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Why social inclusion drives women’s equality

26 augustus 2019

Today, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day. It is perhaps not so well-known, but for American women in particular, it is especially important since it commemorates the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920: the prohibition of denying the right to vote to citizens on the basis of sex. Women’s equality in voting rights is nearly ubiquitous worldwide, yet women’s voice remains less powerful than that of men. Despite the holiday having its roots in the U.S., we at CARE Nederland (CARE NL) celebrate women’s equality every day! But, through the Every Voice Counts (EVC) programme, one of the things we have found is that in order to have true women’s equality, we must have their full social inclusion.

What is social inclusion as it relates to equality?

In a recent report released by CARE Netherlands, social inclusion is understood in terms of the extent to which women and girls access, participate in, and influence local governance processes in fragile and conflict-affected settings. The goal of the study was to understand the pathways and factors that enable women and girls to be effectively included in local government budgeting and planning processes through ‘degrees of inclusion’: from access, to participation, to influence.

Growing recognition

Doing this study was important for CARE Netherlands because of the growing recognition of the connections between social inclusion, governance, and building sustainable peace. The study utilized dual methodology of literature review plus two case studies in Burundi in Rwanda.


Figure 1: Pathways towards inclusion in local governance processes.


Source: Pinnington, Rose. (2019) Policy Brief: Pathways towards inclusion in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. CARE Nederland, The Hague.

Pathways towards inclusion

We can view access, participation, and influence as a cycle, with access enabling participation, then influence, and finally to inclusion. And inclusion often leads back to expanded access! Of course, it is not typically simple and linear, and it is affected by interactions with opportunities and interventions. And what happens if you change the context (more or less patriarchal) or you have different levels of motivations? Of course, there is still so much to try to understand and, with the ever-changing nature of FCAS, we can’t begin to assume we can ever fully understand all drivers.

Driven by formal aspects

What we do know is that the inclusion of women and girls in local decision making is partially driven by a variety of formal aspects such as national legislation and policies and provision of information about government meetings by local authorities and civil society. For example, in Burundi local authorities strongly agreed that “if it wasn’t for the law no women would be part of decision-making structures in our community.”

This supports the case for lobby and advocacy initiatives by practitioners supporting equality-focused laws and policies.

Inspiring others

But many less formalized drivers are very important as well including: women acting as role models for others, supportive male family members, increased capacities to engage via trainings or higher education, access to capital, and participation in community structures. In Burundi, for example, a female leader that was viewed as “courageous, decisive and appreciated” inspired other women to be “eloquent and have the desire to express their ideas.”

Also, women’s participation in non-state economic structures, like the Village Savings and Loans groups (VSLAs) that CARE helps support, functioned as a steppingstone toward being elected into local government decision-making spaces. This aligns with findings in the literature suggesting that addressing women’s immediate practical needs or interests can act as an entry point for collective actions towards longer-term shifts in entrenched gender relations and norms.

Barriers for inclusion & social norms

Despite all of these drivers and the great progress women have made toward equality, women and girls also face tremendous barriers for inclusion. A major aspect that arose in the study was the role of social norms and beliefs that restrict women’s political participation and influence over issues and decision-making both in the public and private.

Social norms often impact the ability of women and girls to attend meetings—even when they are allowed (or even encouraged) by the men in their lives—because the timing and location of meetings are typically when women are busy with their household responsibilities. One woman in Rwanda said, “In daily life we have many home activities … we don’t have time to waste.” Imagine what a world with shared household responsibilities between men and women could achieve! This is why EVC is increasingly focusing on tackling harmful social norms.

All of these barriers are heightened when considering the combined impact of poverty, lack of education, and other intersectional concerns. The research shows that women who are able to take advantage of decision-making opportunities are often to be those with more education (and socio-economic clout).

Formal barriers

Like the drivers, there are also some formal barriers to tackle including:

  • Legislation
  • Politicization of local planning and budgeting processes (e.g., accessing positions without existing political, social, and economic capital; existing power structures, etc.),
  • Civic space restrictions

Thus, understanding both formal structures and informal variables – including how they interact – is important for addressing the inclusion of women and girls FCAS.

Both of the case studies found that women’s participation in local governance processes is increasing. But MANY opportunities for improvement still remain. For instance, women’s participation needs to expand outside of the limited issues and spaces to which women are often confined and their influence over decision-making must increase.

Remember,  participation ≠ influence.

Reference the study for a full run-down of recommendations, but, to drive the point home, in order to have equality in inclusive governance processes, we must first understand—and work on—social inclusion.

To the women of the world

Let’s conclude with a call to action for the women of the world, as told by Burundian women: women must step up and choose to participate in formal governance spaces in order to prove their ability, to “combat fear and shame,” and – importantly – to challenge male authority. It will take courage, but this is how women’s equality was reached 99 years ago (today) in the U.S.!

By Katie Whipkey, CARE Netherlands

This blog was inspired by the report by Rose Pinnington, Nynke Douma, and Katie Whipkey titled “Social Inclusion in Fragile & Conflict-affected Contexts: Pathways towards the Inclusion of women & girls in governance process.” The study was funded by CARE Nederland through a grant by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.