Leaders of faith/culture and the 2024 International Women’s Day commitments of African governments

By Judith-Ann Walker/ Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima

Accra, March 23, GNA – The commemoration of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2024, saw national governments all across West Africa putting on record their newfound commitment to advancing gender equality by aligning with this year’s theme.

This year’s theme is: “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”.

In addition to policy statements of commitment, women’s ministries in the Sub-region commemorated the day by organising public-facing events for visibility and citizen buy-in.

In Ghana, the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection organised a stakeholder walk; in Nigeria, the Minister of Women Affairs distributed work materials to women in business; and in Burkina Faso, the Minister of Gender made a public commitment to organising training sessions on agricultural production for 650 internally displaced and vulnerable women across the country’s 13 regions.

While it is indeed urgent and important to invest in women to accelerate progress for gender equality, this strategy must be pursued along with a complementary one that focuses on gender norms shifting by targeting male leaders of faith and culture.

This is especially so in Africa, where gender norms determine societal role assignment, and limits the life chances, social status, and social mobility of women and girls.

In this setting, male cultural and religious leaders often hold, uphold, and legitimise the replication of negative gender norms.

Their role, while critical for the preservation of cultural identity in the sub-region, also contributes to the underrepresentation and oftentimes exclusion of women from important sites of decision-making in the economy, society, and polity.

Without women holding visible leadership roles in such sectors, young women are left without role models and lack the inspiration to aspire.

How to shift the negative gender norms reinforced by male leaders of culture and faith, while at the same time acknowledging their leadership position in society, has emerged, as a key question for all those working for gender equality.

Many of those asking this question view cultural and religious values as an encumbrance of gender equality and often see male leaders of faith and culture as part of, if not, the root cause of the problem. 

In the West African context where gender roles are mainly shaped by culture and religious values, to brand culture as problematic and non-supportive of women and girls points to a failure to recognise women’s willful investment in culture and religion.

Such a view also fails to recognise that culture is ever-changing and that the mindsets and attitudes of cultural and religious leaders are also subject to influence and change.

The real question here seems to be less about culture as a hindrance to gender equality and more about the pace and nature of change that leaders of faith and culture can deliver on the long road to gender equality.

Consider the response of a faith leader when asked how religious leaders can contribute towards gender equality. He responded, simply – “We cannot work for gender equality.”

“But we can work for the protection of women and girls; we can support them to be educated so that their children are better trained; we will stand against traditional practices which endanger their health; and call for more respect for our women and girls”.

Taken together, this response is not a repudiation of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Five, Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women…, but an indication of the incremental steps that must be followed on the long road towards this goal, framed in a context where most patriarchal powerholders will engage on the issue but cede little ground.

The challenge for development-impact investors is one of how to tap into such hopeful openings for incremental change to shift negative gender norms within culture and religion.

For international development partners, the salience of the cultural and religious context of gender transformative programming cannot be minimised; it must be engaged.

To do so, however, requires a deepening of a partner-led approach to programming.

It calls for listening and learning from authentically local partners, respecting context yet committing to accelerating change.

It also calls for enabling the engagement of implementing partners to be equipped to work in the semi-chartered space of incremental and respectful change.

This is a challenging space for most development impact funders to be in, as it leans on learning, and offers multiple possibilities for sustainability but may not deliver the classical indicators of gender equality.

The Ford Foundation in West Africa is committed to addressing gender-based violence through shifting social norms that tacitly enable it by supporting women’s rights organisations, as well as faith and culture leaders, government, and other stakeholders to lead efforts geared at popularising prevention as a response to gender-based violence.

One of Ford’s grantees working at the intersection of gender rights, culture, and religion in northern Nigeria is the Development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC), a Nigerian non-profit organisation with 20 years of experience working for gender norms transformation in contexts of culture and faith.

The dRPC has learned important lessons about targeting, strategy, and programming in this field of work.

 On targeting, the lesson learned here is that gender inclusion interventions should focus on both faith and cultural leaders who may be at different points along the journey of change. 

Representatives of women faith-based organisations should also be included in interventions along with male cultural and faith leaders.

Gender transformative interventions are also more likely to be successful when designed to achieve realistic and incremental objectives.

Inclusion is a key strategy that should involve survivors of violence against women as interlocutors.

Leadership development is also an effective branding and programming approach when engaging cultural and faith leaders in gender equality interventions.

Some of the catalytic actions of male cultural and faith leaders that could potentially shift negative gender norms include making public procurements; conducting advocacy to government, especially at the local level; adjudicating local level family dispute cases in the interest of women; and personally, modelling new ways of supporting women within the family.

As development partners and civil society organizations (CSOs) prepare to monitor 2024 commitments made for gender equality, it is imperative that they advocate for African governments to adopt a more complementary approach when investing in women.

CSOs across West Africa must prepare to hold government to account on commitments that directly benefit women with training, materials and finance while at the same time calling for investment in creating an enabling environment by shifting gender norms.

Shifting gender norms is an objective that is best achieved by meeting leaders of culture and faith where they are found while also supporting them to move along on their journey to gender equality.

(Dr Judith-Ann Walker is the Executive Director -development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC), and Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima is the Senior Programme Officer, Ford Foundation West Africa).