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Creating Space for Women in Leadership

Patience provides training and support to improve maternal and child health in her community of Nuru, Kenya.

Patience works with the Community Health Committee in her village of Nuru, Kenya, providing training and support to help improve maternal and child health. She felt dismayed when participants in the program, time and time again, asked, “We hear and understand your message about the importance of good nutrition, hygiene, and sanitation, but how can we achieve it without water?” 

Then another development agency began a water project nearby. Recognizing that this could be the answer to the women’s question, Patience encouraged others in Nuru to connect to the project. She stressed the benefits: women would not have to walk long distances to fetch water, access to clean drinking water would help reduce incidents of waterborne illnesses, and families could increase their crop productivity. 

The community was sold on Patience’s idea. They sought the technical expertise they needed and gathered contributions to cover the cost of having water piped directly to their homes. So far, 30 households in Nuru have piped water. For these families, the drought currently hitting the region is not affecting their ability to grow bountiful gardens and protect their health. Patience stepped forward in bold leadership, helping to align generosity, dedication, and partnership for families in Nuru to flourish.

Ripple Effects

Studies have shown that when women have access to education and employment opportunities, they are more likely to invest in the well-being of their families, including their children's education and health. This has a ripple effect on society as a whole as educated and healthy children are more likely to grow up to be productive and engaged citizens.

Astrid’s story is another example of this. Astrid lives in Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka in a settlement where many homes were built without proper infrastructure. Substandard sanitation services and high flooding rates bring risks of cholera outbreaks each rainy season. Most of Astrid’s peers are daily wage earners, earning just enough to get by. That was Astrid’s story as well, but then she joined a savings group for women that is hosted through a local church. 

Astrid stepped into a volunteer leadership role as the group’s bookkeeper. “We were struggling to send our children to school or even buy soap,” she said. “But participating in the group has taught us to increase our capability to help our children, to clothe them, to feed them, and to send them to school.” 

Not only that, but the group decided to try raising chickens together. Astrid created a chicken shed in her yard for the collaboration. She shared her resources and has led the group to success. “The chickens have grown, and we’ve sold them, and some are even laying eggs,” she reported, “so we’re very thankful.” 

Astrid might not think of herself as a woman in leadership, but her initiative has helped propel her savings group to success. When women are empowered, everyone benefits. They are better able to fulfill their God-given potential and contribute to the flourishing of their families and communities. 

Rising Up

“It's very important for women to be in leadership positions because if decisions have been made that are going to impact your life, or how you do business, or how you exist, you should have a voice in these decisions,” said Kagwiria Muturia, senior adviser of justice, rights, and gender equity for World Renew. “This has not been the case. If a country has a culture where women don’t have a place, their role is to be quiet. I don’t think this is primarily a Global South challenge because even if you look at the statistics of the developed world in terms of how many women have made it to positions of political leadership, only 27 countries in the world have women leaders. That’s just 13%.”

World Renew Co-director Carol Bremer-Bennett agrees. “Females make up the majority of the people who work in global development—it’s as high as 70%—yet less than 20% of the CEO and the top leadership positions are held by women,” she said. 

Representation matters both for decision-making processes and for effecting change for the next generation. “I hope that as I work in this field, I’m empowering and helping to raise up new leaders who will see that this is a possibility,” Bremer-Bennett added.

There are some situations where building leadership capacity among women can’t be the first step. “It might be too ambitious to walk into the community and say, ‘Oh, we don't have women in leadership here,’” Muturia said. “They need something to eat first. They need access to health care.”

“I see time and time again as I travel the world and talk to indigenous leaders and communities that the women are the ones who really can be the first to take a risk,” Bremer-Bennett said. “Sometimes it just takes a person to be willing to take that risk.”

Esmeralda helped to promote a seed bank project in her community in Jirón Reyes, Nicaragua. “It has grown bit by bit," she explained. “We started off with just a few pounds of seeds, but now we have several large silos.” 

In this community where extended droughts impact harvests, the ability to save local seeds over multiple seasons is key to surviving crop loss. “This is security for us, and we hope this can continue to grow, to help other people who need it,” Esmeralda said. 

Esmeralda had to make her voice heard to make the seed bank project happen, and in doing so she inspired men and women in her community—including her husband, Gerardo.

“I'm not the founder of the seed bank,” Gerardo said. “The person who started that was my wife. It started through a women’s savings group, and out of that money bank came the seed bank. My wife told me to get involved, so I got involved.”

Making Change from Grassroots to Governance

While human welfare and economic health are the primary aims of World Renew’s community programs , there’s always attention paid to gender justice too. “A lot of our program facilitators are trying to ask the questions: Where are women in leadership within the community? How many men and how many women do we have? What’s their participation?” Maturia said. “Lots of the change that happens globally begins at the grassroots level. If we’re able to build that agency for our community partners and the communities that they work with and build that critical mass of people who see the value of having women in leadership, then the women themselves create the space to engage.”

“There’s a concept of making space for women, but we’re already there,” Bremer-Bennett added. “I believe it’s a matter of being fully present in those spaces and raising our voices. I do see it a bit more as taking the space, taking the opportunity, and then making sure that we’re supporting each other.”

Muturia agreed: “As women, we need to encourage women to create that space for themselves and own the space and use the space to further the needs of the women themselves, but also the other women who are waiting to get inspired by them.”

There’s a role for everyone in building gender justice. Most women know what it’s like to escape notice, and Bremer-Bennett is no exception. 

“It happens in meetings all the time where female voices can say something, and it’s not until a male voice says it that it becomes a good idea, or true, or something to act on. So you do have to be aware,” she said. “There are so many male allies out there that I’ve encountered who will make sure that those things get corrected. They have become mentors to me, because I see how they lead and how they honor female leadership.”


Suggested additional reading:

Creating Cultures of Belonging: Cultivating Organizations Where Women and Men Thrive,
by Beth Birmingham and Eeva Sallinen Simard


Learn more about World Renew’s work:


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