Dear Oxfam, an evaluator writes…

This week we have been highlighting the lessons from the five-year Raising Her Voice programme. Here, we post an open letter to Oxfam from the evaluator who assessed the programme at key points and the impact she saw.

The raising Her Voice final evaluationRecently I was asked which piece of work I was most proud of.  Without hesitation I said the midterm and final evaluations of Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme, which supports women’s participation in – and influence over – decision making. Why? Because I think our work helped Oxfam and
its partners to reach conclusions about how change happens in this critical area. 

I told Oxfam from the start that I’m a feminist. It felt like a risk, but I wanted them to know that I was not trying to be neutral – I believe that women should enjoy equal rights. This is not only Oxfam’s struggle – we all have a stake in it – so I wanted to take a critical look at the gains Oxfam was making with the funding invested in this programme in the fight for gender equality.   

“…If you are silenced, that is a violation of your rights in itself.”I learned that Oxfam claims to ‘put women’s rights at the heart of all’ it does, but what does that mean in practice? I also heard that Oxfam’s ‘centre of gravity has traditionally been around livelihoods‘, and this had influenced its work on women’s rights. Clearly women do not just operate in the economic sphere and neither is our oppression generated and sustained only there.With RHV, Oxfam aimed to support women’s
participation in – and influence over – decision making. 

Of course participation and voice are fundamental to equality and rights – if we have no say over the decisions that affect us, we are not equal citizens. 

A protest against femicide in HondurasHannah Forster, the Director of RHV’s partner in The Gambia told me: 
There is a link between empowerment, voice and rights, because when there is silence, there is no way of protecting rights. If you are silenced, that is a violation of your rights in itself.” 

Women’s participation is hampered by biased structures and social attitudes, by lack of specific knowledge and by unequal relationships, which in turn impact on their self-confidence and expectations. But participation in itself is not enough… you can’t eat a committee, and if you want to raise your voice it helps if you have time, money, status and education. These are overlapping entry points into the complex reality of women’s lives, not distinct and separate areas. Raising Her Voice had to be understood in these
terms.

When researching RHV, I saw projects that focused on ensuring that the right legislation was in place to underpin women’s rights. Others aimed to create opportunities for women to get involved in local decision making and strengthen their capacity to do so effectively.  I also found plenty of inspiring examples of what work on participation and voice could mean to women and to their communities. I conducted two evaluations: one at the midterm point of the programme and then a final evaluation. Between these two points, over a third of the committees’ agenda items were proposed by women and there had been a noticeable shift in local government priorities and spending towards issues of
concern to them.

A women's rights event in AlbaniaIn Albania, local groups led by women talked to their communities to establish local development priorities and then worked directly with local private and public sector representatives to get the ideas funded.  A local interviewee explained that the women “now have a voice and can exert their influence on matters related to local development” and, as a
result, “…the social authority of women in these mainly patriarchal areas is upgraded.” 

I could see that changes were happening at individual and community levels, as well as in national policies.  But what I particularly noticed was that the ‘impact’ was the result not just of policies and laws and/or of spaces and structures. The essential element was the work on women’s personal capacity and confidence, which enabled them to recognise and take up opportunities, occupy spaces, and raise their voices. This was crucial as change happens by paying attention to all three spheres: the personal, the political and the social.

“Change happens by paying attention to all three spheres: the personal, the political and the social”

In the midterm review we drew up a ‘theory of change’ which showed these three spheres, and the links between them and women’s voice. Two years later when we returned to do the final evaluation, we had the opportunity to test our own assumptions about the usefulness of such a tool.  And what did we find? It was clear that everyone was very fond of the theory of change and it was quoted in most of the final evaluations. The case studies for the final evaluation of Honduras and The Gambia  illustrated perfectly how work across the three spheres enabled women to take an active part in local decision making (and how national influence still remains a huge challenge only partially resolved by political
quotas). 

However, it was difficult for the projects to redefine themselves in new ways and turning a massive steamship of a DFID-funded portfolio midstream was not simple – or totally possible.  It was more a case of adjusting the logframe than throwing it away and setting up a more flexible (and honest?) planning, coordination and monitoring framework.  

The RHV theory of change led to a real flourishing of ideas and activities based on its interpretations, in RHV programmes and, through them, to other Oxfam work. I had the fantastic opportunity to look at the evidence, present it back, and provide a space for reflection and analysis of how change happens. People responded by developing their own analysis and practice with renewed energy and ideas and by influencing the wider organisation to move more strategically into this key area of work for women’s rights and global equality.

Women’s right to participation and voice are now more integral to the conversation in Oxfam, and I am proud to have been a part of that ongoing and important process.

Read more

Author: Hannah Beardon
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.