5 questions to Marleen Bosmans | Enabel - Belgian Development Agency

"We want to mainstream gender equality in our projects whilst better taking into consideration the societies in which we work."

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5 questions to Marleen Bosmans
Gender & Human Rights expert


You are currently working at a new way of mainstreaming gender inequality reduction objectives in the projects which Enabel manages. Why this new approach?

The idea behind this new approach is that we need to go further than a transversal approach. Gender equality should not just be an underlying objective in all our projects. We want it to become part of our DNA and that all colleagues, at Enabel’s head office or in the field in the partner countries, incorporate gender equality in their reflections on the interventions that they manage. Under the new strategy, which we will officially launch in January 2019, the gender policy officer becomes a coach, whose role is to inspire, motivate and set challenges for his or her colleagues in order for gender equality to become self-evident in each project. 

We achieved good results in the past, but they have been insufficiently used. Also, many people consider the current gender policy approach too theoretical and too abstract. So, we aim to make our actions more visible and our results more concrete. To do so, I believe that it is important to emphasise the analysis of the social and cultural context of our interventions.
 ©Enabel/Tim Dirven - Niger
You advocate a progressive approach that focuses on the reality in the partner countries. What do you mean by that? 

In my understanding, the question of gender equality, or of the education of girls for instance, requires a long-term approach, focusing on the social and cultural realities of the region where we intervene and on how the nuclear family and the extended family is organised. It may seem normal to work on the long term, but I believe it is really necessary to emphasise this. The process has been a very gradual one with us; it will be so too in our partner countries. I believe it would even be counter-productive to work towards a different approach.
"The question of gender equality, requires a long-term approach, focusing on the social and cultural realities of the region and on how the nuclear family, the extended family and the community is organised."
So, what about the reality in the partner countries of Enabel?

Including the context in which we operate is key to ensuring women’s rights are successfully addressed in our projects. For instance, promoting access of women to the labour market does not solely depend of job creation, and that is so for many reasons.

First, stereotypes die hard, also with local authorities: Many believe that the role of a woman as a wife and mother comes first. Gender equality becomes a sensitive issue in such a context. Also, in many of the regions where we intervene social security is not in the hands of authorities. Instead, the family, the extended family and the community function as a social security net. Consequently, it is much harder for a woman to live independently there, because the social stigma associated with becoming independent may sever the ties of that woman with this indispensable social security net.

As a consequence, the women's rights approach must take into account the community. This is especially important in cultures where the community’s interests prevail over the interests of its members. Change in an existing situation will bring about tension. We must take this into account and choose actions that will bring about change whilst minimising tensions.
 ©Enabel/Jullie Claassens - DR Congo
Please give an example of how we can apply this gender approach. 

We start working like this in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in a programme fighting sexual violence and providing psycho-social assistance to the victims of such violence. The psycho-social treatment of the victims followed the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO). But we noticed that the treatment protocols were poorly adapted to the social and cultural situation of these victims and that these procedures were even less suitable for the specific needs of children and adolescents, whereas most declared victims are younger than 16.

So, we launched multidisciplinary research involving Belgian and Congolese psychologists, anthropologists, law enforcement, and doctors and social workers. The idea was to understand who had an influence on the rape victim: her husband, her own family or the in-laws? Who needs to be involved to help rape victims call for help? And who needs to be addressed in case it concerns younger girls: the parents or rather the uncles and aunts?

Such approach can also advance health programmes. A hospital visit is expensive for a family. In some countries, the husband will decide whether his wife may go to the hospital. In many other countries, the mother-in-law decides. So, in such settings, health policies should definitely involve the in-laws.
 ©Enabel/Tim Dirven - Niger
But do you believe that minds can really be changed through interventions? 

Of course! I will give you an example of one of my experiences. Enabel’s Trade for Development Centre works with two coffee cooperatives in southern Kivu in DRC. The region has witnessed many instances of mass rape. We were able to liberate funds — not much, approximately twice 20 000 euros — for a local NGO to raise awareness among the management of the cooperative, to contact the women and help them where needed. That way, many years after the offences were committed, we were able to help a few hundreds of rape victims – often repeat rape victims – from different ages for the first time. 

A few months later I participated in a meeting with the members of the cooperative, with authorities and with traditional chefs. Then, an older coffee-grower stood up to speak. He turned to me and told me, "Madam, I want to ask you for a favour. Thanks to you I have learned that a woman also has rights." He looked around and continued, "I have learned that she may speak in public. And I have learned that a woman can think for herself, take on economic activities and be successful." Then, he turned to me again, "Madam, I would like to ask you whether all men in my community can be taught so. Because it is important. It is important for our women to be involved and assist us because we are poor and we need to create incomes." 

For me, that was the nicest evidence that it is important for women and men to know their rights and that it is possible to change minds progressively.

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