Participatory learning to raise rural women’s agency: Cultivating leadership and advocacy in Nigeria

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Women in rural areas often do not have equal opportunities in labor markets and face challenges in accessing land, credit, insurance, technology, and agricultural resources. Barriers such as unpaid care work, limited skills training, regressive gender norms, and gender-based violence further limit their ability to increase or diversify income. Another possible, and often overlooked, barrier is a lack of women’s voice and agency in both private and public spaces.

Exercising voice and agency starts with women knowing how to—and being willing to—advocate for themselves and their interests. These skills are key to ensure women can ask formal and informal leaders in their communities for the goods and investments that can improve their welfare and livelihoods. They are also essential for navigating labor markets and creating economic opportunities. For example, opening a bank account, applying for a loan, and seeking business advice all require interacting with community members in public spaces and advocating for oneself. Absent greater voice and agency for women in rural communities, both their political and economic opportunities will remain limited.

Researchers at the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI)—along with colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego—have launched a partnership with ActionAid Nigeria, the CGIAR research initiative on Fragility, Conflict, and Migration, the CGIAR research initiative on Gender Equality, and Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP’s) Metaketa Initiative to design and test a new curriculum that focuses on cultivating leadership and advocacy skills.

For this project, one study in a broader meta-study of similar randomized studies in five countries (Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam), women from 450 rural communities in Oyo, Ogun, and Osun states of Southwest Nigeria will be invited to participate in a training. The training will comprise a session covering the basic information that an individual would need to contact their local leaders and participate in the community.

After this initial training session, in 300 randomly-selected communities, the same women will be invited to five additional training sessions covering topics such as how to identify their policy priorities, fostering women’s group identity, understanding how men can support women in exercising voice in their communities, and increasing the groups’ sense that they can be effective acting individually and together. By ensuring that both treatment and control groups receive the same information on how to participate up front, we can test the effects of the more interactive and participatory sessions focused on leadership and advocacy skills that only the women in the treatment villages receive.

Yet, women are embedded within households, and the views of their husbands about the appropriate role of women in society may further or impede their ability to exercise agency. Thus, in a randomly-selected 150 of the 300 treatment communities, women’s husbands will be invited to participate in five training sessions of their own. These sessions will utilize similar participatory learning methods and cover topics such as the advantages for families and communities of greater voice and agency for women, as well as strategies for supporting women’s voice and organizing efforts.

For both women’s and men’s trainings, the project will employ participatory and discussion-based approaches to help participants engage with the curriculum. For example, in one training session, women work together to create maps of the social infrastructure of their village, depicting water supply, roads, schools, health facilities, and farmlands. Then, they are encouraged to envision transformative changes, to identify what resources and support might be necessary to achieve the changes, and to discuss what advocacy strategies might work to gain resources and support. Another exercise prompts husbands to develop a timetable of their wives’ daily routines, to discuss how men and community leaders could support women to free up their time, and to articulate resulting benefits for families and communities.

Designing delivery for success

The question of how to deliver such a curriculum is as important as its content. Many training courses understandably staff trainers from urban areas who may have prior experience in conducting trainings. Yet, these urban trainers may feel culturally, economically, and linguistically distant from trainees in rural communities, and trainees may not feel comfortable sharing their views on sensitive topics such as the role of women in society or their personal aspirations with someone who feels like an outsider to their community.

ActionAid Nigeria has extensive experience working in communities across rural Nigeria employing discussion-based and participatory learning methods. To effectively deliver the curriculum, ActionAid Nigeria has recruited teachers, social workers, health workers, and other community-oriented professionals from every rural region of Oyo, Ogun, and Osun States to become trainers for the new curriculum. To ensure effective instruction, women’s training sessions and men’s training sessions will be led by trainers of both genders who are fluent not only in the widely spoken Yoruba language prevalent in rural southwest Nigeria but also in the specific local dialects.

These selected individuals convened in Ibadan, Nigeria in May 2023 for a five-day training course with the project research team. In this training of the trainers, participants learned how to use participatory learning techniques and how to deliver the curriculum to adults with diverse literacy levels, skills that will hopefully help them in their long-term roles as teachers and influential community members in addition to enable them to deliver the curriculum for this project. Following the completion of the training program, these new trainers returned to their home communities where they will deliver the curriculum over the next 5-6 months.

Next steps

With ActionAid Nigeria, and through funding from the CGIAR research initiatives on Gender Equality and on Fragility, Conflict, and Migration, as well as EGAP, we plan to analyze the impacts of delivering this new curriculum to women and to their husbands. The research project has two main objectives: First, to assess how the curriculum impacts women’s ability to participate in local political decision-making processes, and second, to explore how the curriculum empowers women to exercise agency in shaping their own livelihoods. Results will be ready in early 2024 and will hopefully provide valuable inputs into ActionAid’s programming in Nigeria and beyond, as well as contribute to our understanding of how to enhance women’s voice and agency in rural settings.

Authors: Jordan Kyle is a Research Fellow with IFPRI’s Poverty, Gender, and Inclusion (PGI) Unit; Dolapo Adeyanju is a Research Analyst with IFPRI’s Development Strategies and Governance (DSG) Unit, based in Abuja; Lucia Carrillo is a PGI Research Analyst; Vivian Efem-Bassey is a Project Manager for ActionAid Nigeria, based in Lagos; Katrina Kosec is a PGI Senior Research Fellow; Opeyemi Olanrewaju is a DSG Research Analyst, based in Abuja; Evgeniya Anisimova is Media & Digital Engagement Manager with IFPRI’s Communications and Public Affairs Unit.

This work was supported by the donors who fund the CGIAR research initiatives on Fragility, Conflict, and Migration and Gender Equality as well as by EGAP. This article also appears on the IFPRI Research Blog.

Referenced documents describing the study:

Hyde et al. (2022). “Metaketa V: Women’s Action Committees and Local Services.” EGAP Registry.

Adida, Claire, Leonardo Arriola, Katrina Kosec, Aila Matanock, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo. (2023). Women’s Action Committees and Local Services in Nigeria (Metaketa V): Pre-Analysis Plan.

Image: Trainees engage in a social mapping exercise in Nigeria aimed at teaching advocacy skills to rural women. Jordan Kyle/IFPRI

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