Women, Voice and Power: Making a Development Case for Transformative Feminist Leadership

Emily Brown Gender, Participation and Leadership, Women's Economic Empowerment

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a terrifying reality worldwide, Southern feminist activists have organized together to provide both immediate local services and long-term support to those affected by poverty, violence and oppression. They have effectively organised environmental, anti-racist, labour, peace and political movements across communities to promote and protect women’s rights and social justice.

Here is MADRE, for example, on the sophisticated organising of established Afghan women’s rights networks – barely mentioned in mainstream media coverage of recent events:

“There’s a kickass network of local Afghan women’s organisation who have built a country-wide escape and support network for women’s rights activists facing targeted assassination by the Taliban. Contrary to US media reports, Afghan women are not all “hiding in their houses.” They’re organising. And they’re amazing at it. They’re making longer-term plans for clandestine girls’ schools, clinics and ongoing women’s rights work which will reply on the older generation s experience from the 1990s and on strategies developed by women living under ISIS occupation in Syria and Iraq. But today, the priority is to prevent women from being assassinated by Taliban fighters and protect girls from sexual slavery.”

Men make up 76% of national parliamentary decision-making structures and control 86% of the world’s corporations. This ‘male 75%’ leadership dominates global and local decisions on who has access to quality school and health services; how we do or do not protect the planet; who pays and who avoids taxes; and when and where weapons are sold or fired.

As the world collectively commits to ‘just recoveries’ in the wake of the health, economic and social devastation still being caused by COVID-19, who gets to decide what ‘just’ means?

What does the ‘conspicuous absence’ of women’s knowledge, experience, feminist analysis and priorities mean for the quality of our intelligence and of our collective decision-making?

Image: Author’s own. Taken from unidentified photograph featured in Oxfordshire Women’s Suffrage Centenary street exhibition, May 2021

The dominance of male perspectives and voices in the ‘big boy’ politics of the world’s council and court rooms, parliaments, boards and media houses means that the work of women community and political activists, and leaders is largely undervalued – often overlooked.

And where feminists activists are organising effectively in community and political spaces, this work is often undertaken at great personal risk to those involved. It’s also work that’s still juggled around the demands of family hours and unpaid care responsibilities.

This has to change. This is women’s business too.

As the evidence clearly demonstrates, the transformative feminist leadership we see emerging across the world today is not ‘just’ a collective of scattered examples of small-scale activisms and local organizing. Feminist activists, leaders and their organisations and movements are working creatively together to build on and expand system-wide transformations to the way entire economies work, healthcare is provided, and social protections are designed and function.

A growing body of evidence shows that when decisions are made more equally and inclusively, and are rooted in locally owned, intersectional feminist movements and political agendas, they have immediate and long-term human development benefits for all.

“It made us feel capable, knowledgeable, revolutionary” Young feminist activist, RootsLab Lebanon

A new paper draws on learning from a wealth of Southern feminist organizing, and women’s political leadership globally. It demonstrates the concrete development impacts that Oxfam’s feminist partners and so many others have seen as a result of this approach and synthesizes insights about how change happens. It draws on both robust programme evaluations and reflections from the lived experiences of some of the activists and leaders with whom Oxfam has had the privilege of working. These include:

• A review of progress in over 120 countries over the 40 years to 2015, which demonstrates that feminist movements contribute directly to women’s economic empowerment, found that feminist mobilization is ‘associated with more expansive economic rights, better support for both paid and unpaid domestic work, and better protection from sexual harassment’.

• The same review found that feminist mobilization is associated with smaller gender wage gaps and, indirectly, is positively associated with women’s improved access to land rights and financial institutions, including access to their own bank accounts.

Analysis of 181 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that ‘processes that included women as witnesses, signatories, mediators, and/or negotiators demonstrated a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years. This increases over time, with a 35% increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years.’

• In Kenya, partners in Oxfam’s WE-Care programme supported the mobilization of over 800 women in Nairobi’s informal settlements to advocate for essential care supporting services, leading to increases in expenditure on accessible water points and Early Childhood Development Education Centres by 30% and 11%, respectively.

The power – and benefits – of transformative feminist leadership approaches like these are growing harder to ignore. Increasingly, unapologetically, women in every country are coming together to organize, fundraise and strategize in kind, creative, revolutionary and fierce ways to demand change.

As a new women’s rights financing campaign boldly states, it is time to #StopTalkingStartFunding. It is time now for donors and international development actors across sectors to recognize, support, promote and fund their work.

Additional Information:

This paper is part of Oxfam’s broader commitment to document our learning on TLWR approaches and strategies to deepen our practice. If you are interested in reading more on this topic you can access the following resources here:  

Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights (TLWR): Lessons and recommendations from Oxfam’s experiences

Oxfam’s Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights Global Programme Framework

Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights in Africa: Learning from Oxfam’s work. In: Spotlight on Women’s Leadership in African Contexts, AGENDA NO118/33.1 2019

Transformative and Feminist Leadership for Women’s Rights. Oxfam America Research Backgrounder series. Wakefield, Shawna 2017. 

For a (loose but voluminous!) collection of TLWR programmatic videos, case studies and resources, visit Raising Her Voice.

About Author:

Emily Brown is Oxfam’s former Lead for “Transformative Leadership for Women’s Rights” and reflects on what feminist evidence tells us about the power of this work, why it matters and what it means for ‘mainstream’ development practice.