What if... more women were paid to work?

Students investigate gender equality in Ethiopia

“Confused on a high level”, is how Masters in International Management & Strategy student Ortwin Huysmans describes himself, following an in-company project in Eastern Africa. Along with his fellow student Robin Dehondt and Masters in General Management student Lynn Roodhooft, he spent a month in Ethiopia under the supervision of Professor Smaranda Boros. There the three students worked closely with Sarah De Smet of SNV, the Netherlands Development Organisation. She wanted a new perspective on the project she has been working on for a while, and that is exactly what she got.

What exactly does SNV do in Ethiopia?

Sarah De Smet: “SNV has been active in the country for more than 40 years, since the extreme drought of the mid 1970s. Today, we have 159 employees working in four different offices. I am one of the four expats in the organisation. I have been living here with my family for two and a half years and I work in the head office in Addis Ababa. Until 2015, SNV was mainly supported by the Dutch government, but now we need to seek financing for every project ourselves. We are active in three fields: energy, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) and agriculture.  I work as a project manager on one of the agricultural projects.”

In-company project for SNV Ethiopia
From left to right: Ortwin Huysmans, Robin Dehondt, Lynn Roodhooft and Sara De Smet

You are working on the project ‘Gender and Youth Empowerment in Horticulture Markets’. What exactly does it focus on and how do you tackle the problems faced?

Sarah De Smet: “This project analyses whether the local quality of life can be improved by giving women more opportunities, for example by turning unpaid household roles into paid work. The question is not only what the consequences of this shift would be, but also whether the women and the people around them actually want it to happen. After all, the gender debate evokes a lot of resistance in local culture, so we need to be very careful when addressing it.”

Ortwin Huysmans: “That is how we experienced it too. I had been fascinated with Ethiopia for a long time because it is such a unique country in Africa. It has never been colonised, and that is something the inhabitants are very proud of. The rich local culture has not been influenced by western cultures as much. That gives the locals a strong, authentic identity. The way women are viewed in society is fundamentally different to our vision. It is fascinating to discuss important yet incredibly complex issues like gender equality with such energetic, resilient and resourceful people.”

Sarah De Smet: “Yes, because that is exactly what we do. Using the tried and tested PALS methodology (Participatory/Gender Action and Learning), we engage in dialogue with people and use drawings to ask them to join the debate on fundamental issues related to gender equality. You might be wondering why we ask them to draw. Well, that gives illiterate people the same opportunities to share their opinion as their literate counterparts. It is a challenge, especially because both the methodology and contents are new to many people and they need adjusting here and there to allow us to embed them in the local context. Overall, the results are positive: 40% of respondents stated that there is a better balance between men and women at home, and 25% even said that the difference in roles between men and women has become less strict. Half of the women also enjoy more respect and a better status in their village, and two thirds of men have cut down on their alcohol consumption. However, the methodology used also created a few obstacles.”

“We work with people from different villages. The organisational part of the project was a challenge, but the methodology also implies an individual approach – a typically western perspective. Here, though, it is the group, the collective that prevails rather than the individual. Every community has its own dynamics, and relationships are very important in everything people say and do. With this in mind, the students rightly suggested that only people from one village be involved in future research projects.”

“The students also delved deeper into a fundamental explanation of what NGOs are aiming for and what the community itself wants to achieve.”

Ortwin Huysmans: “Another example is the aspect of time. For westerners, time is a linear concept, but here it is more of a cyclical one. You cannot control time, but the locals do not mind, because they are convinced that everything comes back round eventually. Take seasonal agricultural practices, for example. You can imagine it was quite a challenge for us to sink our teeth into a project like this in only one month (smiles). In our research, we often struggled with the cultural differences in the perception of time, social relationships and individualism.”

So the students’ findings corresponded to your own experiences. Were you surprised by any of the conclusions?

Sarah De Smet: “Absolutely. I was hoping the students would make valuable suggestions to adapt the methodology for future research, and they did, brilliantly. Another even more surprising outcome is that they delved deeper into a fundamental explanation of what NGOs are aiming for and what the community itself wants to achieve. In a way, they confirmed my own ideas, but then again, I had never quite managed to put my finger on it. Needless to say, I am very satisfied with this initiative. These three incredibly motivated students have given us a new perspective on the project, and I was genuinely sad to see them head home.”

Ortwin Huysmans: “For us it was an unforgettable adventure too. This multidisciplinary project brought together so many fields, from sociology to anthropology, psychology and ethics. Personally, I have always been interested in gender, social mobility and the non-profit sector. An NGO's approach needs constant critical monitoring to check whether the intended goal is actually being achieved. I am happy to have had a taste of the fascinating and complex world of NGOs, where everything may be unpredictable and you never really know what the day will bring, but the satisfaction is enormous. It is truly commendable that Vlerick supports such projects, because they enrich your world view and allow you to explore fundamental problems like poverty and gender relations in a different, more nuanced manner.”

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