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Interview with Seema Jalan, Global Development Policy Director, Women Thrive Worldwide

Home Forums PCDN Interviews with Key Practitioners and Scholars Interview with Seema Jalan, Global Development Policy Director, Women Thrive Worldwide


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    Craig Zelizer

    How would you describe the work that Women Thrive Worldwide does?

    The easiest way to describe what Women Thrive does is impacting the lives of millions of lives of women and girls through changes in policy. There are many terrific organizations that do service provision directly to women. The complementary work that Women Thrive does in the international women’s movement is changing U.S. international assistance policies to take into account the needs of both women and men. The U.S. is still one of the largest donors in the world; so changing U.S. policy has a big impact and influences the work of other donors.


    What accomplishments are you exceptionally proud of that Women Thrive has made?

    In terms of our most exciting accomplishments, we have quite a lot, and I’ll just name a few. Most recently, USAID just released its new policy on gender equality and female empowerment. It’s something that we’ve been working on since our founding in 1998. USAID is the agency that delivers most of U.S. international assistance. It has some guiding regulations that were meant to make USAID think through the needs of women and girls in their programs, but it was never enforced and there was no accountability. So what we have been advocating for, for a long time, is an agency wide policy that actually lays out the mandate for integrating gender across all technical areas, across all regions, and that hold staff accountable, as well as contractors and implementing partners. This policy that was just released on March 1 accomplishes all of that, so it impacts hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. assistance and makes sure that it is really reaching the people we seek to work with in developing countries so that they’re empowered to change their own lives. That’s the one really recent one.


    Another very specific example is in our work to integrate gender with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). We worked with the MCC to create its first agency wide gender policy. Through that, we were able to leverage the MCC gender policy to make sure that USAID had an equally comprehensive mandate on gender. One specific accomplishment through our work with MCC is a compact (basically a very large grant) that MCC was considering providing to the country of Lesotho. In our monitoring of the MCC, we were trying to make sure that both women’s and men’s needs were taken into account in the Lesotho Compact. The way we do that, is not in directly advocating to the Lesotho government, but by connecting with women’s groups in that country. And we’ve repeated this model in many countries around the world. When we got in touch with civil society in Lesotho, it was really clear that women’s groups in Lesotho had been advocating to their own government for many years to have women legally recognized as full adults in their country. Basically, the way the law had been set up is that women were considered legal minors, so women in the entire country could not represent themselves in court; they could not have a bank account; they didn’t have any specific identification. You can imagine the impact of women not being seen as full adults. They had been advocating for years and years to get this changed. The opportunity of the U.S. government giving Lesotho so much money allowed us to say to the U.S. government, “Lesotho’s policies are not in line with the principles of the MCC, you need to examine this discriminatory law before providing hundreds of millions of dollars.” So working in tandem with women’s groups there and us highlighting this opportunity, it actually worked. The U.S. government said to Lesotho, “The purpose of this grant is to benefit all of the people in your country and it can’t possibly do that unless women and men are considered equals, legally.” So through years of work of women’s advocacy in Lesotho and by us identifying this issue for the U.S., the U.S. government was able to work with Lesotho to make this change.


    One thing we say a lot at Women Thrive is that anytime a new law or policy passes, it’s only just the beginning. It takes so much work to get a policy like this created at USAID or a law changed in a country, or even laws to change in the U.S. government. Well once the law is created, you have to make sure it is implemented, you have to make women aware of their rights; you have to change social norms about traditional practices. It’s just the beginning. We work to follow up on it and to make sure that these new policies actually get implemented.


    What inspires you most in your position at Women Thrive?

    The women we work with overseas. As you know, we are not a service provider. We focus exclusively on policy advocacy to the U.S. government. So sometimes, unlike service providers where you get to see the clientele you work with, we work with women’s groups in different countries as partners to help build their capacity to advocate to their own governments and also just to learn from them. We ask them: What do they need? What do they see as the role of U.S. government in supporting their work? Where are their priorities? What are the gaps? What are their perceptions of the U.S. government? There’s a fluid exchange of information. When our women partners come to the U.S. or when we go overseas, it is a constant reminder of why we do the work that we do. And it makes us realize how easy our jobs are compared to those women who lack the freedom, resources and infrastructure that we have in the U.S. Just the obstacles that women face daily, reminds us that we should feel privileged to do this work.


    What are the perceptions of the women’s groups you work with of the U.S. government?

    We had the same question, so Women Thrive did a global survey of women’s groups around the world and we got feedback from about 100 women’s groups. We asked them, “Is it helpful for the U.S. government to provide international assistance?” “Or for various reasons, would you rather stay away from being associated with a ‘Western’ group or a ‘Western’ donor?” We did get a mixed set of responses, but overwhelmingly, the majority of women did say that the assistance the U.S. government provides is critical. Women Thrives sees our mission as making sure that the way the U.S. delivers its assistance is consultative of women and men in these countries and includes their input. As long as it’s done well, women do want support. One of the reasons they want U.S. support, out of many, is that the U.S. government is still the largest provider of assistance in the world, and it sets a precedent. So when the U.S. government does something, it sets a precedent for other bilateral donors, multilateral donors, and also for the recipient country government.


    Why does Women Thrive feel that it is important to consult both men and women in its policy changes and implementations?

    We work on gender equality, so in that sense, we’ve always worked on both women’s and men’s issues. And we’ve also worked on women’s and girl’s empowerment, which is specifically geared to women and girls. I think you need to do all of it in gender equality work.  In many cases an analysis in gender gaps reveals that women and girls are the ones being left behind, so our work ends up focusing on making sure that women and girls are able to live their lives in productive and meaningful ways. But it’s really about making sure that everyone is able to participate and benefit. That has always been a part of our approach. So when I talk about influencing U.S. policy, we always talk about gender integration. In some cases, there were examples from the late 1980s when an analysis was done of secondary school enrollment rates—women and girls were actually entering secondary school at higher rates than boys. So in that case, there needs to be more attention on boys and why they’re not staying in school for longer periods of time.


    What is essential to conducting successful advocacy work?

    For our advocacy work to be meaningful, it needs to come from the women we’re working with in other countries. We want to make sure that whatever changes we pursue for the U.S. government truly reflect the needs and priorities of women around the world. In terms of being effective, there are several things. One is making the case of why the issue matters to that particular policy maker. To do that, you need to understand who they are, what influences them, what constituencies they represent, and what areas they already champion. If you’re able to bring up your “advocacy ask” in a frame that meets those four criteria, you’re much more effective. You have to speak in their language.


    What are your recommendations for younger professionals who would like to break into the field or land a career focusing on gender issues? What skills or experience would you recommend they have?

    You know, what’s interesting about the groups that work on international women’s issues based in the U.S. is that you can do all sorts of things. When I started out in the field, I assumed that I would have to be fluent in three languages, have years of experience overseas, etc. Those things are absolutely helpful. But in a lot of ways you can be an advocate or activist in ways that don’t require you to have that “check box” set of qualifications. Most importantly, it has to be an issue that you really care about and that motivates you. There are a lot of obstacles you face working on these issues, and if it’s not what motivates you on a daily basis, it’s hard work. In terms of experience, there’s nothing like interning to understand the world more broadly; to figure out what you like to do on a day-to-day basis. For me, advocacy was the right fit because I like to talk to people, I like to work in groups, I like to work in coalitions, etc. So that fit my personality. But there are other people who would be terrific at research or on the ground service provision. So figuring out your day-to-day work personality is really helpful in being successful because you can really tap into what your strengths are. I don’t think that a lot of people really take the time to figure that out. And the only way to figure it out is to experience it through internships, talk to people who are professionals, and hear what their day-to-day life is like.


    What are some challenges that you and your organization face?

    One of the biggest obstacles to those of us who work on international policy is getting it on the agenda of Congress and in some cases, the administration. There are so many important issues that members of Congress deal with related to our own economy and the needs of people in the U.S. You’re always trying to make the case that we should also be concerned about people who live overseas and how U.S. leadership on those issues can actually benefit people here at home.  So making that basic case from the beginning is always the first step. It is not always an obstacle, but it does factor into every campaign that we work on because we’re trying to change policy and there are a lot of competing priorities. The second part of the challenge is after getting the law changed or policy adopted, making sure it actually sticks and making sure people are being held accountable for its implementation.


    How does Women Thrive use monitoring and evaluation?

    We work with our women partner groups overseas. We will tell them that a policy just got passed or a law was just adopted in the U.S. government related to international assistance. Given a fair amount of time, we go out to our partners and international networks and ask them, “Have you actually seen a change on the ground?” And to be fair, you won’t see a change on the ground the day after a policy is adopted. But, most policies have timelines for implementation. So given that, we go straight to our groups overseas and say, “Have these changes been implemented?” On the D.C. side of monitoring, I would say that immediately after a policy is adopted, we are checking in with the agencies to see how they are moving forward with implementation and we provide our input (whether it is welcome or not). Most of the time, agencies want that feedback. They want to know best practices. They want to hear from a variety of groups. So we do that work on the front end and then after talking with our women partners overseas, go back to the agencies and tell them what has and hasn’t been working.


    How do you find partner organizations and what sort of processes does Women Thrive go through to partner with them?

    Our process of selecting partners overseas is being refined. When Women Thrive first started, due to our small size, we began with a few select partnerships with women’s groups in three to four countries in different regions of the world. We prefer to work with indigenous women’s groups that are in rural areas because they are the groups that aren’t already well connected into the multilateral donor framework or are already recipients of U.S. aid. So we try to go out of the capital cities and find organizations that do amazing programs and provide services to their communities but aren’t necessarily engaged in advocacy to their own government. Over the years, that has evolved to creating networks of women’s groups around the world on specific issues. We have a network of women’s groups around the world that work together on issues of violence against women and girls. We have a network that works on women’s economic opportunities, like through trade or property rights or microfinance. What’s helpful about that is it allows us to get a diverse set of feedback, as opposed to relying on just one partner. We want to be able to triangulate the information we get. So we have a mix of partnerships—we have very intensive partnerships where we talk to our partner groups every week on the phone. And then we have these larger networks where we send out e-mails, ask questions about what’s going on with them, and keep open lines of communication for them to get back with us. And the third thing we’re most recently developing is working with U.S. based institutions that specialize in connecting with different types of women leaders and networks around the world. So we’re now working with a group called World Pulse, which is a network of women journalists and activists around the world who report on a variety of issues from their respective countries. Through our partnership with them, we are able to tap into the network that they’ve already established. We also partner with the UN Trust Fund to Support Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls, and are able to similarly tap into their existing network of women’s groups that are focused on addressing gender-based violence.


    Are there challenges to partnering with so many diverse organizations?

    Definitely! We are a small organization for the most part working with small organizations. Because many of them are located in rural areas, or in areas affected by conflict, they face enormous obstacles to doing their work—inconsistent access to electricity, internet, etc. While those are challenges, we don’t use those obstacles as an excuse to not work with rural organizations. This is one of the reasons that we are trying to broaden and diversify our network so that we’re not just relying on communication with just one organization. And then there are other practical challenges, like language. While Women Thrive does have many multilingual staff members, some of the rural groups that we work with don’t speak any of the five UN languages. Traveling to visit these women’s groups can also be challenging depending on how far they are from the capital city. Another challenge is to keep thinking creatively. Advocacy looks different in different countries. In the U.S., we have a pretty strong infrastructure that allows individual citizens to communicate with their representatives. Obviously, this doesn’t exist in many parts of the world. So we continually strategize with our partners in creative ways to ensure that they are tapping into whatever opportunities do exist for them that allow them to voice their concerns to their government.


    Do you have a must read book for people interested in women’s issues?

    Ester Boserup’s 1970 work “Woman’s Role in Economic Development”. For the first time, it validated  the essential role women play, through both formal and informal work, to national economies and therefore shifted the thinking of institutions of what ‘development’ means and how to do it well. It was a launching pad for so many organizations. For someone new to women’s issues, that would be a great piece to read.

    Another thing that we talk a lot about at Women Thrive is how to be an effective communicator. Advocacy can be a hard business. So we do a lot of training about how to create effective messages. The book that I recommend is George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Like an Elephant.

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