In the fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment, it is important to foster an environment that encourages women to empower themselves, and to assist with the concerns that are most relevant to women. To this end, women must, themselves, be an integral part of the discussion and the decision-making process for any project that wishes to effect sustainable and valuable change. One such mechanism is to foster women’s associations and networks, as these spaces allow women to work together, learn from one another and develop support networks that are able to assist them during difficult or tumultuous periods.
The NEPAD Spanish Fund prioritised projects which supported women's associations and networks that promote women’s empowerment and advocate for the reform of laws and policies to ensure gender equality. In doing so the fund has contributed towards the achievement of the strategic objectives of the Beijing Platform for Action and aligned its actions with that of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
For example, the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), played a pivotal role in establishing national network organisations to address women’s issues in Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. They, furthermore, formed strategic partnerships with organisations for female entrepreneurs, helped establish a network for women in the financial sector, and assisted women to participate in international and regional forums, such as the World Economic Forum. The Graça Machel Trust was instrumental in forming the Network of African Business Women (NABW) and further sponsored members of NABW to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya and the 2014 African Women's Economic Summit.
In Ethiopia, the Centre for African Women and Economic Empowerment (CAWEE) organised women’s groups and consultative forums to promote women’s entrepreneurship. A direct outcome of these consultative forums was the establishment of ENAT Bank that focuses on providing financial products and services to women. Projects in Nigeria included capacity training and change monitoring workshops for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), organising a conference on gender issues, establishing forums to discuss the role of women leaders in governance, and launching a Gender Protection Network (GPN).
Other project interventions include the creation of women’s networks that provide personalised legal and psychosocial counselling services to victims of gender based violence; establishing partnerships and collaborative engagement with organisations such as the Network of Women Economists and UN Women. An important event that supported women's associations and networks was the second African Gender Forum that was held in Senegal in December 2007. The Forum gathered African women, and women from other continents, to share experiences on significant economic, social, and political issues that relate to women. A core issue that was deliberated was the harmonising and strategizing of the activities of women networks on the African continent.
Key lessons learned from projects:
- Develop a good project plan that takes into account the complexity of network formation
- Establish participative and multidisciplinary partnerships with different network stakeholders
- Assess the environment to ensure that networks engage with their constituencies and offer relevant services
- Overcome the challenges of operating remotely and in multiple countries
- Effective advocacy is important to overcome potential issues of lack of interest and apathy towards the need for a network
Develop a good project plan that takes into account the complexity of network formation
Good project planning and strategizing are key components to ensuring successful network formation. The experience of the NSF/Graça Machel Trust project team was that network building is not only complex, but that the process is further compounded by problems with mobilisation and gaining consensus. They found that it took at least 18-24 months to bring networks to the table. The focus of this project was on developing the Network of African Business Women (NABW) and strengthening networks of African businesswomen in Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
It was further found that language constraints create an added barrier to accessing many countries. This was a factor that not only surfaced in the Graça Machel Trust project, but also in the Foundation for Community Development (FDC) project that facilitated the formation of associations that addressed women’s issues in Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
Establish participative and multidisciplinary partnerships with different network stakeholders
The Cape Verde Institute for Gender Equality and Equity (ICIEG) reports that successful network formation is directly related to establishing participative and multidisciplinary partnerships with different network stakeholders. The NSF/ICIEG project was instrumental in creating women’s networks that provide legal and psychosocial counselling to victims of gender-based violence. The ICIEG, amongst others, collaborated with the Network of Women Economists and UN Women. A number of the projects found that forming strategic partnerships make it possible to bring together various actors around a common vision, evaluate the roles and responsibilities of executing partners, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure smooth implementation of the project. The Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya indicated that collaboration with other stakeholders, for instance the government, was an important factor that promoted women’s awareness and participation in community forums.
Assess the environment to ensure that networks engage with their constituencies and offer relevant services
The Graça Machel Trust found that conducting a mapping exercise to assess the environment in which networks operate was an important precursor to network development. Such an exercise helps with network capacity building and obtaining a better understanding of what is needed to improve the services offered. It further ensures that networks engage with their constituencies. The Cape Verde Institute for Gender Equality and Equity, likewise, stated that obtaining knowledge and information of participating partners and of organisational realities is essential to achieving optimal network effectiveness. This assists in defining the roles and responsibilities of the constituent members and making the necessary readjustments to ensure smooth network implementation. The focus should be on the learning process and exchange of experiences as key factors in strengthening the network framework.
Overcome the challenges of operating remotely and in multiple countries
Developing networks in multiple countries in Africa has many challenges. The Foundation for Community Development (FDC) learnt how difficult it is to influence the agendas of organisations of women entrepreneurs in the different countries they operated in. They had to adopt a wide variety of approaches and strategies, as well as forge relevant partnerships to assist in the development of women entrepreneur networks. They, however, also paradoxically state that despite the distance separating countries, the problems affecting network formation are often very similar.
The Graça Machel Trust reports that they had to overcome many obstacles that relate to operating remotely and being far from the centre of a networks’ activities. This contributed to the slow process of strengthening the national networks of African businesswomen they engaged with and consolidating the Regional Network of African Businesswomen. This further challenged them to effectively provide the necessary support and monitoring that the networks needed.
Effective advocacy is important to overcome potential issues of lack of interest and apathy towards the need for a network
The lack of interest and individuals or organisations not perceiving the need for a network or the benefits that can derive from forming such associations were challenges that faced many of the organisations. The Foundation for Community Development (FDC) found that they could alleviate such problems by means of well-designed lobbying and advocacy actions and by encouraging women entrepreneurs to develop synergies among themselves. FIDA (Federation of Women Lawyers) record that their nation-wide public awareness campaigns were very effective in motivating communities in Kenya to form community forums to exercise participatory governance and transparent oversight of funds received for development and poverty alleviation. They further argue that it is important to have IEC (information, education and communication) materials in local languages to assist with advocacy campaigns. All these interventions helped to motivate the various women constituencies to work together in a cohesive manner.