all by themselves. Because most social structures are still highly patriarchal, focusing on women without including men can end up being counterproductive or even dangerous. When men are not involved in development projects, they may feel disempowered and actively oppose women’s involvement or interfere with their success. If men had had equal access to loans and training, or had better understood what project participation involved, they may not have lashed out against female project participants in Bangladesh and Zambia. Had men been involved in the co-op alongside women, or if project staff had reached out to men before the harvest to tell them about better price opportunities, the Indian co-op might have been more successful.

Development projects that involve all members of the community are more effective at improving women’s lives. They can lead to outcomes that benefit everyone and begin to shift the gender norms and the power structures.

Most program managers do not actively resist involving men, but they often do not realize how essential this involvement may be for success or do not have specific initiatives to make male participation a reality. Based on our research, we suggest three approaches for reshaping development efforts aimed at women.

1. Involve men as participants in projects aimed at benefitting women. Since 2011, Plan International has worked with both men and women in its programs to improve maternal and infant health in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Bangladesh. Studies commissioned by Plan International found that when fathers were involved in education and outreach programs and local male leaders were made a part of Plan’s health campaigns, it not only increased women’s use of clinic services, but also led to better communication between couples, more shared decision-making in the household, and more support for women during pregnancy.

2. Make project benefits available to men and women. For 10 years, Pahari Sansthan, the Indian NGO we studied, has trained and financially supported assistant teachers in government schools. This project’s main aim is to improve education in local schools by lowering student-teacher ratios and training the assistant teachers in alternative learning techniques. At the same time, it indirectly empowers the young women who work as assistant teachers by offering them opportunities to learn new skills, participate in public life, and socialize with high-status government teachers. Though the job is open to both men and women, most employees are female since men tend to look for better paying jobs outside the community. Men are still involved in the project as members of the parent-teacher committees that manage local schools, and all children benefit from the presence of the assistant teachers. Both mothers and fathers contribute to assistant teachers’ salaries and extoll the project’s benefits to visiting donors. Assistant teachers’ fathers even lobbied NGO workers to keep the project going in their villages. The active support of all community members has made this program successful in spite of recent struggles to secure sufficient funding for Pahari Sansthan’s education programs.

3. Gain project support from all community members. Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian NGO that aims to promote gender justice and equality in Islam, works with religious scholars and Islamic court officials, offering gender-sensitive interpretations of the Quran that differ from more traditional interpretations. The organization also provides legal advice and training to other NGOs and community members using the Islamic court system in Malaysia to ensure equal access to justice. Working with rather than against male religious leaders has allowed this NGO to appeal to a wide cross-section of Malaysian society as well as to the government, which seeks to present itself as a modern Islamic nation.

While the vast majority of development organizations—including the United Nations and the World Bank—agree that involving men is integral to gender equality, women-only spaces can still be an important part of the process. For example, women’s leadership development programs allow women in business to share experiences and concerns they are hesitant to voice in mixed-gender settings (though ultimately men in leadership positions must be actively involved in supporting their female colleagues’ advancement). Groups that work with particularly vulnerable women, especially those who are homeless or victims of domestic violence, often have women-only spaces to avoid creating additional trauma for victims and address the gender-specific issues facing those who identify as women. Once these women are more emotionally, physically, and psychologically secure, male volunteers and community workers can be involved in helping women establish new lives. Some organizations even advocate for involving men earlier so that victims of abuse have positive male role models. Our research suggests that single-gender spaces may be an important component of economic development for women, but in many cases, involving men will be crucial for long-term and sustainable success.

Organizations that seek to improve women’s lives cannot afford to ignore men. Involving male community members will not only help avoid backlash, but also change how people think about gender. By educating men about women’s health and encouraging fathers’ involvement in maternal care, Plan International’s health projects helped make parents’ relationships more equal and supportive. At Pahari Sansthan—because the benefits were available to all—the NGO faced much less resistance from men to its education program. Men who had previously opposed young women working outside the home became willing to offer financial and political support for these counter-cultural activities.

Changing women’s status in the developing world requires addressing the norms and practices of all community members. Women cannot hold up half the sky without engagement from the other half.

This five-part series from the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy at the Rotman School of Management highlights some of the most critical issues related to gender and economic development and offers approaches working to address them.

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