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Sharing Knowledge and Creating Spaces: Advancing Women’s Rights

As a development practitioner I have often wondered what is it that we actually mean when we speak about ‘doing development’. Is it a process only restricted to quantifiable outputs arrived at through concrete policy decisions? Or does there exist some kind of intermediary space where we can continue to unravel and deconstruct ‘development’ and make the vital connections between knowledge and action.

Make Every Woman Count (MEWC), a U.K-based non-profit organisation that monitors women’s rights in all African countries, is one example of an endeavour that is working towards providing a space that is able to explore and contribute to this wider discourse. A fairly recent online resource centre started in 2010 contains a rich database which collates news events from across the continent. It highlights the work of grassroots organisations and individuals in Africa. It seeks to reflect on issues related to women’s political participation, gender-based violence, economic empowerment, human rights et al in the form of blogs, and is in the process of creating a vibrant space underlining recent research on gender and development process.

Its founder, Rainatou Sow who has been twice (2013; 2014) featured in the ’20 Young Power Women in Africa’ and as one of the `’20 Young Builders of Africa of Tomorrow” by Forbes Magazine and was awarded ‘Inspirational Women of the Year’ by Women for Africa in 2012 explains that MEWC hopes to fill that gap in the way information related to African women’s rights is collected and documented ‘by providing accessible, timely and accurate information, resources and tools to support and strengthen the work of African women’s rights advocates, grassroots, and activists in effectively promoting the economic, political and social rights of African women and girls.’ She goes on to talk about the ‘missing voices and spaces’ when it comes to presence or rather lack thereof of African women. In that sense, MEWC hopes to become that space that makes African women and their movement visible, both in the form of individual narratives and shared experiences.

 

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At one level, given the way it is designed, it largely caters to the needs of policy makers, donors, activists, NGOs, civil society and other practitioners. And the ones it is meant to impact remain largely outside of this somewhat formal space. In this day and age where internet, social media and other such communication technologies are fast becoming critical tools and spaces for shaping and making visible everyday struggles for survival across the world and transforming them into collective action, as an internet guide it would indeed be interesting to see if MEWC and such similar online endeavours can expand, challenge and change the existing spaces where multiple actors engage in ‘doing development’.

In terms of its ‘theory of change’, the social change and impact it seeks to achieve in relation to women’s rights, to what extent this sort of intervention (at a macro level) can then be seen as a way of rethinking ways of ‘doing development’ remains to be seen. In the past it has organised trainings and a series of workshops designed ‘to empower African women living in Diasporas to play a stronger role as decision-makers in community development and to participate in all areas of social, political and economic development[iii]. However, in the wake of funding impediments it can only do so much as a relatively young organisation. But what it strives to do on a daily basis is to ensure that practitioners, across the board, have access to information, knowledge and resources which can then help in more effective understanding and formulation of policy and practice.

Personally, what makes this rather complex field of ‘development’ exciting for me is the simple idea of ‘community’ and the possibility of ‘change’, especially in terms of social behaviour and social relations, that can transpire when like-minded people and practitioners come together in a ‘claimed/created’[iv] space where a certain way of thinking can happen and matters. A closer engagement helps us to acknowledge multiplicity of voices and that there is no single objective account of reality. Does MEWC really open up spaces where participation and citizens’ voice can have an influence? Is it enabling greater diversity of expression? These are some of the questions that need to be looked at.

Nevertheless, what it at least attempts to do is create yet another space for some sort of meaningful engagement, which may not directly lead to any immediate policy plan, “but we could begin to assess the possibilities of transformative action…” beyond institutions and formal political discourses such that human rights, institutional accountability to these rights, transparency, gender equality, increased participation, economic and political empowerment and so forth can become reality one day.

Moving forward, it would be interesting to keep a lookout as this existing space expands, and hopefully adds to the ongoing dialogue about sharing and disseminating ideas and knowledge towards cultivating a more critical understanding of women’s rights within the broader parameters of gender rights and theory.

The moot point that I would like to emphasis here is to acknowledge online resource centres like MEWC as relevant development actors; a non-state actor, run and supported by activists, human rights advocates and researchers. While gathering and creating open access to data evidently seem to be the essential components of the MEWC design, the other part of MEWC’s overall effort is to encourage shared ownership of the site such that accurate information is generated and existing partnerships and future pathways in advancing women’s rights can be developed and sustained.

 By Surbhi Mahajan



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