Embracing Gender Equality and Inclusion – It Starts From the Top

Social inclusion and gender equality are long-established, core values of the GWP Network and manifested in the GWP Gender Strategy and the GWP Gender Action Piece. In a series of inter-regional discussions, GWP Senior Gender & Social Inclusion Specialist Liza Debevec sets out to identify what GWP as an institution can do to apply the concepts in these documents. Her first discussion is with Amy Sullivan and Andrew Takawira, who are both involved in a large Pan-African project on gender transformative water and climate investment. The discussion topic is institutional leadership and commitment, which is the first of 4 action areas in the Gender Action Piece. Their message is clear: leadership makes all the difference.

The GWP Gender Strategy and the GWP Gender Action Piece both set out to pave the way for gender equality and social inclusion in water resources management. But how do we actually go about doing this, putting words into action? In a recent interview on the topic, Debevec highlighted the 4 action areas that the Gender Action Piece identifies as a recipe for success, and she decided to do a deep dive into each action area to identify and untangle some obstacles and challenges that they each contain. “This takes many uncomfortable conversations; it is not something that can be achieved through trainings or courses, it takes time and it is ongoing work,” says Debevec.

Amy Sullivan is Lead Researcher on the AIP-WACDEP-G Gender Analysis, which was recently completed through the Water, Climate, Gender and Development Programme (AIP-WACDEP-G) in Africa, and carried out in 5 countries (Benin, Cameroon, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia).

“To me, the idea of institutional leadership and commitment is kind of the natural progression of recognising that until, and unless institutions – and particularly institutions like GWP – get top level, institutional buy-in and support on gender and inclusion, there is simply no way you can push a gender or inclusion agenda. You cannot do it from the ground up. It has been proven time and time again that a bottom-up approach to institutional change [alone] does not work, particularly for gender and inclusion, since these are based on power. These issues are deeply personal, and based on power dynamics – who has it, how do they use it, how do they share it?” says Sullivan.

As an institution, GWP has to understand what this means and put the systems in place to address inequalities.

“Leadership makes a tremendous difference, and it is probably the only thing that does make a difference. It has to come from the top,” says Sullivan.

A gender-transformative approach

Andrew Takawira is Senior Technical Advisor with GWP Southern Africa. He explains that the regional office is currently undergoing a big gender journey, with the AIP-WACDEP-G programme adopting a gender-transformative approach towards accelerating water and climate investments.

“When we started discussing the gender programme, we soon realised that we were embarking on a journey where we are challenging the norm. We had very difficult discussions, which even went into discussing cultural norms. For instance, we discussed land rights, and how we as a society has learned that land is allocated to certain people. A customary system has been set in place. We started questioning ourselves – what does it mean changing this, and do we believe that it can be done?” 

They also soon realised that implementing the programme was going to be a long-term commitment. “If we are serious about seeing an impact on access, around societal changes, then we knew that they aren’t going to happen overnight. But if we are going to be leaders and drive this programme, we needed to know, where are we in our views? It was a deep discussion at a personal level and we realised there were a lot of bias, especially in this region.”

Deeply personal issues

Sullivan agrees with Takawira that the problems – and solutions – go beyond the programme, and that it comes down to deeply personal issues. “The kind of discussions that GWP Southern Africa has had, are really the building blocks for the ambitious change that this programme has set out to reach. When I say these are deeply personal issues, I am talking about cultural and religious issues, about norms and values that we all have from wherever we’re from.”

But the question of success of the programme is also a tricky one, says Sullivan, because this is difficult to measure. “What is success? Even that question is bound to bring up emotions. It is one thing to design something on paper, but then we actually have to make it work in the communities. This carries a tremendous weight.”

Sullivan says that to her, success is keeping the topic on the table, and then to figure out how to address it from multiple points. “There is not one entry point to success. But something that needs to be discussed and developed early on, is the incentives structure. We are talking about behavioural change in a very specific and sensitive topic. Why would people change their beliefs and behaviour related to gender? From governmental to community level. What are the incentives to begin changing behaviour?”

It can be overwhelming to look at the big reality that the programme is trying to shift, and therefore Sullivan suggests putting it into manageable pieces – “almost bite size portions”.

Proving the results

A first step can be information. “The idea that inclusive programmes and policies lead to greater economic, environmental, and social sustainability – we need to prove that. We can begin to generate the evidence that shows that inclusive programmes are going to give us better results. Inclusive programmes are going to give us broader or deeper economic development, they are going to give us more resilient ecosystems and livelihoods, they are going to give us the societal stability,” says Sullivan.

And all of this has to change over time: “You can’t go from zero to a hundred overnight, you just can’t. You can change structures but that doesn’t change attitudes. You can change attitudes but that doesn’t necessarily change behaviour.”

And this is why everything is always brought back to action area 1, says Sullivan – the institutional buy-in from the very highest level: “And it has to be honest and it has to be real. It doesn't have to be perfect, it never is, but it has to be consistent.”

Takawira says that in the GWP Southern Africa team, to lead this change, they adapted an approach borrowed from the health sector, which proposes a ladder that represents change in behavior in an attempt to better understand their journey in driving gender transformation.

“This came from the realization that it has to be a step-change. We started off with pre-knowledge – where people know of the gender issue, but they don’t really understand what it means to be gender inclusive, what does inclusion really mean. Then you get to knowledge, then changes in attitude, through practise, and all those things leading to championing. We looked at it as something that could help us internally to also start seeing the changes that are happening as we understand what real inclusion means.”

"Now what?"

During the first steps of the gender analysis, Sullivan says there has been broad agreement on what the issues are, but the tricky bit is getting to the “now what” of the challenge. She says that the gender programme can be a good tool to bridge this gap.

Takawira says that “the positive thing is that we’re building a critical mass of people in the water sector through the work that we are doing. We can actually drive the discussion and put it on the table in the water and climate resilience sector. This gives me hope, knowing we are sitting at these tables. But the question is: How do we sustain the discussion around those tables – beyond donor funding. How do we keep people going up the ladder to champion gender transformation?”

That is where the hard work will have to be done and where the long-term commitment kicks in.

Covering the next 3 action areas, Liza Debevec will discuss with experts in other GWP regions about gender and inclusion analysis that drives change, meaningful and inclusive participation in decision-making and partnerships, and equal access to and control of resources. For more information on any of this, you are welcome to reach out to her on e-mail: liza.debevec@gwp.org.

Photo, from the left: Liza Debevec, Amy Sullivan and Andrew Takawira in discussion.