Hero Stories | Fida Geagea: A gender equality advocate inspired by the power of strong women to keep families and communities safe and resilient News

22 November, 2021

This article originally appeared on, on November 22, 2021. It can be accessed at the following link.

By Sergiu Ipatii

Millions of women and girls are prevented from making important decisions about their lives, are married at a young age and against their will, or are even forced into slavery in many parts of the world. Hundreds of organizations are working on the ground to assist the victims of violence while others are working to make systemic changes such as legal reforms that could protect women and safeguard their human rights. Fida Geagea, Executive Vice President for Social, Economic, and Environmental Development at Cowater International, is currently overseeing 20 programs and projects that tackle gender inequality, disability, and inclusion in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and South and South-East Asia. We sat down with Fida for an interview as her 20+ years of experience in tackling inequality and exclusion really captured our attention and admiration.

Fida speaks passionately about the topic and about her permanent struggle against resistance to engaging societies on issues of gender equality. Insecurity and discrimination, she says, cause suffering to women and girls in too many countries, making them vulnerable to violence and abuse and preventing them from realizing their full potential. On the other hand, societies that are working to protect women’s rights and eliminate gender barriers are witnessing the impact of change through more cohesive communities and economic spillovers.

Today’s Hero Story is about Fida Geagea – the woman who daily pushes the boundaries of her comfort zone to make other women more comfortable and secure.

Fear of change

Fida Geagea and officials from the Ministry of Education, SCOFI project, Mali/Photo Credit: Cowater International

It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest challenge when working in the human rights sector although Fida considers that resistance is the major bottleneck that slows progress down.

“Anytime you are going to tackle gender inequality, you are going to face resistance. Regardless of the country or the sector, people will resist for different reasons. One of the reasons is fear of change. People hide this fear behind a veil of ignorance or even jokes such as ‘what we need are projects that defend men’s rights’. Resistance is the most common challenge we face when tackling gender inequality.”

Fida says that in order to overcome current challenges, the development community needs to not only address the numerous issues on the ground but also to take a step back and carefully design development interventions.

“It has been proven that when women thrive – families and communities thrive. We ought to systematically recognize the inequities within the context of development programs. In this way, we can design interventions that break down the barriers impeding the full participation of women, girls, and other marginalized groups and, as a result, achieve better development outcomes.”

Fida spent her childhood in Lebanon, a war-torn country at the time. This played a major role in her choice to join the development community.

“I grew up in Lebanon where I was exposed, at a very young age, to a number of issues I work on today. Among these issues were insecurity, corruption, human rights abuses, and, of course, gender inequality. I was always surrounded by very strong women who bore the burden of war and did everything in their power to keep their families and communities safe and healthy, without really giving a thought to themselves or to the inequities they were facing.”

The difficult circumstances affecting women in her home country subsequently prompted Fida to pursue a short-term opportunity with a Canadian-based NGO in the field of governance.

“The organization worked internationally to support audit institutions in promoting effective public financial management and good governance. I was assigned to work in a couple of regions, including the Middle East and West Africa. Very quickly, through travel, I gained exposure to some of the issues that countries were facing from a governance perspective, and how these impacted women and girls.”

Under pressure

Fida Geagea with MAMPU project stakeholders in Indonesia/Photo Credit: Cowater International

For Fida, as for many other young development experts, advancing the rights of women and girls was extremely challenging at times. We wondered if she ever felt a desire to give up and change her career path. We received a very frank response.

“At one point, I did feel the need to pause. I took a break for a year. At one point you become… I don’t know if ‘less idealistic’ is the right term, but when you’re young you really think you can change the world, and I think that the field of governance was a bit difficult because you’re fighting institutions that have made no space for women, but where there is critical need for their inclusion.”

However, Fida grew up in an environment that left no room for weaknesses, remember? In response to our question as to why she returned to work in the same sector, Fida said that she re-engaged in international development because she felt that there was an enormous unfinished agenda.

“It’s our moral responsibility. We can’t stop our work – the gains are so fragile. COVID-19 proved how vulnerable women and girls are. According to the UN, 47 million more women will be pushed into poverty in 2021. So how can we justify not continuing? We can’t stop.”

Over the years, Fida has worked closely with government institutions and local development organizations, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder in supporting their fight against discriminatory legislation and policies.

“It can be challenging, and you have to work really hard to find your entry points to tackle gender issues. Usually, in supreme audit institutions, one hears phrases like ‘We don’t have any gender equality issues, it’s just that women don’t want to become auditors’. In Mali, for example, we started tackling gender through performance audits. We focused on what the audit office could do to look at gender equality as part of its mandate, as opposed to as part of its composition and institution. And this approach resulted in a much bigger impact as we built the capacity of the audit office to determine the degree of government compliance with national and international commitments to gender equality, including the implementation of national legislation, policy, and action plans, and to identify the gender-specific impacts of government programs and operations.

In some cases, gender equality is a donor requirement. This leads to certain beneficiaries introducing quotas. It’s good in terms of having more women represented, but sometimes women are not prepared to take on a new role due to systemic gender discrimination and thus are set up for failure. Imposing quotas should be accompanied by support for women, such as training and coaching, in addition to improving the enabling environment in which they work so they are empowered to succeed.”

It is hard to change human behavior in isolated, tradition-based, patriarchal societies. Fida knows that this can be a long and difficult process.

“Especially when it comes to changing harmful practices and social norms, it takes time. It takes consistency. It takes perseverance. You need to be advocating for changes in legislation and policy. You need to be engaging with all the stakeholders; that includes women, men, gender-diverse individuals, community, and religious leaders. You need to raise awareness and work to change behaviors within communities and also invest in women’s organizations. So, it’s hard, long-term work. But progress can be made, as long as the international community continues to prioritize gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Fida Geagea with MAMPU project stakeholders in Indonesia/Photo Credit: Cowater International

Speaking of progress, we asked our hero if she sees any differences in the attitudes of both beneficiaries and donors towards gender and inclusivity since she began her work several decades ago.

“Yes, absolutely. There have been major international commitments to gender equality over the past several decades, including CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, the MDGs, and the SDGs in 2015, with SDG 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.

They all take into account gender equality and underline the need for a cross-sectional, multi-leveled approach. We have also seen a lot of focus on supporting women’s rights organizations and a bigger focus on localization and sustainability. In fact, these priorities are now recognized by a number of donors, and the important role of gender equality in development has really taken a more prominent role.”

Later, Fida proudly highlighted some of Cowater International’s engagement and results in advancing gender equality and inclusion.

“One of our most impactful programs, funded by the Australian government in Indonesia, is MAMPU (Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment – editor’s note). The program supported women’s active involvement in community affairs which resulted in over 300 policy decisions in more than 80 districts across the country. MAMPU has contributed to enhancing social protection for the most vulnerable groups, it strengthened sexual and reproductive health and rights, it helped address the impact of customary law and it also supported services for survivors of gender-based violence. More than 1.3 million women benefited directly or indirectly from these policy and legal reforms.

Another example is the In-PATH Malawi project which focused on MNCH (Maternal, Newborn & Child Health – editor’s note). In-PATH contributed to a reduction in the maternal mortality rate in Malawi. For example, in one of the districts – Kasungu – we saw a reduction in the maternal mortality rate from 184 to 84 deaths per 100,000 live births. In another district – Chitipa – the indicator dropped from 114 to 73. And across these two districts and a third district – Salima – the project contributed to a reduction in the neonatal mortality rate from 25 to 10 deaths per 100,000 live births. These are concrete numbers.“

On biases, humility, perseverance and time

Fida considers work in the field with beneficiary communities as an essential ingredient of a meaningful career in international development. We asked her for some advice for young professionals who want to join this field.

“The hardest thing when working in this sector is examining your own biases and withholding judgment. Don’t let biases impact your decisions. Also, understand the power of the social norms that constrain you. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to understand the process of changing these norms within development programming. The other thing is humility. Don’t assume you have the answers. That’s why every initiative, regardless of the sector, must be designed in very close consultation with women, men, and gender-diverse individuals who are on the ground and also the local organizations, especially women’s organizations, that represent them. Finally, I’d say arm yourself with enough perseverance. Change takes time and, as we know, progress can easily be lost – gains are fragile.”

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