Understanding Women’s Intergenerational Knowledge Transfer in Rural Mali: Lessons from the African Sky Mothers and Daughters Summit

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Abstract

In January 2011, the nonprofit African Sky facilitated an educational conference in Markala, Mali for pre-existing associations to come together and share knowledge and skills for mutual benefit. The participating groups (N = 6) held expertise in areas of: organizational management, income generation, and family health and sanitation, and were grouped as “established” peri-urban (N=2) and “emerging” rural (N=4) associations. Proficiency was measured on a four-point scale (1 = below basic, 2 = basic comprehension, 3 = proficient, 4 = advanced proficiency) for 14 items. Six months following the Summit, the two established women’s associations achieved 100% proficiency in organizational management, family health and sanitation, and income generation. After six months, the remaining emerging association decreased in knowledge to 50% proficiency in income generation, and only 10% proficiency in both organizational management and well as family health and sanitation. The authors hypothesize that the gains were maintained in the established organizations as these associations had the monetary means to implement the business plans they developed at the conference. Organizational support for immediate application of newly acquired skills may increase retention of skills and knowledge.

Introduction

In the traditional, patriarchal society of Mali, West Africa a woman’s primary role is that of homemaker. Women’s daily chores include gathering and chopping firewood, walking to the river to wash dishes and laundry, going to the market to buy food, preparing food over a fire, and retrieving water from the pump or well. Oftentimes, school is not prioritized by families for their girl children, and historically formal schooling has not been available in many rural villages. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) ranked Mali 175th out of 187 countries with a Human Development Index of 0.359 in 2011, which uses health, education and income as a measure of well-being [1].

The United Nations articulated eight critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce health disparities in developing nations. The third MDG identifies gender equality and women’s empowerment as a means to reach Target 1.B, which aims to productively employ all adults regardless of gender or age. Official indicators used to measure progress toward this third goal imply that access to the resources of “education, employment, and political participation” are essential for women’s empowerment and equality [2]. In Mali, women have the right to vote, but formal education and employment remain inaccessible for much of the female population. Women’s labor force participation rate is 38% [1]. While adult literacy is estimated at 26%, there are only 52 literate females for every 100 literate males [3].

The empowerment of women is crucial for economic development in Africa. The impact of women’s access to agricultural and economic resources directly impacts household health, nutrition and economics [4]. The health of women and children is poorest in regions where the largest inequalities exist between women and men [5]. A powerful tool to both improve household economics and the stature of women in the household and the local community is the formation and support of people’s organizations (POs) and Women’s Self Help Groups (WSHGs).

People’s Organizations are groups of individuals joining together for a common purpose, in this case organizing outside of existing governmental bodies in order to further the economic interests of the group members. Women’s Self Help Groups focus primarily on uniting female members of a community towards a common goal. Kenyan POs partnering with NGOs have found success increasing rural development efforts [6]. Similarly, work done in India has shown the success of WSHGs in increasing the economic standing of households, and in partnering with NGOs to receive the technical training needed to expand economic opportunities [7]. These organizations work around or outside governmental frameworks and directly support group members and their communities.

Research has shown, however, that outsider assistance in organizational growth can externalize motivation and knowledge, which ends up negating any growth in participant capabilities [8]. For sustained organizational growth and empowerment, participants need to feel ownership of the process and the program. Through peer-to-peer expertise sharing between participating organizations, African Sky developed the 2011 Mothers’ and Daughters’ Summit with the aim of fostering the growth of WSHGs. The objectives of the Summit were to increase the skills of participants in the village economy and to build mutual support networks comprised of Malian women. Focusing on family health, sanitation, income generation, and organizational management, the goal of the Summit was to increase the quality of life for the participating women and their families.

Method

Design and Setting

The Summit was a four-day event hosted in Markala, a peri-urban town in central Mali. Participants did not receive a per diem for participation, but had travel, lodging, and meals provided. The budget for the 93-person event totaled $5,340.00, with 83% ($4,420.00) to fund travel and food for all participants. Mornings were dedicated to organizational management discussions, midday sessions focused on improvement of health and sanitation, and afternoons found groups sharing skills in income generation. (See Figure 1 for Summit program of events). One of the sessions in organizational management, for example, included case studies of projects conducted by organizations that were made easier by the fact that they had pooled resources. To discuss health and sanitation, the women received instruction in preventive health, and practiced recipes that would improve family nutrition. Income generation sessions included hands-on activities to practice low-literacy accounting, and planning a business model. During the Summit event, opportunities for relationship-building took place during daily meals and homestays with Markala hosts.

Fig. 1: Program of events

Recruitment

A request for applications was distributed among Mali Peace Corps Volunteers in Spring 2010. To be eligible for participation, a group must speak the majority language Bamanakan, must be an existing women’s organization, and must include young women in their organization. The requirement for “existing women’s organizations” ensured that the groups already had a structure in place and were interested in strengthening their practices; this allowed the organization to avoid groups who were simply seeking an injection of money. All interested members of the host village’s two women’s associations (Group A, Group B) were invited to participate in the Summit based on their organizational success and their role in developing the proposal.

Participants

The 93 participants (n = 75 over the age of 18 years, n = 18 12-17 year olds) represented five rural villages in Mali. All were members of their local women’s associations, and had expressed a desire to learn more about how to generate income to improve the lives of their children and families. The participation of members’ young-adult daughters was crucial as young women typically marry shortly after their 18th birthday, and will likely begin having children soon thereafter. Additionally, integrating mothers and daughters preserves an enduring, regional cultural value of intergenerational teaching and learning.

All groups that participated were existing organizations before the Summit took place, but for the purposes of evaluation African Sky classified the groups as established and emerging based on their experience and lifespan. Organizations were classified as “established” or “emerging” based on their pre-Summit achievements. Established organizations had successfully implemented two or more projects in their hometown, whereas emerging organizations had implemented either one project or were still developing the plan for their first project yet had regular meetings. In this study, the established organizations (N=2) were both located in a peri-urban setting, and the emerging organizations (N=4) were all rural.

Markala participants, representing the peri-urban groups, outnumbered visitors as these women were able to easily and affordably attend each day of sessions. From each of the rural groups who requested to attend and exchange skills at the Summit, eight representatives were invited as sponsored participants. These visiting participants represented different regions of Mali, where accents and dialects vary. The populations of each rural village ranged from 200 – 1540, whereas the population of Markala is approx. 21,000. The rural villages have no electricity, retrieve water from wells or pumps, and rely on farming, often subsistence, for livelihood. Markala, an old outpost of the colonial French government, boasts a hydro-electric dam, running water and a variety of employment and higher education opportunities.

Data Collection

The Summit evaluation was a cross-sectional examination of baseline and follow up (data collected as part of the evaluation for the women’s summit. Data was collected preceding the Summit, immediately following, and at the six-month point after the event. During the planning phase, the organizers developed an evaluation tool that included quantitative and qualitative measures (see Figure 2). This tool measured the three topical areas (family health and sanitation, income generation, organizational management) as well as event logistics. Proficiency was measured on a four-point scale (1 = below basic, 2 = basic comprehension, 3 = proficient, 4 = advanced proficiency) for 14 items across the three areas of expertise as outlined in figure 1. Each association’s Peace Corps Volunteer collected the data for a baseline assessment, an immediate post-assessment, and a 6-month post-assessment.

Fig. 2: Summit evaluative survey, developed by African Sky

Analytic and Reporting Methods

Data was analyzed using Statistical Analysis Software [9], and was separated by organization type (emerging, established). At immediate and six month evaluation, an increase of 1 unit or greater was considered a significant change relative to pre-assessment. Participants with a zero change with maintenance of a 3 or 4 response level were considered to have sustained proficient or advanced knowledge.

Results

Using a univariate analysis that considers missing data as missing, the findings showed an overall improvement in comprehension in all three topical areas. There was a 63% immediate increase in skills and knowledge, and a continued increase of 74% from baseline at the 6-month point. Analyzed by organizational status, the established organizations demonstrated a 75% increase from the pre-Summit baseline, which they sustained through the 6-month evaluation (96%). The emerging organizations demonstrated a 57% increase from baseline immediately following the intervention, however increases diminished over time (10% greater than baseline after six months). Furthermore, analyses showed that the two established women’s associations achieved 100% proficiency in organizational management, family health and sanitation, and income generation at six months. Conversely, the emerging organization showed 50% proficiency in income generation after six months, and only 10% proficiency in organizational management, family health and sanitation. Specifically, there was a 90% decrease in organizational management after six months, yet only a 10% decrease in proficiency in health and sanitation over the same time period. However, we were unable to complete the six-month post-evaluation with three of the emerging associations due to limited resources. The findings are summarized in Figure 3.

Fig. 3: Immediate and 6-month summit evaluation results

Discussion

Our findings showed that established organizations were able to build upon their increased knowledge over the course of six months, while emerging organizations failed to maintain their knowledge gains. We believe that this can be attributed to the resources possessed by the established organizations, which allowed these two groups to implement the business plans that they had developed during the Summit. The evidence that proficiency in organizational management decreased 90%, whereas health and sanitation decreased only 10% in the emerging organizations lead the authors to hypothesize that practicing skills increases retention in the study population; family health and sanitation were practiced by participants through daily living and thus retained, while there were fewer opportunities to practice organizational management in daily life. It is likely that the emerging organizations did not have the opportunity to apply their new skills—and, thus increase retention—due to lack of startup funds to implement their business plan [10].

Another possible explanation for the different rates of retention and project implementation may be the setting to which each organization returned. In a rural village, the market for any given income generating activity is smaller than in a peri-urban setting; this may mean that the rural women’s associations had less opportunity to launch their business plans. One potential direction for future studies may be to increase rural women’s access to larger markets through access to transportation, or establishment of supply chains leading to larger towns. Other implications of the community setting may be that participants from the larger town may have had more experience with formal education. Participants from larger towns may live in communities with different more liberal gender norms (i.e., more supportive partners, fewer household demands, etc…) that enabled them to practice business skills more than the rural women. These two established organizations were located in close proximity to one another, and thus may have consulted other Summit participants for advice, mentorship, and resource sharing.

To incorporate the results of this evaluation into the planning for the 2012 Mothers and Daughters Summit, each of the organizations that attended the 2011 Summit will select four members to plan “breakout” Summits. African Sky will support a local event with each association to share knowledge and skills with neighboring women’s associations. Women from surrounding communities will participate and attend, recruited by the host women’s organization for each breakout Summit. The participating emerging organizations will receive micro-loans to carry out the projects they develop at the Summits. Once the micro-loan business plans are implemented, the funds will be repaid in full to the women’s organization who will then make a loan in support of another project. This model recognizes the expertise nested within each organization, assists in the development of a network to exchange knowledge and maximize the impact of individuals’ skills, and is sustainable with no ongoing inputs from the outside organizational partner. We refer to this model as the “Exponential Education Model”.

Based on the results of this evaluation, African Sky is adapting the 2012 Summit to better suit the learning styles of participants. The 2012 Summit Series will provide a venue for participants to teach and learn about income generation, organizational management, and family health skills and knowledge in a skill-share capacity. A minimum of 400 women will participate in the regional Summits, and each of the six associations that host a regional Summit will receive $500 in seed money to launch income-generating activities and/or micro-loans developed throughout the 2012 Summit Series in an effort to promote application of concepts learned, thus increasing retention.

Working toward the goal to increase the quality of life for participants and participants’ families, the 2012 Summit Series objectives are: 1) to increase the retention of skills of participants in each area; 2) to build a network of support comprised of Malian women; 3) to develop business plans for each women’s organization; and, 4) to expand the reach of the 2011 model.

Conclusion

Peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge is an effective tool for skill-sharing in both rural and peri-urban women’s organizations. Established women’s organizations had greater and longer-lasting benefits from the educational Summit when compared to emerging women’s organizations. The authors hypothesize that this is because the established organizations had the resources to implement the business plans they developed, and thus to practice the skills and knowledge that were fostered at the event. We suggest that for future interventions, seed money be dedicated to each participating organization and a system of mentorship be established to enable women to apply their learning

Authors’ Note

Unfortunately, at time of press, Mali has experienced a military coup and is experiencing immense instability in parts of the country, compounded by a severe drought. While this political situation may have unexpected and ongoing impacts for the country and region, African Sky remains committed to working to support rural communities in Mali. However, due to circumstances beyond our control, including but not limited to the evacuation of the United States Peace Corps from the country, organizational strategies for intervention may shift. The authors and the organization are continuing programming, with modifications that reduce internal travel for host country nationals until their security in transit can be assured.

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