December 2014: Community Engagement at its Best – Pakistani Religious Leaders as Advocates for Gender Equality

Operating in Pakistan for almost 30 years, Cowater has established a solid reputation for delivering results. This is particularly evident through the third phase of the Citizen Engagement for Social Service Delivery (CESSD) Project, a multi-sectoral capacity building initiative working at the community, district, and provincial level in 11 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. CESSD works closely with government departments in order to sustain, support and monitor social service committees (SSCs) in the areas of education, health care, and water supply, that include Parent Teacher Committee (PTCs), Primary Care Management Committees (PCMCs) and Water User Committees (WUCs). Gender equality has been a particularly important cross-cutting dimension of CESSD-III activities. Improving women’s access to, and gender responsiveness of, quality social services is fundamental to closing gender gaps in Pakistan. As such, women’s participation in the various Social Service Committees (SSCs) decision-making processes is a major thrust of the CESSD approach.

Overcoming cultural challenges in Pakistan has required creativity and flexibility. For example, in areas where mixed participation is not possible due to socio-cultural norms, women subcommittees have been formed and female-led training for women delivered. In addition to utilizing these best practices, CESSD has implemented an innovative approach to support female empowerment and agency through engaging religious leaders within the community to garner their support and encouragement for female-targeted programming. This approach has proven to be particularly valuable in the district of Kohistan, a very conservative district where women are facing serious limitations in accessing the public sphere. The support of religious leaders has contributed to women’s access to literacy courses, paving the way for their future (and current) participation to social services committees.

Although security remains a serious concern, women are participating more actively in decision-making processes around social service delivery, and men are increasingly recognizing and accepting their roles, responsibilities and contribution. Religious leaders trained by CESSD in Kohistan are now part of a consultative committee that includes district government representation. Together, both parties are working toward the development of a gender equity strategy for the district, involving multiple stakeholders. Eighty-two religious leaders in Kohistan and 38 in Haripur District have been trained to identify, recognize and accept their role in promoting equitable social service delivery, including women’s role in SSCs. These religious leaders are now extending their support role and are advocates of CESSD initiatives.

CESSD, with support from the Government of Pakistan, is planning a signature event in Islamabad on the role of religious leaders in creating an enabling environment for women participation and gender responsive services.