Our Perspective

"Necessity is the mother of invention”: tradition, women in public life, and the space for innovation


How do we make the unheard, heard? Working in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), we at UNDP Pakistan have been pushed to think beyond the realms of what we usually do to come up with innovative approaches to ensuring we hear the voices of women – and understanding what channels they have for expressing themselves.

FATA is a remote mountainous region which sweeps down western Pakistan, hugging the border with Afghanistan. It has historically faced political and socio-economic development constraints which have caused poverty to be pervasive and private and public infrastructure and livelihood opportunities have been limited in the area.   The women of FATA have been disproportionately negatively affected by these circumstances; they live on the margins of the tribal public life due to cultural limitations imposed on their social interaction and mobility. The notion of “private woman and public man” explains the situation well; women’s voices on important issues including their perspective on development remain unheard at all levels.

However, 2017 has seen the region face a potentially historic turning point. The Government is pushing for reform in FATA; political reform will hopefully lead to significantly improved development outcomes. UNDP Pakistan is the lead partner for providing technical support to the Government for the reform of the tribal areas. For this process to be effective, we need to know what people want. But, when an area is so remote and difficult to access, how do we find this out? In this case, we also specifically wanted to hear from women and understand how they can express their voices in a culture where they are traditionally marginalized.

How do we do this? With a 7% literacy rate amongst women in FATA, and with cultural barriers such as the use and possession of radio and TV being regulated by men, a traditional information campaign would not work. The tribal society is also one where interventions prescribed by outsiders are unlikely to be taken up. As such, we have to think innovatively. Innovation is often thought of as new technological solutions to existing problems; but when you work in a region where the literacy rate amongst women is around 6%, where the power supply let alone telecommunications infrastructure is scarce, then innovation becomes about identifying existing success stories and how to tap into these to bring about broader social or behavior changes. For us, it meant “Positive Deviance”.

Positive deviance (PD) is an experiential problem-solving approach based on the premise that in every community, there are a few individuals whose uncommon but successful behaviors have enabled them to find solutions to overcome the problems they face, as determined by them. If these can be identified and amplified then sustainable social change can be fostered by capitalizing on solutions that already exist in the community itself.

The FATA Governance Project at UNDP Pakistan with UNDP Asia-Pacific won funding from the UNDP Innovation Facility to develop and test out a PD pilot– going to 3 targeted areas in FATA to speak with the community members and having them identify examples of “positive outliers” i.e. community-identified women who have pushed the boundaries of traditional thinking in terms of their participation in public life. Women across a variety of areas of public life will be looked at; women in higher education, politically engaged women, health practitioners, teachers, entrepreneurs etc. We would also be interested in speaking to those few women outliers who listen and call in the radio to see what drives them to do so given the restricted environment. This approach is innovative as it relies on UNDP entering the community with a “learning hat” on. We will walk into the community with no assumptions; ask the community to identify women successfully engaged in public life, talk with these women for them to identify themselves how they overcame challenges, take this information back to the community, share it, analyze it collectively and work with the community to develop a way these strategies can be replicated by others.

As a pilot intervention running over 9 months, and implemented through our partner Humanitarian Development Organization Doaba (HDOD), we hope to learn about existing successful strategies that have the potential for replication and scale-up. The changing of social norms and entrenched behaviors is never easy – but PD’s strength lies in finding locally identified solutions with the idea that they will be more readily taken on board by the community who will themselves design the way to integrate such approaches. 

We will surely face challenges; we need the community support to this process, and we need to find these female outliers in a region where it is extremely difficult for women to stand out. There is no doubt we will learn much from this pilot; even if ultimately, we learn that the factors for success are beyond the realm of our influence. Then we can just start innovating again and come up with a new method to test!

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