What Gets Women to Mobilize? Insights from Fieldwork

Feb 7, 2024 | The Fieldwork Diaries
  • Rida Fatima | Research Coordinator MHRC
  • Ayesha Mursleen | Research Coordinator IDEAS

Women’s participation in political and public life is generally lower compared to their male counterparts around the world. This is especially true for developing country contexts wherein Asian and African countries experience greater gender gaps in significant aspects of non-electoral political participation. Non-electoral political participation are important avenues for the citizenry to be a part of public decision-making to influence change. This includes activities like participating in political meetings or organizations, working for parties or candidates, attending protests or demonstrations, signing petitions, or contacting public officials, all of which represent a greater degree of political efficacy in citizens. 

Previous research shows that increasing information at the individual level does not necessarily lead citizens, specifically women, to become more politically active (see the recently published paper on Canvassing the Gatekeepers: A Field Experiment to Increase Women Voters’ Turnout in Pakistan). This study on women’s voter turnout in Pakistan found that a targeted information-based campaign did not increase women’s participation in a national election. Instead, targeting interventions at men to encourage female voter participation (or canvassing support from male household members/gatekeepers) was found to be more effective in getting women to vote. But what about women’s own political agency? How do we get half of the country’s population to increase their political engagement? And more importantly, what are the factors that inhibit women’s participation in public and political discourse?

This blog provides insights from fieldwork from the MetaKeta V: Women’s Action Committees and Local Services project housed at IDEAS, led by Dr. Ali Cheema (LUMS), Dr. Sarah Khan (Yale University), Dr. Shandana Khan Mohmand (IDS University of Sussex) and Dr. Soledad Prillaman (Stanford University). The study is being conducted as part of a set of five coordinated field experiments across Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam through the EGAP Metaketa V initiative. The common treatment implemented across all countries involves a set of facilitated trainings delivered to women’s groups aimed to increase their gender-based collective efficacy. An underlying premise of this work is that there are certain socio-psychological factors that inhibit women’s interest and ability to respond to information about politics (e.g., women may not attend a political rally because they feel that is not something women should do). Our intervention, based on the SIMCA model of collective agency, aims to study the effect of targeted trainings that address these underlying psychological and behavioral patterns that inhibit women’s political participation.

The field experiment is set in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, and the sample is spread across 90 Union Councils of Lahore, divided into 180 neighborhoods, with separate treatment and control groups. The intervention involves information dissemination and trainings delivered to women-only group settings known as Women Actions Committees (WACs) over a six month period. The treatment group attends five meetings or WACs, while the control group attends one meeting at the start of the intervention and one at the end. The WACs consist of 15-20 women at the neighborhood level that are above 18 years of age and live in close proximity. Information about political participation is delivered to these groups by a trained facilitator to stimulate their collective efficacy for non-electoral political engagement. Some of the themes of these discussions include collective identity and advocacy, shared grievances, the importance of citizen participation in the delivery of public goods and services, belief in group efficacy for demanding services from local representatives, etc.

Pretesting and Piloting

Before rolling out the intervention and to ensure methodological rigour, we carried out the pretesting and piloting phase to refine the survey instruments, the recruitment message and gauge women’s interest in the meetings. The pretesting phase was conducted in Bibi Pak Daman (UC 172). These were densely populated neighborhoods that had houses with multiple stories, each level occupied by a different household. Some questions asked in the pretesting phase included: Would women be interested in attending these WAC meetings? What do they think of when they hear of ‘women’s meetings’? Where would they want these meetings to be held? What time works best for women to attend such meetings? The pretesting phase was crucial for the study in Pakistan as there were no pre-existing committees at the local level, and so they had to be formed keeping the local context in mind and configuring which stakeholders needed to be involved.

We also used storyboarding to envision the women’s meetings (refer to Fig. 1). This played a crucial role in designing the content to be delivered, determining the number of required handouts, and deciding whether to use a standee or a projector for displaying the content.

Fig. 1 Storyboarding the content delivery in WACs 

The following are our insights from the field (during the pretesting and piloting phase) on the design and implementation of a gender-based intervention for our project:

Women’s Interest and Willingness to Attend WAC Meetings 

From the outset, we observed that almost all respondents were interested in understanding the purpose of these meetings. However, what was particularly noteworthy was that, when we inquired about women’s potential interest in attending such gatherings, they emphasized two key factors: a) the assurance of tangible outcomes (indicating that something concrete would result from the meeting), and b) the presence of other women at these sessions (implying that there is some communal trust in the meeting).

When questioned about the type of women most likely to attend such a meeting, our respondents presented a variety of responses. However, a common theme emerged across their answers: women who are less burdened by household responsibilities, caregiving duties, and can financially afford to attend the meeting are more likely to express interest. Additionally, some respondents felt that it was more appropriate for elderly women to attend the meetings as compared to younger women. 

A recurring term used by respondents was that of “parhi likhi” (educated) women being more inclined to participate. The “parhi likhi” archetype represents a contrast to the gharello” (domestic/housewife) archetype. However, during our pilot, we realized that many educated working women experience a more significant time burden. In addition to their household responsibilities and caregiving duties, they must now factor in their work commitments. This made their likelihood of attending such gatherings uncertain at best and more unlikely at worst.

When we asked women about the ‘appropriateness’ of attending these meetings, the majority of women didn’t think it would be ‘seen as appropriate’ for women to attend such meetings. Amongst the various reasons cited, the husband’s/household’s support remained the underlying factor (almost implicit but well-understood) in determining the appropriateness of attending such meetings. Some women also shared that if their husbands found the meeting appropriate to attend, so would others.

Location of the Meeting

During the pretesting interviews, most women preferred that the meetings be held in someone’s house or a location that is preferably within their lane or at least within their neighborhood. Mobility, permissibility, and security were factors taken into account by respondents when suggesting their preferred location. Alternatively, outside of homes, respondents said that nearby schools could serve as potential locations to conduct these meetings. Respondents also suggested that the meeting location should have sufficient sitting space and enough privacy so that women can observe purdah

During the pilot phase, our implementing partner tried conducting meetings in both homes and public spaces. Both had their unique challenges and informed the final design of the meeting schedule, content, and logistics of the WAC meetings for our intervention. We learned that a neighborhood house would be an ideal location, especially because women would find it easier to obtain permission to attend a meeting there, especially if they know the host woman already. The role of the “host” female was central, and ensuring coordination between her and the focal person was key to making the setup work. In one ‘good’ scenario, the host was able to draw on her local network to invite women, and things went very smoothly (refer to Fig. 2). In a “bad” scenario, we noticed the tension between the focal person and the host, which caused confusion over issues e.g., responsibility for specific logistical arrangements like chairs and refreshments for the women attendees.

Public spaces had stricter limits on time; in the case of one meeting held in the courtyard of a police response station, a male police officer and other individuals external to the meeting kept coming in and out, and the facilitator and focal person had overall less control over the space. 

Fig. 2 MKV research team observing pilot WAC meetings in UC 38 (Shahi Qila)

Quality of Meeting Content and the Role of the Facilitator

Many women attendees could not read or write; visuals were essential, and the facilitator had to adapt activities that involved reading and writing so that women could read were able to facilitate others within the smaller breakout groups. We also observed that “real” images were preferred over animations or illustrations, for e.g., actual images of the neighborhood or the government office in their locality. All information had to be delivered using large flip charts as we could not rely on projectors in most neighborhoods because of unreliable power supply.

Our facilitators (see Fig 3) played a crucial role in the effective delivery of content material. We observed that a facilitator with past experience in community work and public service delivery was better equipped to address audience questions and misconceptions regarding the role of government departments. They were also adept at responding to challenges on government efficacy through credible personal experiences. Understanding the fact that they had to be good listeners in these settings was instrumental. Facilitators were able to build communication with attendees when they showed that they were there to listen to the women. 

Fig. 3 MKV Research Team with WAC facilitators and implementing partner Aurat Foundation members.

Importance of Setting and Managing Expectations

Pakistan is one of the two countries part of the MetaKeta V project that is creating women’s groups from the ground up. During the pretesting and pilot phase, we discovered that women generally had certain perceptions surrounding the idea of a “women’s meeting.” Many perceived it as an opportunity to register women for the Sehat Card (introduced in 2015) or an outlet to get information on women’s maternal health and family planning. We gathered that these perceptions, particularly the latter two, were possibly influenced by the women’s previous interactions with Focal Persons (individuals assigned to invite women to these meetings), as some of them had served as Lady Health Workers in the area.

After receiving this response, we worked on the final draft of the invitation message that was to be used by Focal Persons when convincing women to attend the meeting in their respective localities. The invitation message briefly described the contents of the meeting along with the date, time, and venue details for the meeting. Upon invitation to the meeting, women also asked, “Humara kya faida hoga?” (How will we benefit from it?). A valid question- especially if we consider the tradeoff women would have to consider when taking out the time to attend these meetings amidst their household duties and care responsibilities.  It was important to ensure that no financial expectations were set up in response to their demands for tangible benefits of the meeting.

These learnings have been incorporated in the design of our intervention which is currently being rolled out in the field. This is our first blog post for this project, with more insights to follow based on the rollout of the intervention and the study’s qualitative aspects.

This blog is part of a blog series called the Fieldwork Diaries at IDEAS that serves as a platform for our junior researchers to reflect analytically on their field experiences (and challenges) and share important insights/learnings from their point of view. The series also serves as a means of facilitating cross-learning across project teams housed at IDEAS, particularly on the use of innovative research methods. This piece is authored by Rida Fatima and Ayesha Mursleen, MetaKeta V Research Team members, with editorial support from Ayesha Shahid, Communications Lead.