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Des brèches dans la ville

Christine Verschuur
François Hainard

Instrumentalisation des femmes ou nouvelles perspectives ? Recherche et politiques publiques

Women’s Grass-Roots Organisations and Solidarity Networks: A Rediscovered Policy Resource

Maxine Molyneux


Bien qu’elles aient joué un rôle déterminant dans les processus de solidarité de base, les femmes sont longtemps restées marginales dans les débats portant sur la réflexion et la pratique en matière de politique publique. Les décideurs politiques leur accordent maintenant de plus en plus d’attention, et cet article détermine certaines des questions clés pour les organisations de femmes dans le contexte des politiques de développement actuelles.

Note de l’auteur

This article is based on a paper commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust as part of the 2005 Global Exchange Forum dedicated to Women’s Social Capital and supported by the Foreign Policy Centre.

Texte intégral

Introduction: Valuing women’s social capital

1In recent years the concept of social capital has entered policy debates in fields as diverse as community regeneration, health, migration, education, welfare, and development. Commonly understood, following Putnam, as the social cement generated by associational life and by citizens’ networks of trust and solidarity, social capital also appears to have the potential to increase productivity, to provide support against poverty, to create stronger democracies, to help reconstruct war-torn communities, and to enhance mental and physical well-being. In a more general sense it is also hailed as the essential counter to the socially corrosive trends associated with contemporary economic life. By extension it is opposed to the celebration of a self-serving individualism as the natural correlate of market governance. The current interest in social capital reflects a growing awareness that the realm of social life matters not only for individual well-being but because it has implications for government policy and service delivery. By enriching civic and social interaction and engaging in forms of co-operation to achieve common goals, citizens can not only enhance their quality of life but also make policy initiatives more accountable and effective.

2Despite the extensive literature on social capital and its increasing visibility in public policy, there is a surprising absence of attention to the role women play in creating and maintaining social life through their own networks and forms of solidarity (Molyneux 2002). Yet across the world, women participate in a wide variety of voluntary and community activities, whether for charities, churches, kin groups, neighbourhoods or clubs. Women frequently have the strongest local and kin ties; they network and engage in reciprocal supportive relations, and they are often among the most active supporters of neighbourhood and participants in local forms of associational life. They are to be found at the heart of voluntary self-help schemes whether in health, education or neighbourhood food and housing programmes, in cultural associations, supporting communities hit by sudden unemployment, running barter groups, childminding circles and safe houses for abused or marginalised women. This range of activities takes place in what some have called the “social economy” understood as those forms of co-operation that citizens engage in without being driven primarily, or even at all, by material interest. The social economy can be important in helping to overcome social exclusion of various kinds, and can at the same time provide safe spaces for women, where trust based relationships can be built, and where skills and experience can be developed.

3The broader significance of this kind of activity, beyond the contribution it makes to the quality of social life, is that neither states nor markets can provide for all social needs. As a result citizens either choose, or are obliged, to depend on some mix of formal and informal social institutions for their welfare, well-being and security. For those in precarious livelihoods, informal networks and the support they offer may be the only way to ensure that basic needs are met. Research on household livelihoods, social networks, and voluntary institutions has shown that there is a considerable reliance on informal arrangements and organisations that exist independently of, or work with, the state. Women are commonly found in these activities, especially in those associated with caring, whether in the inner cities of the industrialised world or in the developing countries of the global south.

4Across the world and in very different socio-economic environments women play a vital role in sustaining low income households, engaging in an informal economy of exchange, involving credit, care-giving, and services. Childminding for neighbours, shopping, cooking and ironing, borrowing and lending, are all essential to household survival on the margins. Women also frequently engage in collective survival strategies. They have set up and managed successful credit unions, canteens, and small business co-operatives. They have also organised around service provision, demanding improvements in waste collection, road maintenance, security and community management. Women are very often engaged in projects designed to improve health, housing and education, sometimes working with NGOs, often self-supporting, and, increasingly today, in collaboration with government anti-poverty initiatives. In times of severe economic hardship women’s grass-roots organisations have sprung up to provide low cost food for their neighbourhoods by creating urban gardens to grow food or setting up communal cooking facilities to supplement local needs. In Peru, for example during the economic crisis of the 1980s some 800,000 collective canteens run entirely by women served more than two million people. Women’s efforts have also been essential in conflict and post-conflict situations where by working on common agendas, women have helped to heal deeply divided communities as well as to participate in the difficult task of post-conflict reconstruction. Most starkly, and tragically, women are those who are holding whole communities together in HIV/AIDS stricken parts of Africa, taking care of the millions of orphans and the sick, in a situation where more women than men are now falling victim to the pandemic.

5In the industrialised countries of the North which enjoy extensive state provision, women’s groups play an active role in social life, supporting those who are not adequately served either by the state or by the market. Examples include providing extra childminding support for working mothers, looking after the elderly and disabled, or improving access to training for women who want to return to work. Women’s organisations have often come into being in response to urgent needs that government provision does not cover, as in the cases of refuges set up to help women suffering from abuse and centres that provide support and legal advice to survivors of rape. Women’s organisations also support vulnerable women who fall outside the safety nets or who suffer from exclusion of various kinds, such as asylum seekers, stateless women and those who live on the margins of the informal economy. In such cases, informal associations can be easier to work with than government agencies. In other words, informal associations can meet needs that are not covered by state provision, but they also have the potential, especially if adequately funded, to provide a more satisfactory alternative to state managed provision.

Women’s social capital: common features

6While women’s activities, networks and associations are important in sustaining social life in the ways already outlined, they are too often poorly resourced and supported. This can be explained in part by some typical characteristics of women’s grass-roots organisations which are outlined in Box 1.

Box I - The characteristics of women’s associations
Networks reflect social relations. They are governed by gendered social divisions and these affect the ways they access resources such as time, money and status. For all their forms of engagement, there are some common features of “women’s social capital” and these tend to differentiate it from men’ s.
Women’s networks:
• are based close to home, in the locality rather than in the public world of work;
• involve exchanges of time and skills rather than money;
• include a significant proportion of voluntary and caring work;
• often involve affective or ethical issues, a degree of altruism, and frequently mobilises sentiments associated with motherhood;
• can bridge across community divisions;
• but are often “bonding” rather than “bridging”.

7These differences imply that women’s networks are often found in different social spaces to men’s. Men’s networks are typically associated with the public world of work and politics, while women’s networks and ties are typically closer to home. Studies of the informal networks that sustain immigrant populations have tended to focus on the ways that men help each other to secure jobs and business contacts. Less research has been published on the ways in which women manage in such contexts, but with some exceptions women’s networks seem to be more concerned with resolving domestic problems than being directed at economic and employment issues.

8Networks depend on resources to sustain them – time or money, usually both. Most women dispose of less of these resources since they have to combine paid work with family responsibilities. In addition, the pay gap in men and women’s wages works to women’s disadvantage. If female networks tend to command fewer economic resources they rely more on time and non-monetised exchanges (work, skills) that can be accommodated within their daily lives. Moreover, since relations of power and advantage are reflected in social networks, women find themselves excluded from the kinds of networks that might bring them economic and political power. When women do form networks they often service the group (i. e. they create “bonding” social capital) rather than developing contacts with the wider world of economic and public power (“bridging” social capital). Yet the very fact of working together for a common goal can be a vital spur to developing leadership skills and bridging the power divide.

9The common features of women’s networks described above help to explain why they have tended to be invisible and marginalised from mainstream debates. Women are still located within unequal power relations and occupy gendered social spaces. They generally dispose of less power in the public world and have fewer assets. Their work, for all the changes that have occurred in recent times, is still regarded as secondary to their family responsibilities. Indeed much of what they do whether paid or unpaid is typically seen as a natural extension of their family and domestic responsibilities and as such is invisible or taken for granted. Even when women are in paid work, what they do in their localities, as volunteers or activists, is often constructed as a “natural” extension of their caring roles in the social division of labour – it is simply “what women do”.

10One consequence of naturalising women’s work is that it is considered outside the sphere of economic relations; in short it is not paid work. We might ask, then why do women do it? In some ways the question itself is a problem: it implies that the only reason people do things is for self-interest and for material incentives such as cash. Yet motivation is far more complex and involves identity issues and forms of reward that escape these material categories. Care-giving is an example of an activity that has the potential to provide satisfaction and give meaning to people’s lives in ways that do not equate to cash reward, as is the case with regard to women’s occupational status in nursing and teaching. Work of this kind can be associated with satisfaction, self-esteem, recognition and respect, but it remains the case that it is work that women tend to do, and as such it is often undervalued and taken for granted. However, as illustrated in box 2, female identities have also been a basis for collective action.

Box 2 - Identity and affect
In regions such as Latin America, cultural constructions of femininity are strongly identified with motherhood. Serving the needs of children and the household is generally considered to be women’s primary responsibility. For many women, being a mother and a wife remain important primary identities that can govern motivation to engage in public action. We have only to think of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, ordinary housewives who took to the streets in a defiant protest against the disappearance and torture of their children in the Dirty War years when the country was governed by state terror.
Women’s groups often become active in peace movements out of concern for their families and participate in campaigns against civil violence such as in Northern Ireland where they have worked in grass-roots projects that seek to reconcile divided communities. Female solidarity around such concerns can be the basis for a kind of informal citizenship that relocates women’s domestic concerns and activities from the isolation of the family into public spaces and public life. Grass-roots organisations often have this transformative potential in which the experience of engaging in collective activity turns private actors into public citizens. In this process, the organisers of neighbourhood protests or support activists are transformed into community leaders, able to negotiate with governments on behalf of their communities’ needs.

11The distinctive combination of characteristics that define most women’s organisations can make them particularly well suited to tackling social needs that other organisations ignore or cannot easily reach. Yet these same reasons help to account for the fact that women’s organisations so often find themselves struggling for resources and reliant to a significant degree on voluntary supporters. The next section considers how women’s organisations engage with other policy actors and what challenges they face in so doing.

Women’s organisations and policy actors

12The work that women do in groups and associations is increasingly (if still only partially, or problematically), recognised by policy actors. NGOs have found women to be natural allies in their efforts to develop community initiatives around health, education and service provision; governments have also increasingly called on women to help them to administer and service their anti-poverty, community regeneration or welfare programmes. This attention may be given a cautious welcome if it goes along with programmes that serve common aims, but are at the same time sensitive to women’s needs. The latter, unfortunately, does not tend to be the norm. On the contrary, the accumulating experience of how outside agencies work with women’s organisations and networks suggests that there are often tensions between the needs of women participants and the goals of the external agency. What are these tensions and what lessons have women’s organisations and those who work with them drawn from the experience so far?


“The harsh reality is that the governments take women for granted. They are keen to consult with them but simply fail to recognise that these women are already resource scarce and as such need to be adequately compensated for the time sacrificed as well as the resources needed to operate their organisations. Quite simply, women’s organisations have access to little or no funding” (Women’s Organisation Activist).

13The first problem arises where women’s organisations and/or their voluntary work is not only relied upon as a central support for social policy but becomes a substitute for appropriate government action. In such cases women’s groups face two kinds of risk: either struggling on without funding yet finding themselves with responsibilities which they are not adequately resourced to undertake; or being incorporated into government programmes on unacceptable terms, where their project is taken over by government agencies but administered in ways that depart from the original conception and good practice associated with it. For example a women-centred and administered project which serves the needs of vulnerable women and provides safe spaces for them is likely to be far more successful in generating trust and selfesteem among participants than one administered by men and made to conform to government priorities and guidelines. The lesson here is that outside agencies working with women’s organisations need to help strengthen them, respecting their experience and autonomy rather than simply making use of them to plug gaps in provision.


14A second and related problem involves the capture or co-optation of grass-roots organisations, where women’s participation is secured to make use of their efforts for direct political gain. Where governments, political groups and parties are prone to practice forms of clientelism and seek to co-opt women’s organisations for their own ends, the latter might experience short term gains in recognition and reward, but as a result can rapidly lose legitimacy in their communities and among the women they seek to serve. The use of women’s organisations for political purposes is common throughout the world. One example is that of the Peruvian comedores populares noted earlier, which started as a women’s movement, but was gradually taken over by government agencies, with the women leaders entering into a close and public association with government. As government popularity waned, the women’s organisations suffered by association and lost public confidence, and in the process they had also lost their autonomy and sense of purpose.

15In Europe, community groups have become a cornerstone of the government’s local development initiatives with government funds directed at supporting the voluntary and community sector. While the injection of resources has been welcomed, there is mounting concern over the paperwork burden placed by increased government bureaucracy on participating organisations. Many feel that this hampers their ability to campaign and that the pressure to align themselves with government priorities distances them from being more responsive to local needs.


16A third problem concerns the kind and quantity of work that women are often asked to do by NGO or state run initiatives. In many cases they are expected to do jobs that men will not do, such as cleaning schools and tidying up neighbourhoods, and jobs that offer little satisfaction or reward for their efforts. The assumption appears to be that women have the inclination and the time to do these tasks whereas men do not; yet in reality many of the women drafted into these programmes are time-poor, juggling household survival with childcare as well as with their efforts to generate income. Project managers rarely investigate the circumstances of the women on whom they are relying and make unrealistic assumptions about their availability and willingness to undertake the work assigned. This generally leads to a rapid turnover of volunteers and participants with negative consequences for the stability and efficiency of the project.

17There is a considerable number of cases where women and their networks are targeted and drafted into projects or programmes principally to service the needs of the programme, but where the needs of the women themselves are not taken into account. If the work that women do is valued, and it is understood that women are juggling difficult lives, they should not to be overloaded by the extra demands made upon them, but instead should be given the support they need to ensure their participation. In particular, they might need flexible childcare arrangements to be part of the programme, or training in marketable skills, or health provision and education. This question of women’s needs is all too rarely posed by those who develop programmes that depend on women’s social capital, despite the long-term beneficial outcomes that such attention could deliver. Moreover, participation in these programmes can entail opportunity costs for women undermining their ability to undertake paid work or training.

Organisational principles

A cooperative approach: autonomous organisation and external agencies

18In the light of the dangers of instrumentalism, capture and overloading we can now move on to consider what kind of relationship women’s grass-roots associations might develop with external agencies. A fundamental issue in any organisational structure and their relationships with others is who decides the agenda?

19The question of organisation is one that women’s movements and activists in political parties, trade unions and grass-roots organisations have long debated. Two issues have been particularly contested; that of autonomy and that of what principles should govern internal organisation. Over time there emerged strong arguments in favour of autonomous all-women spaces where participants could elaborate programmes of action, debate goals and develop strategies free from outside influence. Flat, non hierarchical organisational structures were often considered more appropriate ways of ensuring democratic principles, allowing greater debate and increased participation in the formulation of objectives.

20To the question of who decides the agenda there are three classic answers – the collectivity decides; an external agent decides; or the decision is taken on a shared, co-operative basis. The first of these tends to be associated with autonomous organisations in which women themselves set their own goals and decide their own forms of organisation and objectives. Here the organisation is a self-governing association that recognises no superior authority and is independent of other political agencies. Authority here resides in the membership. Examples of this kind of organisation are those that emerge from independent initiatives such as Rape Crisis centres, barter movements and credit unions.

21In contrast, where an external agency sets the agenda, authority and initiative come from outside and stand above the collectivity itself. The control of the agenda, the purpose of the organisation and the development of the women’s group are subject to this external authority – they may coincide or not with what the membership itself determines.

22The third possibility is a co-operative approach where an external agency, such as an NGO, works with the women’s organisation and together they set the agenda, agree the style of working and take decisions on a democratic participatory basis. This kind of link represents a different type of organisational principle and a different conception of authority – it is co-operative and associational in the sense that independent women’s organisations with their particular goals and institutional autonomy choose to form alliances with other organisations with which they are in agreement on a range of issues. These forms can be called “associative” in recognition of their quasi independent status within an alliance of interests. They are not directed by a superior power, and they are not completely independent, but the collectivity remains in control of its own organisation and sets its own agenda. In this arrangement women’s organisations may choose to delegate power to outside agencies such as NGOs or government departments, an arrangement which, if it is to work, has to be based on trust and established procedures of accountability. Power and authority in this model are negotiated, and cooperation is conditional on some or all of the women’s demands being incorporated into the organisation with which co-operation is established. This kind of linkage escapes the polar dilemma of autonomy versus integration which has long divided the different currents within women’s movements and it has the potential to be an effective means of securing concrete agendas. However, it runs the risk of co-optation, if the women’s organisation loses the capacity to set the agenda. To minimise this danger, women’s movements can set conditions on the organisation with which they are prepared to cooperate. Clearly in such cases, the outcomes depend on the strength and negotiating capacity of the women’s movement concerned.

Transformative interventions – why the nuts and bolts of women’s organisations matter

23Beyond these questions of organisation there are several important issues that have to be taken into account if women’s projects are to work to greatest effect for the women concerned. Positive effects can be understood as those processes that enhance women’s capabilities in ways that enable them to challenge relations of inequality and subordination in both the public and private spheres. Here three principles are helpful in thinking of ways this might be achieved; these are: ownership, self-esteem and empowerment.


24One lesson that can be drawn from the experience of working with women’s organisations is that the question of ownership is central. Organisations and their projects work best when they are not imposed from above but develop on the basis of an organic relationship among participants. Effective grass-roots associations can rarely be created merely by external intervention, so the question of the “ownership” of projects and goals as well as participants’identification with the values of the project are all critical to its success. Some key questions that can be posed of specific projects are, for example:

  • Do participants have a voice in programme aims, design, evaluation and management?

  • Are they sensitive to women’s constraints?

  • Are they “family friendly”? Do they acknowledge care-giving, childcare arrangements, time management issues?


25A second vital ingredient of successful projects concerns that of whether they promote the self-esteem and respect of participants. This follows from ownership, but it has to do with the internal organisation of the project and how the goals of the project are formulated. One of the most important benefits to those involved in the not-for-profit sector is that of self-esteem, and this can often outweigh other factors such as time burdens. For participants, whether volunteers or beneficiaries, the project can be a place where they are valued, where the work they do among others is experienced as positive. Where projects work with groups who normally suffer stigma and exclusion these questions are vitally important since building self-esteem and confidence is often the first step in realising other goals. If projects and programmes are to take this question seriously they need to ask:

  • Are equality principles built into the design of the programme?

  • What principles govern internal organisation and assignment of responsibilities?

  • How are participants treated in the project?

  • Is rights awareness built into the programme?

  • Are training and resources allocated to enhance women’s capabilities?

  • Are economic independence and well-being (health, both mental and physical, freedom from violence) a priority?

“It’s about looking beyond the day-to-day of fire fighting that often preoccupies women’s time and resources. Increasingly we are keen to develop a structured approach to sustaining our own organisations in a strategic attempt to influence a wider sphere and more importantly empower and transform our own lives and the lives of the women we support. Essentially, women acquire the skills to swim in a policy pool”. (Women’s Grassroots Network Co-ordinator).


26A third important question to ask of projects is whether they are able to contribute significantly to the empowerment of their members. Project goals can be broadened in ways that enhance participants’knowledge base, marketable skills and citizen’s participation rather than simply satisfying immediate needs. Here the tough questions to ask of any project are what do participants gain from the project collectively and on their own account? What are the significant transformations that participants may undergo as project members? They may gain certain material benefits, they may gain subjectively through enhanced selfesteem and companionship, and they may feel that the rewards of working together on a project that they believe in is sufficient. But if the project can also enhance their capabilities through education, language instruction, knowledge of their citizenship rights, leadership skills or other training, then it will have succeeded on a broader spectrum. Those working in projects need to see the results of their efforts, and need to feel that something tangible and sustainable is being achieved. At the very least, those who benefit from the efforts of the project need to leave it with an enhanced set of life chances. For socially disadvantaged and politically marginalised groups, acquiring voice in the public worlds of politics and policy and acting collectively to advance strategic goals is an important measure of empowerment.

27One way of ensuring that these ideas are built into the project is to establish clear lines of downward accountability, that is, to establish ways of ensuring that it responds to its members’needs and concerns, by asking, for example:

  • Is the social and economic empowerment of women an explicit goal with definable impacts?

  • Are women being equipped with leadership skills and the knowledge to negotiate in the public sphere of work and politics?

  • Is transforming gender relations central to the programme, including the possibility of involving men in ways which help to bring about more gender equity?

28While the generic issues of project design are a fundamental part of making transformative interventions and ensuring accountability, in order for them to be effective they need to take into account the context in which these programmes operate. These will have a direct impact on the organisations’dynamics as well as on its aims.

29Below, three current areas where women’s social capital has been of interest to policy actors are briefly considered:

Economic empowerment

30As noted earlier, women’s networks tend to command fewer economic resources and rely on time and non-monetised labour exchanges. However, in recent years, poverty-reduction or social inclusion programmes that address women’s income needs, and work with women’s groups have enjoyed considerable success. Micro-finance schemes for example, depend on group-lending techniques which draw on women’s kin and community ties to secure loan repayments. Similar ideas inspire the development of community funds which mobilise resources through women’s social ties, for investment in local development programmes. Co-operative, informal organisations can also support such activities as credit unions which aim to provide more control over economic resources on better terms than those available through informal or commercial agencies. In India, SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association, helps poor women obtain credit to start their own small enterprise. SEWA was established over thirty years ago and is now a large organisation with a membership of over 700,000. It helps to establish cooperatives for women who work on the margins of the economy, and runs its own bank for savings and credit. In addition, it offers a primary health care programme and has just started an insurance scheme for its members. SEWA’s success has made it a model for similar initiatives across the world.

31Such initiatives help to answer questions about the ways in which women’s social capital can help to strengthen their access to economic resources, in an overall context in which their command of such resources is weak. Women can, with well conceived projects, move out of poverty and secure livelihoods; they can work together to create small businesses, acquire skills and markets for their products and services. Economic empowerment can be a step towards political empowerment if it provides the basis for secure livelihoods, generates organisational strength, and enables those involved to see themselves as full citizens of the localities and societies in which they live.

Communities under stress

32Conflicts of all kinds, whether in the form of war or neighbourhood violence, impacts heavily on social life. However the fact that it affects women in particular ways has only recently been recognised both in international law and in community regeneration work. Women, along with children, are exposed to the effects of violence and social breakdown – in extreme cases becoming their victims through rape, robbery or kidnapping – but more generally as those who both have to manage families’emotional needs and ensure that the more routine necessities are met. Women have in many different contexts become important actors in healing divided communities and helping in efforts at post conflict reconstruction; sometimes it is only women’s groups that are able to rise above communal or political divisions to find ways to co-operate for the common good. However, while women are widely acknowledged as having a history of involvement in peace movements and can be valued as peacemakers and bridge builders they are all too rarely involved directly in community or peace negotiations or in policy concerning post conflict reconstruction. Many of their organisations emerge out of their own experience, sometimes out of a personal tragedy, and for this very reason they can acquire the trust and respect of the community they are active in. Indeed, more generally, this is an area where women’s organisations can sometimes play a vital role and can gain considerably more trust than conventional government interventions.

33Conflict situations however reveal the dual character of social capital. In communities under stress, social capital can strengthen community ties but at the same time can deepen existing divisions, create exclusive identities and exacerbate tensions. Where resources are at stake and where minority needs are successfully claimed and addressed, accusations of preferential treatment can arise, heightening tension and causing further retreat into group interests and identities. Women’s groups also often find themselves in such circumstances under considerable pressure to surrender their own interests to what are claimed by community leaders to be the general interest. Autonomy is difficult to maintain and they can become vulnerable to capture by political forces aiming to use them for their own purposes. Women’s organisations in conflict situations often find that they are walking a tightrope, trying to balance loyalty to their particular community with work that involves challenging some of its leaders’assumptions about women’s place in society. Careful strategising, learning from the experience of others in such situations, and forming wider, regional and national networks have been important in the work of such organisations. Networks also have the potential to become effective advocates in the policy world and providing they can agree on common principles and a common agenda can achieve considerable visibility and impact.

Civic regeneration

34At neighbourhood level, as noted earlier, it is not uncommon to find that women’s informal networks are involved in supporting domestic and caring responsibilities, and in providing services that help meet needs in health and education. These are crucial resources for communities, especially for those in particular hardship. But while such activities can provide practical relief they do not necessarily promote the changes that bring women into public life to participate in decisions that affect both their communities and their lives as women. Community regeneration programmes offer women’s groups and networks considerable potential for advancing new ideas about the social and spatial organisation of services, but to take advantage of the opportunities on offer, such programmes have to make a serious effort to involve women. This can take many different forms, involving not only government agencies and NGOs, but also the private sector where appropriate. One step is to encourage community organising and to recognise informal networks that can participate in decision-making. NGOs can promote women’s involvement through awareness raising, leadership and political participation programmes which are a crucial component in ensuring that women’s networks become meaningful actors in decision-making processes. At the same time, the linking of women’s concerns to wider policy issues helps to ensure that organisations do not remain inward looking and exclusive.


35The accumulating experiences from around the world suggest ways in which women’s networks and organisations have confronted some of the problems that arise when they work with NGOs and governments. These problems however remain largely unaddressed in many of the new government programmes. The critical question remains that of how projects that involve women as participants or beneficiaries can achieve two goals simultaneously: to bring about long term, that is sustainable results in reducing poverty, inequality and injustice, and to identify effective strategies to help women overcome the various forms of gender injustice that they are subject to. With regard to the policy interest in social capital, on the basis of the evidence so far three main lessons can be drawn: first, we need to be attentive to how a focus on social capital can support “sticking plaster” approaches to deeper structural issues, notably inequities in the distribution of power and assets and the social (and gendered) costs of macro economic and public policies. Social capital in the form of networks and associational activity can be an important resource in tackling poverty and social disintegration and in assisting in the effective delivery of social welfare. But it is no substitute for sound development policies.

36Second, in developing projects and policies designed to enhance social capital, a critical gender perspective is essential if social divisions and existing power relations are not to be strengthened. One way of countering this is to ask: what resources of social capital do women command and what do these resources allow women to do and to be? Whether women can deploy “their” social capital to enhance their leverage over resources and policy depends crucially on whether they can develop their capabilities, political as much as economic, collective as much as individual. Women’s organisations have been aiming to do just that through training programmes, through “empowerment” strategies and by helping to enhance women’s collective and individual claims on citizenship.

37Third social capital begs a number of questions as to the purposes it is designed to serve, who benefits and why? Fostering women’s social capital is not usefully understood as restoring some ideal traditional “community” or “family values” – women’s interests are all too often submerged in such appeals. Supporting women’s associational life is helpful if it implies allowing women to find voice and presence within and across their collectivities in ways that strengthen rather than weaken their claims on citizenship.

38In sum, if from a gender perspective the current policy interest in grass-roots women’s organisations has an ambivalent potential, its positive appeal depends on being brought into alignment with ongoing efforts aimed at building up citizens’ movements, and supporting cooperative and democratic forms of associational activity in ways that strengthen local initiatives and help confront the formidable negativity of modern societies – whether this be in the form of criminal gangs, corrupt public administrations, exclusionary elites or authoritarian communities. Public policymakers would do well to avoid taking what women do for granted, and to give more support to those engaged in constructively working in this area. Effective policies will only result from a critical and more finely grained approach to social capital, one which takes both women’s organisations and gender relations more seriously.


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