Background: The 2022 Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG) Plenary explored the elements and impacts of community-led, gender transformative programming, a topic that resonated with our members and attendees. The event, which convened more than 200 attendees representing 46 countries, highlighted promising practices and lessons learned for how to ensure meaningful community leadership in gender transformative global health programming.
The discussions that arose during the plenary highlighted the importance of gender champions cultivating effective and equitable learning and evaluation partnerships with community leaders and groups—both formal and informal—to help address common challenges such as limited resources, competing agendas, and ingrained power differences.
Event Overview: Building on the momentum of the 2022 Plenary, the IGWG hosted a gender knowledge exchange event on September 7 from 9:00-11:00 a.m. EDT, exploring in more depth one of the plenary’s many thematic areas of interest: participatory and inclusive evaluation and learning methods in community-led, gender transformative programming, particularly family planning, reproductive health, and gender-based violence prevention.
Despite the wide acceptance of the importance of community leadership in theory and practice, many implementation challenges remain, particularly in strengthening programming’s participatory learning and evaluation components. Recent published literature reveals questions about the relationship between degree of participation and impact, how impact should be defined, and the role of wider social forces on the evaluation process for health programs. Additionally, practical process and content questions remain about how to get started implementing participatory learning and evaluation in programs, what steps are necessary to form these processes, how decisions are made, and what outcomes should be monitored.
This gender knowledge exchange provided members with the opportunity for deeper and more informal exchange as participants heard lessons learned from gender champions and experts on these topics in a small-group setting. It began with a panel discussion led by a group of experts, community leaders, and researchers focusing on strategies for and approaches to participatory and inclusive evaluation and learning methods and exploring promising practices for measuring community leadership in gender transformative programming. Following the panel discussion, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a Q&A session with speakers. Panelists included:
- Nancy Glass, Professor and Independence Foundation Chair, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing
- Tamil Kendall, Director, Partnership for Women’s Health Research Canada
- Renu Khanna, Co-Founder and Mentor, Society for Health Alternatives (SAHAJ)
- Rachel Litoroh, Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning Manager, Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli/International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP)
How can program implementers engage with community leaders to improve monitoring and learning activities and influence the effectiveness and relevance of gender transformative programs?
- Program implementers should consult regularly with community members to hear their concerns and feedback and build trust, understanding that the primary role of implementers in these meetings should be to keep a pulse on what is happening in the community and listen to constituents. For example, the SAHAJ program implemented periodic federation meetings where community leaders of each group came together to share issues, lessons learned, and challenges. This feedback was then incorporated into program interventions.
- In meetings with community leaders, implementers should be open to hearing alternative solutions to challenges and not go into meetings with decisions already made.
How can the role or insights of community leaders in monitoring or evaluation contribute to and affect gender transformative programming’s attention toethical dilemmas and efforts to do no harm?
- Recruiting peers to lead evaluation interviews may help interviewees feel more comfortable about discussing sensitive or taboo topics. To document SRH violations that women living with HIV were experiencing, the ICW (International Community of Women Living With HIV)-Latina/Balance program recruited peers to document evidence and trained all peer researchers in confidentiality protocol and informed consent.
- Program implementers should ensure community leaders have decision-making power over program evaluation goals and what data and information are documented. For example, community leaders can co-create questionnaires, helping to decide the language and framing of the questions. Implementers should ensure evaluation tools are communicated in a way that community leaders can understand (in other words, with less jargon), and support community leaders in feeling a sense of ownership over the program data, encouraging them to use the data in their work. Additionally, collaborating with community leaders to develop messaging around program data can foster a sense of joint ownership, which may support leaders’ use of the data in their work and advocacy efforts.
- Community leaders can help program staff navigate discussions on sensitive topics with community members. For example, before discussing issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) with youth in India—topics that are considered very sensitive and require consent to be discussed with young people—the SAHAJ program created community advisory groups of adults or supporters, progressive parents, teachers, and community leaders to guide the discussions and the ensure they were culturally appropriate and acceptable.
- Implementers should support the inclusion of marginalized and excluded groups in evaluation and learning processes, recognizing that in some contexts, deep-seeded and intergenerational structures (for example, caste systems) are more difficult to penetrate.
How can community leaders play a role in the evaluations of gender transformative programs?
- Before developing the program evaluation, implementers should meet with community leaders to discuss expectations for outcomes, what success looks like, and outcome indicators. Similarly, community leaders should be included in discussions for external evaluations. External evaluators should build in spaces to engage with community leaders and provide them with the opportunity to reflect on their work and why it has or has not worked, as well as to encourage leaders to share their stories.
- Recognizing that community leaders have an important stake in the program evaluation process, implementers should engage leaders (including government officials) early to ensure programs are context-specific and achieve support for program results. For example, after receiving feedback from community leaders and authorities about the exclusion of female genital mutilation in their programming, the Community Care Programme (CCP) incorporated this topic into its interventions and evaluation.
- Community leaders should help decide how evaluation findings are communicated back to the community, including how the results are shared and with whom. Their participation is especially important for findings on sensitive issues, which may face serious backlash from the community. Involving community and peer leaders can help program implementers frame their findings in a way that provides transparency and avoids setting back the work of gender transformative social norms or creating further risk to impacted groups.
- Recognizing possible tensions that may arise between supporting organizations and the ability of community leaders to be frank and critical, program implementers should work to build the trust of community leaders to engage in evaluation and learning method processes effectively. Implementers should recognize that criticism from community leaders may be an indicator that they are starting to trust program processes.
What are some practices and methods that programs can apply and use to measure changes in community leadership?
- To assess changes in growth in community leadership at individual and organizational levels, implementers can build questions into evaluations related to changes in community leaders (and their organizations’) capacity to lead during regular check-ins and progress meetings, as well as capture these changes through formal interviews and participant observations. The ICW/Balance program asked participants about how their views and personal priorities and practices related to SRH, and their organization’s priorities and collective action efforts with other organizations, changed throughout the process and documented these changes. In one example of growth, program participants—women living with HIV—acted as subject matter experts and used program-generated evidence to influence policy and care guidelines at the national level.
- Stories shared during discussions with community leaders can be a rich way of learning about various forms of leadership, how capacities have changed and evolved, and how subject knowledge of issues has grown. Stories can also provide insight into the experiences of community leaders and marginalized groups, as well as the intersectional experiences of program participants.
- In addition to using formal tools, program implementers can monitor the behavior of community leaders who are successfully and effectively facilitating discussions on sensitive topics. The CCP monitored how community leaders led discussions on sensitive topics, which helped indicate leaders who were likely to continue these discussions after the end of the program and identified those who could mentor other leaders. The CCP also mapped out reference groups, recognizing that leaders who are most vocal and well-known may not be the only the ones driving change.