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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Notes for the Mobilizer

Methods for the mobilizer to raise gender awareness and to promote gender balance


This is an introduction to some main issues of gender, and some methods that can be used by the community mobilizer in the field.


This document, like most on this site, is aimed at the community mobilizer in the field, and is not a theoretical or academic treatise.

Its aim is to introduce the field worker to a few of the issues related to gender, and assist the mobilizer in developing skills to raise awareness about gender issues and to move communities and their organizations towards increased gender balance and fairness.

The Hon, Mary Nagu, Minister of Community Development, Women Affairs and Children, for the Democratic Republic of Tanzania, said, "You can not have genuine community development without gender balance, and the most important element in reaching gender balance is through community participation." (Personal Communication, Istanbul, 1996).

Clearly, community work is a useful channel for raising awareness about gender issues, and for balancing some inequities. Conversely, community work would be incomplete without raising gender awareness and promoting gender balance.

Gender Versus Sex:

A few hard-line advocates of sustaining oppression of women argue that the word "gender" is not a legitimate word, created solely to promote a movement to upset traditional social structure. This is incorrect, and it will be useful for the mobilizer to know some things about the word "gender," why it is used, and its importance in capacity development, income generation and the empowerment of low-income communities.

A good start is to distinguish between the words "sex" and "gender."

Roughly, "sex" is biological and "gender" is social. Biological characteristics are transmitted and sustained over the generations through genes (and sexual reproduction) while social characteristics are learned and transmitted and sustained (by symbols not genes) through communication and learning (social reproduction).

The major distinction in sex differentiates between "male" and "female," while the major distinction in gender, as in grammar, is between "masculine" and "feminine." (Genetic research reveals that we may have more than two sexes, perhaps as many as five different combinations of X and Y chromosomes and their related genes).

What constitutes "masculine" or "feminine" is very variable, and differs from culture to culture, and differs from era to era in history. What this implies is that the social attributes (masculine and feminine) that (as humans) we apply to different people, in response to their biological characteristics, are culturally arbitrary, and can be changed in a process of development or other social change.

(Our biological characteristics are determined largely by our genetic inheritance, and can be changed, with more difficulty, through surgery, medications, or other physical means).

The Human Rights Issues:

While values vary from community to community, country to country and time to time, we can accept that there is a general consensus about right and wrong in some very broad concepts.

Racism is one such broad concept, and it is generally considered to be wrong, even though it is possible to identify some persons who hold racist values. The essential belief in racism is that some people are characterized by some physical attributes (skin colour, hair, bone structure), and the racist believes that those physical attributes confine people to a category, and that some social, psychological, cultural and other non-physical characteristics would automatically apply to all in that category. Typical racist beliefs and stereotypes include (1) "All Negroes are musical," (2) "All Whites are racists," (3) "All Jews are shrewd with money," or (3) "Certain peoples are untrustworthy, sexually promiscuous, stingy, illogical, or power hungry," – and on, and on.

These stereotypes are often cited to justify treating some peoples in some selected, unfavourable and discriminatory way, or to justify laws being made that restrict their full participation in civil life. When analysed, it becomes obvious that sexism is essentially the same as racism. It is the stereotyping of non physical social characteristics, and behaviour towards, categories of people having some biological characteristics.

If we look towards international agreements such as the Declaration of Human Rights, we can find the broad values towards which we work. Among them is the idea that everyone is entitled to services, opportunities, treatment by law, or access to civil participation, regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs and practices, or other categories that tend to divide up the one human race.

We know, however, that in the remote and isolated, in the low income and poorly educated, communities where we are assigned, these values are not shared, and often are not even known. That puts a burden of responsibility onto the community mobilizer and the facilitator of capacity development; to make these values known and understood, and to work, as change agents, towards implementing these universal values, as part of the mobilization process.

The Economic and Political Issues:

All human individuals can contribute to their society and community, in varying ways and varying amounts. Community and society are strengthened by those contributions, because of, not in spite of, those variations.

If it is the habit of a group of people to systematically exclude about fifty per cent of its population from productive activities, then the output of its economic activities suffers from the loss of fifty per cent of its potential inputs. Because of the multiplier effect, if those fifty per cent of inputs are added, the output will be far more than fifty percent increased, perhaps increased by five times as much. The exclusion of half the population on the basis of their sex does far more than fifty per cent damage to the economy. It makes good economic sense to include women and men equally in the economic productivity of any society or community.

Similarly, if it is the habit or a group of people to systematically exclude fifty per cent of its population from making political decisions (ie decisions that affect the whole community or society), then the whole range of possible decisions is reduced. The vision that a society or community has of its own future and its own possibilities is limited. Value is lost. It makes good political sense to include women equally in the political decision-making process of any society or community.

Another way to see and understand that loss is to consider what it would be like if men were to be systematically excluded from economic activity or political decision making. There is no scientific reason for assuming that men's contribution is better or greater in any way than women's contribution.

Persons who are systematically excluded (eg women) from participating fully in the political system and the economy constitute a valuable resource that should not be neglected or overlooked in the development of an organization, community or society. Without them poverty will be greater.

A community will be politically and economically stronger, more varied, more creative, more productive, more equitable, if both men and women are given equal opportunities to participate in its economic and political life.

The Cultural Issues:

At a community workshop being facilitated by two young women from the Uganda Ministry of Gender (on behalf of our community empowerment programme), I heard an old man cry out, "Are you trying to kill our culture?" He was convinced that it was traditional, and culturally justified, that women consider all men to be superior to them, that women should not be involved in communal decision making, and that women's role was to serve men. "No," replied the young woman at the front of the meeting, "We are not trying to kill our own culture," "We want to strengthen its best parts and to leave behind those parts which are no longer useful."

You, as a mobilizer need an answer to those who argue for the preservation of their culture, those who fear that if you change a few customs and attitudes then you will destroy that culture.

Start with an understanding of what is culture. (Review the nature of culture in the document, Culture). Culture is a living thing (organism), social rather than biological. It consists of all things (attitudes, behaviour, beliefs) that are learned rather than genetically inherited. To remain living it must grow and adapt, just like biological organisms. Growing and adapting mean changing.

Anything which is preserved ─ is dead. Sardines must die to be preserved in a can... Pickles inside a preserving jar are dead. Artefacts in a museum are dead. They are unchanging, which is the objective of preserving them.

We as mobilizers respect and honour y/our traditions and cultural heritage. We see our culture as a living thing, however, not one which is dead (unchanging) like the Latin language. For our respected culture to survive, however, it must grow and adapt; it must therefore change to meet the new times, ie the changing world environment.

Change is inevitable. If there must be change, then it is better to have some influence over the direction of that change rather than have it all culturally determined without our participation. If our laws must change, then better they change towards the universal declarations of human rights than towards the law of the urban jungles.

In the short run, balancing gender participation may appear to be going against tradition, especially where women had been oppressed in the past. In the long run, in contrast, the equal participation of both men and women will contribute to stronger society and communities, and therefor to the strength, growth, and survival of our culture.

While the above four sections explained the social and cultural nature of gender and the need to improve gender balance to strengthen society and its communities, the following sections direct you towards forming your own strategies, as a mobilizer, for helping and guiding communities in reaching more gender equity and fairness.

Awareness Raising:

We can not solve a problem if we do not know it exists.

Remember that the members of society and community must solve their own social and community problems. As in all community development, you do not develop a community, the community develops itself. Your intervention, including guidance, stimulation, training and encouragement, may provide some direction, but the changes need to be made by the members.

Many members do not see that there is a problem to be solved, or do not want to see it. Many members benefit from an unequal status quo and feel threatened by any changes that might lower their status, prestige, power or their economic advantage. Those, with such vested interests, will say that there is no problem, or argue that modifying traditional practices and beliefs will destroy the culture.

Your answer to the first is advocacy, raising awareness and sensitizing the whole membership of the community. The second, dealing with vested interests will be included in the following section.

The process of raising awareness among a targeted audience is one that is best approached by participatory methods.

Remember that we learn least by listening, a bit more by seeing it done, and most by being involved – by doing. Remember that community members will take more responsibility for a project if they makes the decisions to undertake it, that they do not feel it is imposed on them from outside. They must "own" the process or project. These are basic community development principles as explained in the Mobilizers' Handbook.

Your elemental method, then, is, in group sessions, to ask questions, like Socrates. Do not preach, harangue or lecture the participants. Ask them questions that lead them to looking at the situation, their own community, in terms of gender balance as it exists and as it could be.

It would not hurt, however, to meet privately with aware and sympathetic religious and other community leaders and opinion makers, and encourage them to do some preaching, lecturing or haranguing about the topic.

Questions about gender balance should not be restricted to special workshops dedicated only to gender (that marginalizes the issue, and often ends as preaching to the converted), but should be integrated fully with all management training and mobilization of the community to undertake its own community projects.

Promoting Gender Balance:

In the real world there are huge, non-defendable inequalities, where men are concentrated in some situations and women concentrated in other situations, generally unfavourable to women in comparison to men. A goal of gender balance would be one where those huge inequities are corrected.

(A strict quota of exactly fifty per cent for each and every situation would be too rigid, and working towards it might cause more problems than it would solve).

After seeing that a vision of gender balance is consistent with our highest values of human rights, as well as advantageous to our culture, including its political and economic systems, then we need to ask what methods we can adopt in order to work towards it. This is not the time to adopt a recipe approach, trying to apply a standard formula of correction in all places. It is important to analyse each situation and determine a custom-made solution that is appropriate for each situation. Catalina Trujillo, UNCHS's Women in Habitat programme, used a well known slogan in the context of this goal: "Think globally – Act locally" See UNCHS

When any social change is contemplated, you can find some people who are in favour of the change and some people who are opposed to it. This, for example, was a concern raised in the mobilizers' handbook about increased community participation.

Those persons opposed to a change are usually those who believe that they will lose something that they already have if the change takes place. Surprisingly, sometimes those who are at a disadvantage will oppose the change, and it is because they believe they will lose something, even if what they would lose might not seem valuable to you. Sometimes people who are oppressed, enslaved, or imprisoned, do not want to lose those chains, because they see security and lack of need to take responsibility and make decisions as something they might lose.

The people who see that they will benefit from the changes, as you would guess by now, are allies, or potential allies, of you and others who wish to make the changes.

Your strategies, therefore, are to demonstrate that the proposed changes will benefit everyone, including those who currently see that they might lose something. Make the changes worthwhile to those who might oppose it, and they might withdraw their opposition, and perhaps even actively support the changes. This sounds simple in concept, but is not necessarily easy to undertake.

Another parallel is in trade union organizing. By organizing a union all the members will benefit by getting better pay and working condition, but only if all or enough join the union.

One thing you know, as described earlier, is that the organization, community, or society will benefit by participation by both men and women. Removing restrictions on participation of any categories of people will mean the inputs (political, cultural, technical, economic) will be more varied, more rich, and more creative. This will empower the whole (increase its capacity), and all members will benefit. This will be easier to communicate to persons who are more socially and politically aware. Therefore your sensitizing work, as mentioned above, should not dwell only on the inequities, but also demonstrate the benefits of increased gender balance to the whole and to each member.

The principle is that an inclusive policy will be beneficial both to the whole (community, organization and society) and to the individuals who compose that whole.

Main Streaming Gender:

A common strategy in many social change or developmental programmes, is to initiate the change in one area or sector, then, based upon success and lessons learned, main stream it to the whole society.

For your work, mobilizing communities, reducing poverty, facilitating capacity development of organizations, management training, promoting self reliance, that approach to main streaming is not recommended. Main streaming gender awareness and promoting gender balance is best done right at the beginning of your work and should be carried on throughout.

The problem of concentrating on gender in selected sectors or areas at first, as mentioned above, results in the marginalization of the issues. If you organize a gender workshop, you are more likely to attract only participants who are already aware of the problem and are in favour of solutions. If you include gender awareness and generating gender balance strategies as a specific topic in all your training sessions, and integrated with your other work, you are more likely to include persons who should hear the message.

The only time when it would be useful to have a workshop specifically concentrating on gender is when you are organizing a TOT (Training of Trainers) or when you are briefing your field staff or dedicated volunteers; then you need to concentrate on developing strategies rather than engaging in the awareness raising itself. In that case you are not implementing a gender strategy as such, but preparing your staff and allies in planning a gender strategy.

Meanwhile, in all your activities, mobilizing communities, forming groups, management training, capacity developing, poverty reduction, you need to integrate gender awareness and gender balancing. Main streaming should be included from the beginning.


Raising gender awareness and promoting gender balance is an essential part of mobilization, management training, capacity development and poverty reduction.

You need to develop specific strategies, identify those who would oppose the change, make them aware of benefits to themselves, and integrate this in all your work from the beginning.

There is no specific recipe or set of activities to follow.

You need to analyse the situation, utilize the principles noted in this document, and custom-make a strategy that will be effective.


A Workshop:


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2011.09.28

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