Breaking Down Gender Barriers with the Graduation Approach

by Bobby Irven, Communications Officer | BRAC Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative

When researchers and academia look at the impact of gender-focused development interventions, the focus is usually put on economic indicators and market outcomes. What is often overlooked, likely because it is so hard to measure, is the long-term impacts on women’s empowerment and the barriers broken down because of it. While Graduation programs vary in their design, targeting, and length, it has become clear in recent years that this holistic approach to poverty alleviation is highly effective, providing long-term, sustainable impacts to both the female participants of the programs, and their immediate households. It is for this reason that Fundación Capital, a longstanding partner of BRAC, just released a new paper that highlights best practices of the Graduation approach as they relate to gender transformation and the well-being of marginalized women around the world.

The debate continues over which programs should be widely adopted, but this much is clear: by providing women and girls opportunities to grow and flourish in their communities, programs like Graduation that invest in human capital accelerate greater equity and economic growth for all.

Putting a Focus on Gender

The world is at a turning point; COVID-19 has set back poverty alleviation efforts decades. It has also provided governments and practitioners an opportunity to rethink what works and what doesn’t. For many of us dedicated to combating inequality, it is demoralising to know that an additional 47 million women and girls will fall into extreme poverty due to the economic effects of the virus. The impact of COVID far exceeds the public health crisis it created and has shown us the importance of investing in strong safety nets and resilience-building activities for the world’s poorest people.

The virus has also revealed that hardship and crises disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized and often left behind.

Nurunnahar gives a lesson on ending child marriage to her community members

Poverty, for instance, affects men and women, young and old, but women in all parts of the world are particularly vulnerable because of the extra barriers created by unequal gender dynamics. Women are more likely to work in the informal economy, preventing many from accessing crucial social protection programs, particularly in countries with strained resources and high poverty rates. Women in such countries also tend to lack control or ownership of land and productive assets, face limited mobility, and have much lower rates of access to education, quality healthcare, and economic markets. Biased social norms in a community create additional challenges in the form of exposure to early marriage, gender-based violence, and exploitation.

The Transformative Power of the Graduation Approach

As highlighted in Fundación Capital’s new report: The Graduation approach offers a path to reaching the most disadvantaged women. Pioneered by BRAC in 2002, Graduation is a sequenced set of interventions that addresses the needs of women in extreme poverty holistically by supporting participants with a productive asset transfer, skills training, consumption support, coaching, and linkages to government services.

After reviewing Graduation programs from eight non-profit organizations within the “community of practice” (BRAC being one of them), the researchers of the paper, Sonia Laszlo and Anoushka, applied their conceptual framework to analyze the approach’s gender-lensed policies and interventions into four distinct areas of impact. The main purpose of breaking down the impacts of these four “quadrants” — 1) well-being and agency, 2) resources and opportunities, 3) formal policies and laws, and 4) social norms and cultural practices — is to see to how programming improves the non-economic outcomes for women.

Conceptual framework for paper adapted from Rao and Kelleher (2005, p. 60)

Wellbeing & Agency and Resources & Opportunities

One of the most successful, gender transformative components of Graduation that was found in a majority of the programming investigated, as well as the six initial Graduation pilots researched back in 2015, is financial inclusion. This can take many forms, but the underlying goal is to create greater independence, resilience, and decision-making power among the women involved. A savings component — whether through group or individual access to formal services and institutions — is a key driver of financial inclusion, and these important best practices are often instilled by peers or a closely connected coach. This allows participants to grow their funds for an inevitable financial or health-related shock, and breaks down the structural barriers that stand in the way of the tens of millions of people living in extreme poverty. Organizations from Kenya to Bangladesh have been able to leverage low-tech, no cost, mobile solutions, like M-Pesa and bKash, to provide further access to formal finance and savings that will stay in place long after the formal programs end. During COVID lockdowns we saw a significant increase in the use of mobile technologies for communication, which allowed coaches to stay connected with participants from afar, relaying vital health messaging and government assistance information.

Social Norms & Cultural Practices

By targeting soft skills that aim to shift mindsets, confront and challenge gender norms in and outside the household, and cultivate general empowerment among participants, coaching plays one of the most important roles within Graduation programming. By connecting on the most human level, coaches create a unique bond with participants that puts them in a position to act as first responder, whether that be through creating safe spaces to discuss difficulties or sensitive issues, or providing extra help or advice during a time of crisis.

Many programs engage household or outside community members in order to build trust that helps achieve additional program goals and engage men and boys in topics related to gender dynamics, domestic violence, and joint decision-making. Coaches are able to work through hard skills during their regular visits as well as monitoring and evaluation that allows quick pivots or changes needed to ensure participants successfully complete the program and ‘graduate’ into upward, sustainable livelihoods.

Summary of key gender transformational impacts of the Graduation approach

Formal Policies & Laws

BRAC, along with others, have found that building off the existing infrastructure and social protection schemes and integrating Graduation can lower its overall cost and have a greater impact on the formal legal structures within an area and on resources, opportunities for participants. This creates a stronger connection to local and even national government agencies, paving the way for scaled social protection programs, a goal the Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative aims to achieve in order to reach an additional 21 million more people living in extreme poverty over the next six years. An example of this was seen recently in the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Graduation project in the Philippines, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and with technical assistance provided by UPGI, where program interventions were specifically tied to existing schemes like the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4P’s) that helped participants significantly built resilience before and during COVID lockdowns, which allowed for more success in the areas of livelihoods and confidence building.

By accounting for the unique barriers and needs of women living in extreme poverty, Graduation programming ensures that participants are given the necessary tools and resources to break down barriers and help transform households into ones of mutual understanding, respect, and growth. From increased savings to becoming leaders and advocates in one’s community, Graduation has been shown time and time again to play an vital role in empowering women to break out of the ‘poverty trap’ and lift themselves into resilient and sustainable livelihoods in a variety of contexts all over the world.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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