Can women’s participation in associations and civil society initiatives reduce gender inequality? This study assesses the extent to which social mobilisation and political empowerment initiatives led by NGOs have influenced gender dynamics in Kenya and Bangladesh. It focuses on gender dynamics in everyday expression of citizenship at community level. It concludes that the NGO initiatives studied have played a role in placing women in both formal and informal spaces of leadership and visibility. However, the persistence of male social advantage in the more formalised spaces of community public life still needs to be challenged.
Dominant discourses on gender and citizenship have tended to focus on structural constraints on women’s exercise of citizenship rights, as manifested in laws, policies and the design of public institutions. However, it is also important to look at the role of agency in the construction of citizenship – micro-level day-to-day expressions of citizenship and related gender dynamics, and the influence of NGO-led social mobilisation and political empowerment initiatives in cultivating agency.
The study found that women who had participated in social mobilisation and political empowerment initiatives displayed more active citizenship than women who had not. However, comparison with their male counterparts highlighted significant gains in some areas and persistent male advantage in others:
- Significant gains have been made with respect to voter registration and voting, but not with respect to exercising leadership in political parties and taking part in election campaigning.
- With respect to participation in community public life, more women are serving on committees that manage community amenities and are decision-makers in community-based dispute resolution mechanisms.
- The gender gap persists with respect to opportunity to serve on public committees that depend on appointment by politicians or senior government officials.
- More men still engage with public officials and use institutional spaces, although the gap is reduced with participation in social mobilisation and political empowerment initiatives.
- In informal community life, female participants of social mobilisation initiatives facilitate other community members’ engagement with, and access to services from, government officials and institutions.
- Such women also take up leadership roles in religious and kin-based institutions, ordinarily viewed as the preserve of male private power.
In conclusion, the intervention of civil associations does build and facilitate agency, which is crucial in overcoming social disadvantage. However, structural constraints can prove difficult to surmount:
- Civil society initiatives alone are not sufficient to erode the power of male networks that control public political space at the grassroots level, particularly in Bangladesh.
- There is further work to be done in directly challenging networks of exclusion, and deepening social legitimacy for women’s exercise of voice and authority.
- Facilitation of agency must be combined with institutional reform in order to confront and remove the structural barriers that make it possible for opaque networks of the socially advantaged to thrive and exclude.