When I was younger I worked directly with rural communities. One of the profound lessons I learnt while working with indigenous farming communities in the Philippines had to do with women’s participation in community activities. I was then part of a group of young community mobilisers who volunteered to support the community’s self-help organization. As in other agricultural communities, women and men in this area have distinct roles and responsibilities in farming. The men take care of preparing the land so that crops can be planted, such as felling shrubs or trees, and plowing the field. The women, on the other hand, take care of planting the crops, weeding, and harvesting. The women are also in charge of most of the household work, including child rearing.
Both men and women were members of a self-help organization. However, as meetings were held in the middle of the day, most women were unable to attend. They were either in the field or performing their housework. Both the community members and the mobilizers did not see this as a problem. As the women were wives, and/or sisters of the male members, the men felt confident that the women were well represented in the meetings and discussions, even though they were not present.
At one point the organization received a modest donation, and it was decided that the money would be used to buy farm tools to help lighten the workload and increase farm productivity. The community mobilizers supported the members in coming up with this plan and its implementation.
As soon as the tools were bought, a community assembly was held in order to distribute the farm tools and have a celebration. The women, along with everyone else in the community, were excited to receive the tools that were now available, and attended this important community meeting.
The tools were then distributed. The women realized that even though the tools were for everyone and every family in the community, they were primarily for land preparation—for felling trees, clearing the field—tasks that were done predominantly by men. No tools were purchased for planting, weeding, harvesting, i.e. women’s tasks. This was not, however, intentional.
The committee assigned to buy the tools thought that the tools would be useful for everyone. But there were no women on the committee, and most of the planning meetings were held without women. The donation made things easier for men by lightening their burden, but not for women. Indeed, potentially, this could have made it more difficult for women to catch up on their work, as the men completed their tasks more quickly and therefore the women would need to speed up their work. As a community mobiliser, I couldn’t help but realize that without intending to, we had helped to make things more difficult for women by reinforcing women’s lack of access to resources, and making their already multiple burdens even more difficult to bear.
Albeit late, the story did have a happy ending. As soon as the organization’s members realized their mistake, they changed some of their policies, so that women would now be consulted before a major organizational decision was made, which was religiously followed afterwards. Even though the women were not able to acquire tools which would have helped them in their tasks, there was still a positive outcome. The group of young mobilizers learnt profound lessons in community organization, especially around the issue of why development has to consider the voices of women. With that realization, I grew up a little bit more on that day.
The author is Nepal’s Country Director of Volunteer Service Organization