The Greatness Which Might Be Theirs: UNIFEM/Baha'i Project Raises Community Consciousness
As theater, the skits performed here in the village square on market day last July by the residents of this small West African village were among the most basic of productions.
Consider the simple plot featured in one short play, written by the villagers themselves: After selling his crops, a peanut farmer hides the money from his wife and goes to a bar, where he buys drinks for all of his friends and then spends the rest on a woman.
When he comes home, his wife berates him for his excesses. Then his son falls deathly sick -- but there is no more money for medicine. Fortunately, a compassionate doctor donates the needed drugs. In the end, the farmer realizes the error of his ways and resolves in the future to consult with his wife before spending their profits.
Despite the simplicity of the theme, the unprofessional acting and the absence of costumes or sets, this play and others like it have nevertheless been big hits in this remote and underdeveloped province.
Among the fruits of a two-year, three-country pilot project by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Baha'i International Community, the plays depict situations that are familiar to the men and women here, striking a responsive chord.
The project aims to stimulate improved social and economic development in the entire community by first uplifting the status of women through the use of traditional media presentations, such as theater, songs, and dances.
"There are many messages in this one simple skit," said Mona Grieser, the international technical director of the project. "There are messages about the responsibility of fatherhood, the importance of money management, and of family partnership. But most important, there were a lot of men in the audience. And it is men primarily that we hope to reach."
Although the UNIFEM/Baha'i experiment, which is entitled "Traditional Media as Change Agent," is distinctive for its integration of well-respected ideas about development communication with the promotion of women's equality, its most distinguishing characteristic is the degree to which it strives to involve both women and men in the process.
"What is ground-breaking about this project is that it is set up to involve men," said Pamela Brooke, an independent development communications consultant who was contracted to provide technical assistance to the project in Malaysia.
"Many projects for women involve just women, but it was the feeling of the Baha'is that change could be better fostered through a consultative process between women and men," said Ms. Brooke. "Because if you just end up with angry women sitting in the corner, it isn't going to change anything."
With funding provided by UNIFEM, the project has been undertaken simultaneously in Cameroon, Bolivia and Malaysia, where well-developed national and local Baha'i communities have provided on-the-ground resources and a network of motivated volunteers.
Signs of Success
The project seeks primarily to change attitudes. And even though attitudes, unlike efforts to provide concrete products like improved agricultural production or better vaccination rates, are hard to measure, there is nevertheless impressive evidence of success -- both in anecdotal and statistical terms.
Here in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, where the project has operated in seven villages, the men have begun to join women in the fields, they are consulting more with them about family finances, and they are allowing them a greater participation in community decision-making, according to surveys and outsiders who have visited the area.
"There is change," said Madeline Eyidi, senior program assistant at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Yaounde, Cameroon, who spent a week in the project area last summer. "The women have traditionally done the farming, but I saw the men starting to participate. They are helping the women. I think the project is wonderful."
According to Tiati ï a Zock, the national coordinator of the project in Cameroon, a survey done in early 1992 among some 45 families in each of the seven villages reported that the men made virtually all of the financial decisions alone. A follow-up survey, taken in 1993, indicated more than 80 percent of the families now make such decisions in consultation between husband and wife. Another telling statistic: in Badan, the number of girls being sent to the village school has increased by 82 percent since the project started.
In Bolivia, the project is now underway in eight villages in the southern central province of Chuquisaca. In the village of Poqonchi, where the project has been going the longest, comments made in focus group discussions indicate that women are now participating more in community decision-making, are more willing to express their desire for education, and are receiving from men more help with their daily chores.
In addition, a woman was recently elected to the Poqonchi sindicato, a local political council. She is the first woman ever elected to the sindicato there and shortly after she was elected, the council passed a resolution urging greater attention to the concerns of women.
In Malaysia, where the project has operated in two villages and an urban community, there are also concrete signs that women are becoming increasingly involved in community decision-making and organization. (Indeed, in all three areas, the number of women elected to local Baha'i governing councils has increased since the project began.)
The biggest changes have come in Kampong Remun, a small and remote village in Sarawak, where the project has stimulated a variety of spin-offs. Using the project's methods for identifying community problems, the villagers there have started a vegetable garden, built new latrines, and established adult literacy classes, which are designed primarily for the women but are open to men.
All three efforts emerged from a consultative process that included men and women, said Joo Jong Kung, the national project coordinator for Malaysia. "In the village community, you seldom get the men communicating and consulting together with the women, but the project gave the women an opportunity to bring up the problems they faced," said Ms. Kung.
The importance of including women in any development effort is, of course, being increasingly recognized around the world. Numerous studies and statistical indicators show that as women become more healthy, more educated, and more involved, the well-being of the entire family improves.
"We believe that as women in the developing world secure economic and social advancement and equality, everyone will benefit," said Marjorie Thorpe, the deputy director of UNIFEM. "It won't only improve the quality of life for women, but it will improve the quality of life for men, women, children, everyone."
A Distinctive Approach
The project takes a multi-faceted approach toward achieving this goal. While various elements of the project, such as the use of traditional media to communicate new ideas, have been tried before, the project is distinctive for its integration of ideas drawn from a wide range of sources -- sources that include the Baha'i teachings.
In essence, the project is built around the following components:
- It seeks to involve the people directly in analyzing their own problems, by first training them in the use of modern analytic tools like focus groups and community surveys, as well as in Baha'i consultation;
- It then gives direction to that analysis by stressing the importance of a positive moral principle, in this case the equality of women and men;
- It seeks finally to promote change in the community by communicating the results of that analysis through traditional media, such as theater, songs, and dance, which are relatively non-threatening.
"The project," said Ms. Thorpe of UNIFEM, "starts with the premise that traditional media in non-literate societies -- actors, dancers, puppeteers, ringmasters, singers -- the message that they communicate is taken very seriously by the community and, therefore, if the message delivered could be one that enhances the status of women, then it will be an opportunity to begin a dialogue with the entire community -- but in a manner that is non-threatening."
Although the effort is organized by the Baha'i communities in each area, it seeks to promote change in the attitudes of the entire population. "One of the advantages of working with the Baha'is is that they have very strong links with the grassroots," said Ms. Thorpe, explaining why UNIFEM chose to fund the project. "It is not an organization that is elitist. And because there are grassroots members of the Baha'i movement, because the organization has a history of working at the grassroots, they provided a very effective, very useful link for us."
In general, Baha'i communities are not isolated from the society around them; instead they are well integrated into the community at large. In the sites for the project, the percentage of Baha'is among the population range from less than one percent to about 10 percent.
In each country, the project began with training sessions at the national level to help local Baha'i volunteers build on their own experiences in community-building.
First came a refresher course on the principles of consultation, a distinctive method of non-adversarial decision-making used by Baha'i communities at all levels.
"Training in Baha'i consultation helps teach respect for the opinions of others, and that is very important to women," said Lee Lee Ludher, a development consultant in Malaysia, "because many women feel that their opinion is not important."
Volunteers were also given training in modern data gathering techniques, specifically in participatory surveys and the use of focus groups as a means for identifying community needs. Training in assessment, record-keeping and organization were also given.
The newly trained volunteers were then sent back to their communities, where they organized similar training sessions at the local level.
The result was the creation of a core group of project volunteers in each village. This core group was usually built around the members of the local Baha'i governing council, which is known as the local Spiritual Assembly. A locally elected body charged with overseeing the welfare of the community, Spiritual Assemblies have provided a ready-made body for the task of analyzing the community's needs and then consulting about a course of action.
After local training sessions, project volunteers went out to interview members of the community at large about their concerns. Video and Polaroid instant cameras were used in some cases during this data collection phase, since not every volunteer was literate.
In each country, the analysis was concentrated on how the women's equality (or the lack of it) related to local problems.
"One of the very simple diagnostic tools that was useful in helping these communities to analyze themselves was to ask that they list all of the daily tasks of the average woman in the area," said Dr. Richard Grieser, who was one of the initial trainers in Cameroon. Dr. Grieser is married to Mona Grieser and worked with his wife on most phases of the project.
"Then we asked them to list the daily tasks of the average man," Dr. Grieser said. "And the difference in the work load was always so striking. In fact, the men often got very embarrassed, because the list was never even half as long as that of the women."
Once the local problems had been identified, the community was asked to translate its conclusions into locally appropriate media, such as songs, dances, stories and plays. Local artists and performers were also encouraged to assist. These stories, plays, songs and dances were then presented to the larger community at various festivals, in special evening programs, and other gatherings.
The Same Problems Worldwide
The same basic problems were identified by participants early in the project at all three sites. Project participants, after consulting about the needs of their communities, gave the highest priority to addressing three basic problems: 1) illiteracy among women; 2) the mismanagement of family funds by men; and 3) the unfair burden of work on women.
"The people themselves, they are realizing not only that women have rights in society, but that they have important things to offer," said Mr. Tiati of Cameroon. "For example, many men now recognize that the woman has the ability to manage money, much better than men, who frequently spend too much on alcohol. And so one of the results of the project is that in most of the families that are involved, the woman is now taking custody of the money or at least they are consulting about how the money is spent."
In Malaysia, similar problems were found. "One of the big problems that has been highlighted in Malaysia is the lack of education and opportunity for girls and women," said Ms. Ludher of Malaysia. "But since the issues have been highlighted in a non-threatening way, people now realize that this is a problem."
In Bolivia, also, unequal education and work emerged as issues in the focus discussion groups there.
The Next Phase
The idea for the project emerged from a statement by the Baha'i International Community to the 32nd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The statement addressed the need to change attitudes that reinforce acceptance of women's inequality and said that "a primary target for communication related to development projects for women may well be men."
Impressed by that idea, Ms. Margaret Snyder, then director of UNIFEM, approached the Baha'i International Community about doing a joint project. After some three years of conceptual work, the project was initiated in October 1991. It completed its first phase in September 1993.
UNIFEM's total grant to the Baha'i International Community for this initial phase of the project was for US$205,000 a relatively small amount in the world of development funding, considering that the project had sites in three countries and ran for a period of two years.
The Community hopes not only to continue the project, but to expand it to other sites.
"Interest has been expressed already by participating Baha'i communities in taking the project into another phase," said Mary Power, director of the Baha'i International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women, which is administering the project at the international level. "These communities now have a cadre of trained Baha'i consultants who can be drawn upon in their home countries, and who can be used as technical resources for other countries as well."
Indeed, the Baha'i communities of Nigeria and Brazil launched their own pilot "Traditional Media as Change Agent" projects in concert with the UNIFEM funded effort. In addition, local Baha'i communities in Malaysia, seeing the success of their neighbors, have recently started up their own media-based projects on the advancement of women.
The world in the past has been ruled by force... But the balance is already shifting - force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. -- 'Abdu'l-Bahá