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Integrating gender in communication for rural development

The FAO-Dimitra Project recently launched a handbook for all development practitioners, which examines the need to include gender in communication for rural development initiatives and provides guidance on achieving this successfully.

© FAO Dimitra

2 May 2011, Rome - The FAO-Dimitra Project, a participatory information and communication initiative whose goal is to improve the visibility of rural men and women, recently launched “Communicating Gender for Rural Development: Integrating Gender in Communication for Development.” This handbook is designed for all development practitioners (not only communication/ information specialists) and was born out of the observation that all too often, gender is overlooked in the design of communication initiatives for development in rural areas and that rural populations, women particularly, are rarely viewed as primary sources of information. This has an impact on the action of communication with consequences that vary from reduced efficiency to adverse results.

The publication reviews the concepts and approaches of gender and communication and the reasons for including gender in communication for development initiatives in rural areas; it also provides practical guidance on achieving this successfully.

Unlike conventional communication initiatives that often deliver top-down messages to a sometimes passive audience, communication for development initiatives are based on a dialogue process that aims to achieve sustainable changes within a community. They are implemented on the premise that change will take hold only if the community takes ownership. Therefore, this type of initiative promotes a participatory process that involves all the members of the target population from the start and empowers them to shape the project as it unfolds.

Rural populations face serious challenges in accessing information and means of   communication: they are geographically isolated with very limited access to services and infrastructure, have low rates of literacy and no possibility to seek out information, and their knowledge and skills are for the most part undervalued and unsolicited. Rural women, particularly, are disadvantaged. Customary practices often prevent them from accessing education and participating in public life, farmers’ organizations, and decision-making authorities such as village councils.

The handbook explains that communication for development initiatives in rural areas must take into account the different realities faced by men and women and foster dialogue between them. This is important to prevent the risk of reaching only the most powerful groups, men, which can lead to the perpetuation or even reinforcement of inequalities. By the same token, creating initiatives for women exclusively can fail to enlist pivotal support from men—or even antagonize them and reinforce women’s marginalization. Both approaches defy the initiative’s initial participatory purpose and preclude change.

Concretely, how can gender efficiently be integrated into a communication for development initiative? The publication examines this integration throughout the different phases of conception, implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

The first step, the analysis of the context and the subject, is crucial for the rest of the process. It is then that the research is carried out to obtain a full picture of the social, economic, political and environmental factors in the target community and to determine what actions are needed. At this stage, the practitioner needs to gather sex-disaggregated data within the community about the division of labor between men and women, the responsibilities of each, their control over resources, the activities they engage in to earn an income, what their separate income is and how they spend it, what their rights are, and many more items outlined in the handbook.

In a West African country, a workshop was organized for vegetable producers and sellers, with the objective of intensifying production and facilitating commercialization. These being traditionally female fields of activity, only women were invited. However, once at the workshop, the women explained that the men owned the village common land, and as such, that they did not have the power to negotiate or make decisions regarding its use. The women were therefore unable to discuss the implementation modalities of the proposed development initiative. When designing a communication for development action, practitioners need to map out resources by gender to grasp the implications of their use. 

To make sure the analysis of the context and the subject is gender-sensitive, all the data and information must be collected and reviewed using a gender analysis (of the environment, stakeholders and people’s livelihoods) and participatory tools such as seasonal calendars, income & expenditures matrices, resources picture cards,  flow diagrams, and charts of interests, needs and conflicts. This will inform the second step of the communication action: the formulation of the objective(s) and the results expected.

In step three, the target audiences are determined, again using the data collected. A distinction is made between the primary target audience, directly concerned by the expected changes, and the secondary target audiences, individuals –men and women--, groups and institutions whose support and involvement are needed for the initiative to succeed. These can be traditional and religious chiefs, community-based organizations, etc. The practitioners need to verify at this point that both men and women are involved and need to be aware of the gender and power relations at hand.

In step four, the channels of communication are determined. In order to effectively relay the messages, these must be adapted to the circumstances of the target audience. For example, in an area where illiteracy rates are high, written documents will not have the desired impact. Using the radio will be more effective, keeping in mind that women may not have access to radio, in which case another channel should be used to reach them, such as group debates. There are many visual, written or audio communication channels and the most efficient mix depends on each community’s circumstances.

Then comes the delicate fifth step of creating the message(s). The handbook underlines the importance of referring to and representing men and women so both can identify with the message(s). “What is not named does not exist,” the report reminds.

The practitioners must then plan step six-- the calendar of activities of the communication initiative, which should coincide with the availability of all the members of the target audience(s).  The budgetary and human resources necessary to implement the initiative are also determined at this stage, along with the constitution of a team that includes both men and women. Gender training may be necessary and should be budgeted for.

The seventh and final step regards the establishment of the monitoring and evaluation system, of which the gender dimension is an integral part. This section reviews each of the first six steps outlined and integrates the monitoring and evaluation process. Gender-sensitive results must be planned and sex-disaggregated indicators are needed to measure these results. The degree of participation of men and women needs to be monitored as well as the effects and impact of the communication action on the gender relations and gender equality.

Finally, the handbook reminds practitioners that integrating gender into their initiatives is a challenge that does not go without reticence and obstacles as it forces people to rethink their identity, their relations and the distribution of control and power.