GENDER EQUALITY IN URBAN LIFE
GLOBAL GRASSROOTS STRATEGIES FOR
Women’s International Academies (GWIA) were designed and
initiated by members of the Mother Centers International Network
for Empowerment (MINE) and conducted in cooperation with Groots
International (Grassroots Organizations Organizing Together in
Sisterhood) and the Huairou Commission. GWIA is a truly global
methodology to secure the rich knowledge of grassroots women’s
groups worldwide and to make it visible to mainstream partners.
Groups contributing to GWIA come from Africa, Asia, the Middle
East, Latin America, Europe, and North America.
The GWIA Approach
Women’s International Academy aims at making the work of
grassroots women both visible and influential in public policy
and practice. It does so by enabling the creation and
reproduction of a body of knowledge owned, nurtured, and
replenished by grassroots women. The GWIA format includes
opportunities for peer learning as well as for scaling up of
grassroots practices. It is designed in a way that creates space
for horizontal reflection and collective analysis of what is
happening at the grassroots level. It is a place for community
leaders and movement builders to meet and exchange experiences,
in order to harvest and frame grassroots knowledge from their
own perspective. Conditions for replication and transfer are
analyzed and linked to mainstream debates in a strategic way.
GWIA is a
methodology for harvesting the knowledge grassroots women’s
groups have gained by improving everyday life conditions for
their families and communities. GWIA provides targeted spaces to
grassroots innovators, particularly women, who often lack
prominent spaces and opportunities — taken for granted by
professionals — to articulate and share their experiences and
develop the tools to disseminate them. The experiences of local
women’s groups often are not documented in the usual circuits
that disseminate global information. Their practices are more
vulnerable to being disappropriated by mainstream actors, who
are better quipped with packaging and dissemination tools.
Formats like the GWIA are needed for grassroots groups to claim
their knowledge and to disseminate and expand their practices in
their own name.
Obstacles to the
Harvesting of Grassroots Knowledge
The fact that
our world experiences persistent problems with poverty and
unsustainable development, despite abundant natural and
informational resources, points to the fact that there is
something wrong with our mainstream knowledge systems. There is
something wrong with the way knowledge is generated, accessed,
controlled, and used in our societies.
flaw in mainstream education and knowledge-building systems is
that grassroots expertise and knowledge most often is lacking.
Grassroots groups often are already practicing solutions, where
others are debating theories. These practices, however,
generally are not considered when resources are being
distributed. By excluding grassroots women and ignoring, under-resourcing,
distorting, or diluting their practices, a wealth of highly
needed expertise is wasted. Many academic, institutional, and
political arrangements manage to overlook and abstract from what
is really happening on the ground. This is quite amazing,
considering the fact that it is there, that all practical
knowledge needs to be implemented. It is where the ultimate
answers and tests of ideas and theories is to be found.
obstacle to incorporating grassroots perspectives and know-how
in public decision-making lies in the fact that they often stay
local. Much of grassroots wisdom is held in places so highly
dispersed, it is difficult for others to obtain, thus entering
the channels of public decision-making very infrequently. GWIA
stimulates a process where grassroots groups engage in
translating their practical knowledge into something that can be
used in education and policy.
Selected Results of
characterizes grassroots women’s work worldwide is its focus on
community building. At the heart of grassroots efforts and
strategies is the intent to reweave, strengthen, and reinvent
community ties and community bonding. Globalization and its
all-encompassing market orientation has heavy consequences on
the quality of social relationships, and on the social and
spiritual life of communities. Social cohesion and sustainable
social networks are increasingly at risk. Neighborhoods are
becoming individualized, anonymous, and alienated.
of grassroots women’s activities include bridging diversity,
developing strategies of integration, and nurturing everyday
life democracy. Whether it is called a collective, a center, a
sangha (India), or a yum (Africa), grassroots women’s efforts
revolve around creating community space for the development of
solidarity and joint problem-solving.
Even on issues
of housing or savings and credit, the grassroots approach is not
restricted to the practical things on which they focus, like
bricks and mortar or money. The real emphasis is on how these
activities can help the community to grow, develop, and
emphasis on community also applies to economic initiatives and
activities centered around income-generation and livelihoods.
Grassroots women’s strategies for the creation of economic
assets and resources differ from the more individualistic
career-oriented approaches of mainstream society. Economic
activities are linked to the creation of collective assets and
the development of the community. Economic empowerment links the
strengthening of individual economic literacy and financial
self-reliance to improving the economic scope of action for
whole collectives, communities, and regions.
By building on
local skills and collective resources, the entire
community is strengthened as a sustainable way out of poverty.
The basis for self-sufficiency is built by engaging community
enterprises in the development process.
women’s groups often explore the knowledge and expertise coming
from community traditions. This constitutes a very different
approach to knowledge-building than mainstream knowledge
systems, which tend to base expertise on scholarly credits and
professionalism. Mainstream knowledge systems are very often
more about controlling and packaging knowledge than about
testing if it really works on the ground.
groups have access to valuable knowledge and expertise that is
often hard to obtain. They usually have precise and accurate
information on their communities. You can only solve problems
when you know them. Real knowledge is a prerequisite to real
solutions. Adequate and accurate information is the basis for
problem-solving strategies that really work.
Much money has
been spent uselessly and many projects have gone wrong because
they neglected to consult the people on the ground in order to
gather an authentic picture and understand a situation well.
Grassroots women’s groups are important and resourceful partners
because of the simple fact that they really know what is going
on in human settlements.
Health is an
important issue for grassroots women’s initiatives. Home
hygiene, educational campaigns, and preventive measures against
diseases are key areas of grassroots activity. Mobilizing
community involvement and traditional expertise in relation to
the HIV/AIDS epidemic is central to grassroots community
Africa. In many cases grassroots groups are rediscovering and
learning to trust traditional medicine practices that are
available in their cultural traditions. The long-term approach
to health, characterizing grassroots communities, involves
exploring healing techniques and cures that people can apply
for themselves and integrate into their daily lives. They focus on
how to strengthen the immune system and the innate healing
forces of the body. These efforts strengthen a preventive
approach to health care.
In a world
where violence is often targeted towards women, the issue of
safety plays an important role in women’s organizing. Women's
groups worldwide are developing strategies
against domestic violence and assault in public spaces. This involves new
principles of urban planning, as well as encouraging the
community at large to take responsibility for
preventing violence. Increasingly, women’s groups have moved from handling
the problem themselves, to getting municipalities, law
enforcement agencies, and other mainstream players to deal with
it. Fear and feeling unsafe are major obstacles to the
empowerment of women. Enabling women to feel safe is a
prerequisite to citizenship.
and Security of Tenure
housing for all is a universal right, a basic quality of
civilization. Worldwide the problems of pavement dwellings,
slums, and homelessness are increasing. Affordable housing is
being torn down in the name of economic development. In many
areas, the threat of eviction and demolition is a constant
trauma for the urban poor. Grassroots groups are organizing to
create shelter for the poor.
Women are often
at the forefront of tenants' associations and slum dwellers'
organizations. As homemakers, they have a keen knowledge of what
kind of structures and spaces are needed to serve basic needs.
Experience shows that housing that works for women and children
most likely works for everyone.
legitimate housing in many instances connects to not being able
to claim citizens’ rights. These can include such things as
rationed foods, municipal health care, infrastructure and
services, police protection, and voting rights or other benefits
of citizenship. The politics of housing is connected to the
politics of citizenship.
instances women’s access to land is essential to their housing
as well as their income and livelihood needs. Without security
of tenure it is difficult for vulnerable groups to acquire and
use land resources. Grassroots women’s groups are applying
holistic strategies that connect the distribution of land to the
development of supportive infrastructure to make sure the land
can be used to produce food and other vital resources.
The culture of
politics and government in general marginalizes grassroots women’s
voices. Institutional arrangements are often hostile to
grassroots women’s participation. If there is no institutional
arrangement to make sure that grassroots women's voices are included and
that they count equally, then more often than not, they will go
amendments, affirmative action, and gender quotas have proved
insufficient to truly integrate women into public policy decision-making on an
equitable basis and to enter their concerns and priorities into
governance. Capacity-building tools for women do not always
result in women actually claiming their potential of influence
and power. Grassroots women’s strategies address the reasons why
training and legal equality frameworks often fall short.
strategies of governance create a favorable environment for
grassroots women's participation and advocacy. Claiming physical and
reflective space has proved a vital prerequisite to engendering
local governance and to enabling women to meet and strategize
collectively. Space allows them to mirror their skills and
competencies, to learn as a group, and to formalize and sustain
their involvement in local development beyond short-term
volunteerism. Other conditions include creating support systems like childcare facilities, safe transportation,
compensation for time invested, as well as personal support in
the forms of community consultations and leadership coaching.
leadership is becoming one of the key developmental issues.
Communities are increasingly choosing women as leaders, because
they tend to be more effective. Women’s leadership tends to
operate on an all-inclusive and team-oriented basis. Everyone’s
needs and contributions are taken into account. Structures
tend to be flexible and fluid and less bureaucratic. Women’s
leadership often results in the benefit of the whole community.
It is most often based on solid knowledge of the community, as
women deal first-hand with the everyday issues of life. Under
women’s leadership, resources are more likely to reach those who
need them the most. Excluded groups like mothers and children,
who have been confined to the private sphere, gain a voice and
access to public participation. There is often a concern for the
living environment and the conditions for future generations,
which leads to long-term considerations and to an emphasis on
conflict resolution. The culture of care gains social value and
is reintegrated into public and collective commitments.
grassroots practices requires an enabling environment that
supports their replication and impact on decision-making. Part
of what creates an enabling environment is effective and
supportive partnerships. Creating a wide spectrum of alliances
and building partnerships with many stakeholders is a crucial
element of making grassroots women’s strategies successful.
women’s groups identify with being problem-solvers in their own
right and strive for autonomy. This requires a redefinition of
the role of institutions and professionals. Mainstream partners
need the courage to develop from being the ones teaching and
defining capacity-building, to engaging in principled and
This process of
partnership-building can be supported by developing a clear
definition of mutual contributions, roles, and responsibilities.
These must be based on respective skills, resources, and
opportunities, especially when interaction and dialogue are a
long-term and on-going process. Mediation and support structures
often prove a necessary element of bridging cultural, language,
and power gaps in partnerships. Last but not least, sustainable
partnerships are reinforced by defining common interests and
interfaces, and by identifying the win-win situations. Part of that
involves getting very clear on the non-negotiable principles and
Monika Jaeckel is a Senior
Researcher at the German Youth Institute in Munich, Germany,
founder and Chair of the Mother Centers International Network
for Empowerment (MINE) and the Grassroots Women’s International
Academy (GWIA), Chair of the Our Best Practices Campaign for the
Huairou Commission, and a member of the Board of Directors of
Global Urban Development, serving as Co-Chair of the GUD Program Committee on Building Gender Equality
in Urban Life. Her books
include The Learning City, The GWIA Handbook,
Engendering Governance and Development, and Challenging
Development. Ms. Jaeckel’s article is excerpted from her
recently published book, The Learning City: A New Approach
to Urban Development, and is reprinted with the permission of