The article draws upon insights from two Reach Alliance case studies to better understand how technology is leveraged in gender-sensitive and community-based programming to promote gender equity.
Analysis is centered on the hub-and-spoke approach and its potential to effectively reach last-mile populations.
The authors call on policy actors around the world to take forward these lessons to ensure important interventions reach everyone, everywhere.
Technology can play a crucial role in getting essential information and services to hardly-reached women and girls. This is highlighted by the theme for International Women’s Day 2023, ‘DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.’ Initiatives around the world show innovative ways that technology can address gender inequities. To unlock their full potential, however, tech-based policies and interventions must also reach women and girls who face geographic, economic, social, or other constraints. Engaging all women and girls as agents of change is crucial to addressing poverty, hunger, and inequality worldwide.
Founded in 2015 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, the Reach Alliance examines how promising initiatives worldwide help hardly-reached populations progress towards the achievement of the SDGs. Here, we draw upon insights from two Reach Alliance case studies to better understand how technology is leveraged in gender-sensitive and community-based programming to promote gender equity. Our analysis is centered on the hub-and-spoke approach and its potential to effectively reach last-mile populations. We call on policy actors around the world to take forward these lessons to ensure important interventions reach everyone, everywhere.
The first case study examines Digital Green’s work on promoting women’s inclusion in India’s male-dominated agricultural sector. In partnership with community organizations, women smallholder farmers are equipped with skills to create informative videos to share agricultural information with other women in their communities. Digital Green’s targeted, gender-sensitive approach to programming builds trust with community members and facilitates the sustainable uptake of agricultural and nutritional information among women and girls.
The second case study is Zvandiri, a Zimbabwe-based initiative that promotes HIV testing and treatment, as well as mental health, among youth through peer support programming. To better meet the needs of young pregnant and breastfeeding mothers living with HIV, the organization launched the Young Mentor Mother (YMM) initiative in 2018. Like the women they assist, these mentors live with HIV and have experienced motherhood. This enables YMMs to provide tailored peer support and facilitate connections to existing healthcare infrastructures. Zvandiri’s holistic approach has decreased mother-to-child HIV transmission among involved families, to just 2%.
The hub-and-spoke model
Both Digital Green and Zvandiri pursue a gender-sensitive, community-based approach to women’s empowerment through a hub-and-spoke model of service provision and knowledge translation. This involves disseminating information from a centralized location (the ‘hub’) to key actors who are trusted by community members (the ‘spokes’). These actors then connect their broader communities to essential information and services, leveraging local partnerships and context-appropriate technologies to support and empower women and girls.
Leveraging community networks
A key strength of the hub-and-spoke model is that it leverages existing community networks. For example, in their provision of lifesaving information, counseling, and support for HIV testing and treatment, Zvandiri harnesses local mothers’ grasp of social norms and the issues that their community faces, as well as their existing social capital among peers.
Their hub-and-spoke model begins with training and mentorship for YMMs, facilitated both in-person and online through an online platform. YMMs learn not only about HIV testing and treatment, but also best practices for safely and supportively engaging vulnerable stakeholders. Together with their experience as mothers living with HIV, YMMs apply these lessons to their peer support of women and girls in their own communities. Through this approach, the majority of young mothers living with HIV receive knowledge and assistance from another young mother within their community instead of from elders or outsiders, making the information more relatable, trustworthy, likely to be retained, and impactful.
Similarly, Digital Green’s Participatory Learning Approach empowers women as agents of change within their communities through skills development on video production and peer-based learning that supports women’s inclusion in the agricultural sector. As active participants in the knowledge translation process, they have impacts similar to Zvandiri’s YMMs in making agricultural information more contextually relevant, reliable, likely to be retained, and impactful among local women. Their videos also model healthy intra-household negotiations that show women as equal partners in decision-making processes with their husbands. By featuring local community members in these videos, women are better able to visualize themselves in similar roles.
The hub-and-spoke model also calls for effective use of technology. This may mean leveraging contextually appropriate devices or finding adequate alternatives when constraints inhibit sustained technology use. Both case studies employ technology for communication and knowledge translation. Zvandiri’s WhatsApp reminders for medication and Digital Green’s educational videos are effective in reaching stakeholders because they account for location, gender norms, and other factors in meeting the needs of women and girls they support.
For those not reachable with technology, the organizations also employ the hub-and-spoke model through in-person engagement. Digital Green’s in-person video screenings and group discussions enable women with any level of technological access to receive essential information and ask questions. Participation in social activities in the agricultural sector also provides them with a sense of identity outside of their household and a community-based setting to connect on shared lived experience. In these ways, women can access agricultural information on their terms.
Similarly, while YMMs use cell phones to communicate, a key component of their work is in-person. YMMs offer peer support through group facilitation, home visits, and meetings in neutral locations for young mothers with privacy concerns. To reach more remote women and girls, YMMs are given access to bikes or other transportation. These approaches reduce the need for technological access and address gaps in service provision. In these ways, the hub-and-spoke model shows that technology can and should be strategically leveraged where appropriate, but social relationships and in-person communications remain key to reaching everyone.
Gender equity is both a means to an end and an end in itself. In a world historically dominated by patriarchal systems, the pursuit of health, well-being, and progress for all means taking a gender-sensitive approach.
In this pursuit, these cases illustrate that a hub-and-spoke model can leverage both personal networks and technological innovations to foster community-wide change. Digital Green’s videos fit into existing social structures to support the creation of space for women and girls in a sector traditionally dominated by men. Zvandiri’s peer support leverages relationships between YMMs and their peers in pursuit of better health outcomes not only for young women and girls, but also for their families. In each case, women and girls are centered as agents of change within their communities.
As policy actors around the world reflect on the discussions emerging from International Women’s Day, these insights show how access to information and services can be bolstered to the benefit of hardly-reached women and girls, and subsequently their communities. In this way, they have immense potential to be adapted and applied to a variety of contexts in our continued pursuit of the SDGs.
We would like to acknowledge our fellow researchers and mentors at the Reach Alliance and those who supported the research process, especially our key collaborators in Zimbabwe and India. See the case study reports, ‘Cutting Through the Grass Ceiling’ and ‘Peer Support Interventions for Young Mothers Living with HIV,’ for details. The case study research was made possible through the Reach Alliance, a partnership between the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.