As we mark International Day of Rural Women 2019, Hazel Malapit, Senior Research Coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and A4NH's Gender Research Coordinator, and Ramona Ridolfi, Regional Gender Advisor, Asia Pacific Office, Helen Keller International, sat down to discuss the project-level Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index (pro-WEAI) and what it has meant for efforts towards supporting rural women worldwide.
Hazel Malapit: Ramona, tell me about what you’re working on now, and how you’ve used WEAI over time.
Ramona Ridolfi: I’m the Regional Gender Advisor for the Asia Pacific Office for Helen Keller International (HKI), and I’ve been primarily supporting programs in the region that have an agriculture and nutrition focus. Throughout my time at HKI, we have been gradually building on more sophisticated transformative approaches within our nutrition-sensitive agriculture program which is globally known as Homestead Food Production (HFP). Within the Asia Pacific region specifically, and also within West Africa, we have tested our Nurturing Connections© tool which is now known as HKI’s signature gender transformative approach for HFP initiatives. We have used A-WEAI in Bangladesh within the (Agriculture, Nutrition and Gender Linkages) ANGeL initiative that was led by IFPRI and implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Government of Bangladesh, and more recently the pro-WEAI in Cambodia, in a randomized control trial that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I have had indirect experience with the WEAI in Bangladesh, participating in stakeholders’ discussions regarding what was being measured, and results we saw at the end of the projects.
HM: In those other projects, which WEAI versions have you used?
RR: I have been exposed to the original, and been involved in the pilot-test of the pro-WEAI modules.
HM: That’s interesting -- there has been quite a change from the original WEAI to the pro-WEAI! The original version was designed for as a monitoring and evaluation tool for the Feed the Future (FTF) Initiative, collected as part of their population-based surveys to measure women’s inclusion in agriculture. Over time, other people started using it, but while they appreciated having a tool that allowed them to measure women’s empowerment, their programs were obviously different from FTF. They naturally began tweaking it to fit their project goals, and while those experiments were interesting and welcome, the different designs made it hard to synthesize lessons across different contexts. That’s why we felt there was a need for a project-level version, to provide a tool with more flexibility to fit project goals while retaining comparability. Ramona, what was your experience going from one version to the next?
RR: I was in Bangladesh when the original WEAI came out, and everyone was very excited to have an index to measure empowerment at all, but you’re right, there were challenges. One of those was the length of the WEAI and that it didn’t entirely reflect what a project was doing, so there had to be a negotiation: which domains were directly relevant, but of course that compromises the measurement of empowerment, since it was a formula across all the domains. The pro-WEAI in that sense is a great step forward. For example, at HKI, we have a focus on maternal nutrition and health, seeing new indicators that are more specific around nutrition, or measure things like intra-household relationships, has been great. We have seen an improvement with pro-WEAI, and we have learned a lot from testing it more recently in Cambodia.
HM: I’d love to hear more about what you’ve learned.
RR: As you know, we are one of the Gates Grand Challenge awardees, and that project has been going on since 2015 and will wrap up in the next few months. It is a randomized control trial with three arms: first, the treatment arm with gender transformative homestead food production model, which requires implementation of Nurturing Connections©, gender messaging within technical trainings, and women elected as homestead producers. In the second arm, we let the households decide who will be the main producer and participant in trainings that are gender blind. The third arm is a control arm. A requirement of the grant was that we would pilot the pro-WEAI, and this was an early draft of the survey questionnaire, without the qualitative tools.
The results from pro-WEAI were not far off from what we expected in most domains except self-efficacy and decision-making. For self-efficacy, almost half respondents said they neither agree or disagree, and to us that was an indication that they probably didn’t understand the questions. The other half said they just agreed. We think there, people just wanted to end the interview because it had gone on for a while and perhaps they were tired.
The other indicator that we cognitively tested was decision-making in relation to production -- all those questions about how much input you have in making decisions about a specific activity, to what extent you feel you can participate, and access information. From the baseline, almost 100 percent of women reporting they have input, and that seemed unlikely given where we were and what we knew about the area. The struggle we had with this module specifically was some of the wording and how it was translated into Khmer. Words had different meanings for people around the room, and there was a lot of confusion on the choice of the wording. For example, ‘influence’ to some meant “I can express an opinion,” while to others it meant “I get to make the decision.” That’s a significant difference.
HM: What you’re describing really resonates. In instances where one word can mean more than one thing, using an ambiguous term is a problem. Language and context can vary a lot, and even when you get the quantitative scores, it can be difficult to interpret without the qualitative piece to help explain.
In pro-WEAI, we explicitly designed it from the beginning to use a mixed methods approach. Are you using both quantitative and qualitative instruments?
RR: No, we are just using the quantitative, because that’s what we were given at the start of the pilot, and we opted to stick with that. (We’re very much looking forward to sharing the report – it’s almost ready!) Going forward, I would definitely see the benefit of a qualitative tool. With just the quantitative tool, there isn’t really an option for probing and getting at a broader understanding. However, you have to make sure the enumerators are trained sufficiently in that kind of approach. Those who aren’t experienced with qualitative want to stick to the format of the survey.
The one downside of the WEAI tools is the length. We didn’t have the resources in the project to effectively have two separate baselines, one related to production or nutrition status and the other pro-WEAI, so we combined them and ended up with a two-hour survey. You can sense participants’ fatigue and wanting to rush through the questionnaire.
HM: We are definitely looking at how that might be addressed after the endline! As we are looking at how it performs across different projects, we can see how the indicators perform over time and make a final assessment using that information. We know there’s room for improvement and are looking for ways to eliminate redundancies and see where to cut. I suppose a consequence of being an early adopter of the pro-WEAI tool is the length!
In developing pro-WEAI with the 13 projects in GAAP2, we started with the abbreviated WEAI because it was the most streamlined version available at the time, and then asked potential users, how would you change that? What would you modify, add, or drop that would make it useful for your project? At the end of the day, everyone piloting pro-WEAI under GAAP2 had to agree to collect the same tools. The topics proposed were much longer than what we expected! That led us to testing more than anticipated, including attitudes toward domestic violence, intra-household relationships, and mobility. People felt these things were contributing to the success of their projects.
RR: I wish I could test all of those things – they are all interesting! For me, coming from a gender and implementation perspective, we are always trying to fine-tune and adapt modules, and we have to consider the resources and time frame we have. In our case, we’ve been able to look at things that are not relevant to the project, like mobility, which isn’t an issue in Cambodia, while it would be a different conversation in Bangladesh. Domestic violence, on the other hand, is a problem in Cambodia, so we are trying to address attitudes around it indirectly through our project. It would be beneficial to see if some of the approaches that we adopt in the field are indirect benefits and impacts on indicators we aren’t trying to address.
HM: I think the attitudes towards domestic violence is a useful indicator for tracking unintended consequences around backlash. If we see that attitudes are trending in the wrong direction, it might be a red flag that something else might be happening. It gives us a way to look at how gender norms may be shifting.
RR: When is the endline expected?
HM: We are hoping to release the final guidelines and tools for implementing pro-WEAI by mid-2020.
Changing gears a little, I don’t know if you know this, but we’ve had 99 WEAI users to date! Given your experience with WEAI and pro-WEAI, what would you say to that prospective 100th user?
RR: Congratulations, that’s quite a milestone! For prospective users, pro-WEAI is my favorite because of the flexibility of the tool. It has definitely been great to have a tool that is more flexible and project-oriented. If I were to give advice, it would be to always to be careful with the wording and the translation – this is an aspect that always gets underestimated, in our experience – and adapting the tool locally.
HM: We like to warn potential users that they need to spend adequate time on training the data collection teams. Ensuring that enumerators and interviewers understand the questions and why we ask them in this way is important, and that takes some practice and sensitization. In the beginning, when it was very new, people would tell us they’d scheduled half a day to train, and we would tell them, no! you need more! And you’re right, the translation is absolutely key – making sure that the translation preserves the intended meaning of the questions is so important.
RR: Building on what you said, I definitely would recommend paying attention to the capacity and skills of the enumerators.
HM: I think we agree on advice! It’s so important to make sure WEAI implementation is well-resourced with both people and budget and time.
One of my favorite things about WEAI is that it is definitely a tool that can help anyone that is trying to improve the well-being of rural women. Agriculture is part and parcel of life in rural areas. WEAI can tell us the extent to which rural women are included and have agency over agricultural activities. The original WEAI, A-WEAI, and pro-WEAI are all very much production focused, but, that said, we are also developing other versions of the WEAI that are expanding on that. Instead of looking just at production, we are looking at livelihoods along agricultural value chains – in processing, trading and marketing, and in other roles such as wage workers or entrepreneurs. Though agriculture is important for rural women’s livelihoods, we recognize that rural livelihoods can be highly diversified and can come from different sources.
RR: In our recent experience in cognitive testing the pro-WEAI in Cambodia, we realized that there are several factors that we do not tend to take into account when interviewing women and testing for comprehension. For example, our team considered level of education as major determinant in women’s ability to comprehend questions, but in reality we saw that women with greater social exposure and participation in local markets were better able to understand abstract terminology such as “ability to achieve goals.” These women showed experience with some of this terminology and higher confidence in answering the questions.
What is useful about the pro-WEAI is that it reminds us, in these agriculture projects, the whole focus of empowering women isn’t providing tools or trainings, or looking at value chains or nutritional needs, but it’s about building self-efficacy, improving intra-household relationships, creating that enabling environment for women in the households but also within themselves – having the ability to make decisions, to build the confidence to participate in production and other activities which goes hand in hand with the latest approaches that tend to be transformative and change behaviors and attitudes within the household and with people.
HM: That’s so inspirational! I can’t think of a better note to end our discussion on. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!
RM: Thank you – we are excited that the tools keep being adopted. From the implementers’ side, we are excited and grateful these tools are coming along and being tested. I’m looking forward to seeing the endline and what the final pro-WEAI will look like!
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