Women know what they need, in order to thrive: it’s as simple as that.
Especially in poor communities, if you want to know what’s happening and what their top priorities are, ask the women. Research has shown that women in cities are reliably focused on the needs of their families and communities. They actually listen, take seriously, and speak out for those around them, because more than anyone else, they have skin in the game, and they care.
And so, those of us seeking to help equip and empower urban women to drive an agenda that prioritizes healthy, thriving families and communities, really need to listen hard - from the start, and continually.
Our member organizations at WomenStrong International do exactly this. Our founding members listened long and hard to the women with whom they work before designing their programs. In India and Kenya, the women’s overwhelming need was for greater disposable income, which, once achieved, enabled them to pay their daughters’ school fees, purchase health insurance, diversify their small businesses, and tackle the rampant gender-based violence in their communities.
The women in our Haiti and Ghana communities declared access to health care to be their most urgent need; filling this gap opened the door to informal education and skills training; eligibility to participate in a savings and loans program that enabled them to grow their businesses and cover the costs of their children’s schooling; and as in Kenya and India, the freedom to determine the best modalities for addressing the violence against women and girls.
And in southeast Washington, DC, where the women in our program needed all of these things, they zeroed in on secure and affordable housing, health care, stopping gun and sexual violence, and emotional healing.
Across these geographically and culturally distinct settings, the commonalities – among both the challenges facing the women, and the organizations’ solutions – have been far more compelling than the differences.
Our member organizations share what they know and learn, both via online connections and in person, and the thoughtful translation and adaptations needed for successful adoption of an effective program in a vastly different setting have proven to be opportunities for learning worth disseminating well beyond the several organizations with which we have worked.
For this reason, WomenStrong International is now listening to a wider group of members. We are expanding our community of women-driven organizations into a global Learning Lab, so that the learning and sharing of what urban women know – of what works in transforming urban communities – can be amplified many times over.
Our first new cohort of Learning Lab members, all working in the area of girls’ education and empowerment, include non-profit organizations spanning three continents, with locales as far flung as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Guatemala.
Their focus includes not only working with adolescent girls, but also with boys, teachers, fathers, employers, and whole communities, to help prevent early marriage, keep girls in school, and ensure girls are educated and empowered to lead fulfilled and healthy lives. Their work, like the work of our founding members, is grounded in the lived experiences and stated needs of girls and young women.
We are excited for the intense learning and the productive exchange among our new Lab members, and we will soon be announcing how other interested organizations and leaders can join in the learning and discussion. In February, we will welcome our new cohorts in the areas of women’s health and violence prevention, and next summer we’ll add even more dynamic women’s organizations to our Lab, as we begin learning and sharing about what works to broaden economic opportunity for women and girls.
Of course, the incorporation into development programs of women’s wisdom – and the importance to the progress of women and their families and communities of women sharing their knowledge, their findings, and their experience – is hardly new! We stand on the shoulders of countless visionary women, who have long understood that women know best what they need.
It is our great honor and joy at WomenStrong International to fall in behind this cadre of brave women leaders, explorers, learners, and sharers all, by supporting and widely disseminating smart, game-changing, women-driven programs capable of accelerating human and global development.
We start and end with women because, as we all know, women get stuff done.