Programs with Potential: Collective Voice and Sense of Self

Women across the world rarely have an opportunity
to voice their opinion about an issue that
matters to them.  
Photo: Deborah Espinosa
For those of us who are women’s rights advocates and activists with ready access to advocacy platforms and tools, we have constant opportunities to learn about, launch, and participate in advocacy campaigns to voice our opinions about issues that matter to us. 

In communities across Asia, Latin America, and Africa, however, women face a far different reality, where advocating for themselves and their community is unheard of or they lack the confidence, opportunities, and/or tools to engage. As a result, community members are often deprived of their voice, rights, and power; government remains unresponsive; and vital needs go unmet.    

Thankfully, many development organizations are addressing this lack of civic engagement, and by extension, sense of powerlessness, by supporting community members' right to voice their opinions and realize their rights. These programs are intended to inspire and facilitate positive dialogue between communities and authorities to hold government accountable. Often these local programs feed into national, regional, and even global advocacy efforts.   

One notable example is World Vision International's Citizen Voice and Action (CVA) approach, which World Vision has implemented so far in 43 countries through 411 programs. First piloted in 2005, CVA is an approach to improve the relationship between local government and communities and thereby improve delivery of basic public services such as healthcare and education.[1] A cornerstone of the approach is to educate about citizen and government rights and obligations. Check out the short video to the right to learn more.

A study of the impact of the CVA methodology in Ugandan communities, by Oxford University and Makerere University, found that in 100 primary schools in these CVA communities, there was an 8 to 10 percent increase in pupil attendance compared to control communities and a 13 percent reduction in teacher absenteeism.[2] CVA in Uganda also generated significant improvements in the delivery of health care services, as presented in this video.  

Similarly, CARE International uses a "bottom up" approach to their advocacy programs, particularly by women, grounded in human rights. Tools include raising awareness about rights, budget monitoring, public hearings, social audits, and community score cards in sectors such as health, education, food security, and natural resource management.  

For example, in Bangladesh, a CARE program resulted in groups of extremely poor people successfully advocating for access to public resources such as land and water bodies, enabling them to use those resources for collective livelihood opportunities.[3]  And on the issue of gender-based violence (GBV), CARE and its partners implemented the Great Lakes Advocacy Initiative (GLAI) using an evidence-based advocacy model to increase protection for women and girls against GBV in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  At its core, the GLAI relies on linkages between grassroots and global efforts. Underlying the model is the premise that greater participation by women in decisionmaking strengthens civil society and promotes gender equality, helping to address the underlying causes of GBV. The initiative demonstrated the effectiveness of linking grassroots advocates to policy makers, resulting in increased political participation by women at the grassroots and district levels, an increase in the reporting of GBV cases and, in some areas, a decline in the incidence of GBV.[4]   

Many other organizations implement local advocacy programming, including Family Care International, which works with indigenous women in Latin America and Partners for Democratic Change, which works with youth in Yemen.  Many of these organizations share their advocacy tools online, including WaterAid, CARE, and World Vision. A list of Useful Advocacy Resources is also available online.

Copyright Deborah Espinosa
The collective voice. Andhra Pradesh, India.  Photo: Deborah Espinosa
What all of these programs have in common is they create opportunities for individuals to contribute their unique voice and collectively advocate for a better world. As one CVA participant in India explained, "Earlier I used to remain behind my burqa. But I found my voice because of the [CVA] training."[5]

In my October post, The Power of Voice, I shared the story of Wanjiku and the courage and confidence that arose when Wanjiku learned of her human right to self-expression, combined with basic training on the art of public speaking. I had the privilege of witnessing not only her transformation, but that of her community, with positive impacts beyond all expectations. It is for this reason that I am so excited about these more comprehensive local advocacy programs. Opportunities to stand up together with our neighbors with a collective voice on an issue that matters to us not only benefits our community, but leaves a lasting impression on our sense of self. 
Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.” 
                                                                                  ~Wangari Maathai