The program was massive. It catered to a hundred and twenty thousand clients, scattered across the mountain and plain terrains of the country, along 21 districts, from the east-end to the west-end borders. It required working with two hundred and forty local organizations and four thousand community groups. And it entailed a multi-sectoral approach, combining basic literacy with business training and legal rights and advocacy campaigns. And the client themselves took charge in running these programs. The USAID-funded Women Empowerment Program in Nepal was the largest social development program during 1997-2001.
The program had built an effective management information system to track inputs and outputs of its large scale coverage. Central and field offices were set up to provide necessary capacity building training and supervision for the program. The actual ingredient of the program was a series of group-learning curricula, where rural women in a number of 10-12 came together to learn from their literate and semi-literate peers, who took training from the program staff to facilitate the group-learning exercises. However, even when the program could boast about its innovative bottom-up approach to learning, it proved very difficult to track the progress beyond quantifying the number of classes and clients. There was no effective system to monitor how and whether the women were learning from the curriculum and if the program had made any impact in changing the gender dimension, in terms of women’s increased household decision making skills, their economic contribution to family welfare, and their collective actions for social change.
For this, a field officer was designated for every ten groups in the community to supervise and monitor the group-learning activities. These supervisors were residents of the community itself and were recruited by local NGOs whose overhead costs were covered by the program. The local organizations along with the field officers received training in program interventions, especially in facilitating the groups in translating their business learning into micro-finance and micro-enterprise activities. This provided a basis for local support and supervision for the long term sustainability of the project. With regular supervision and training, the field officers, mainly women, were able to build their leaderships skills and get paid for their service - most of these women were high school graduates, who, because of their gender, were not able to leave their village to attend college or seek employment elsewhere.
It didn’t take long before these self-help groups started mushrooming in the program districts. Inspired by the progress of the women’s empowerment groups, other illiterate members of the community started demanding the program for themselves. The group-study approach of the curriculum was simple enough to be passed on to the new groups. The program benefactors shared or sold their used books to the new members and the old group leaders with the help of the trained field officers helped the new groups to establish and run their microfinance transactions.
Also, stories of the group members united in challenging gender discriminatory practices at the homes of their peers encouraged other women victims in the community to seek refuge in these groups and together these groups amalgamated to rally and seek justice for their common cause. Stories of women breaking into men’s gambling parlor and drinking clubs and men hurrying to put out their cigarette buds or hide alcohol bottles when seeing a group of women coming their way were shared during my field visits. Also, women took advantage of the savings and credit transactions and business literacy to venture in small-scale enterprises, such as retail stores, animal husbandry, restaurants, vegetable gardening, nursery, etc. The immediate return of money from these ventures helped shift the gender dynamics at home, where the men and in-laws now helped the women to run the businesses and take care of the children. There was of course backlash from men, not mainly because the women were becoming more active but because the men also felt a need for a rehabilitation program of their own.
Some self-help groups did group ventures such as packaging and selling dried foods, making and selling candles and soaps in the local market. The money earned from the group enterprises were shared as dividends among the members and also put back into the groups’ savings pool to enable more members to take bigger loans and expand their businesses. The groups formed into associations and the association representatives liaised with public service providers, such as local branches of irrigation, agriculture, water supply, small businesses and industries offices to provide training for the self-help groups to improve the quality and quantity of their products for the market. Meanwhile, the private sectors, such as the Micro-Finance Institutions and Farmers Cooperatives tapped into the solidarity and entrepreneur spirit of these groups to turn them into village banks. It is estimated that at least a third of the four thousand groups now function as village banks in the country.
Unfortunately, the fixed structure in tracking progress and reporting format was not able to efficiently capture the ripple effect of the program beyond its targets and indicators. The songs and dances that the women greeted me with during my field visits so deeply reflected the positive outcomes of their participation in the program that, touched by the meaning of the lyrics, I would request for a copy of the song or a poem, to which the women would respond with their neatly printed neo-literate hand-writings. I used these snippets in my monthly Back to the Office reports, which immediately grabbed donor attention and proved to be a powerful instrument in assessing the overall impact and evaluation of the program.
In my next blog I will highlight how the intangible impact of the program was captured in both vertical and horizontal communication strategy of the project and how it led to a powerful women-to-women grassroots communication campaign in rural Nepal.
Photo Credit: Firoz Ahmad Firoz/Social Geographic  (on Flickr)