What’s Being Done On … Effective Networking?

Tue, Feb 6, 2007


World Movement for Democracy (WMD)

The Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP) is dedicated to women’s leadership and empowerment. At its essence, WLP is a builder of networks, working with 18 autonomous and independent partner organizations in the Global South, particularly in Muslim-majority societies, to empower women to transform their families, communities, and societies. The primary objectives are to increase the number of women taking on leadership and decision-making roles at the family, community, and national levels, and to improve the effectiveness of women’s movements in Muslim-majority societies and globally by strengthening the capacity of their partner organizations. The mission of the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) is to advance communication and cooperation among and between the women of the world in order to protect human rights, facilitate sustainable development, and promote peace. WLP links those with access to resources, knowledge, and technologies to those without, and augments the voices and visions of the world’s resource-poor majority.

For more information, please go to: www.learningpartnership.org/


We would like to thank Mahnaz Afkhami, President and CEO, Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), for answering the following interview questions.

Q: Can you briefly explain the history and structure of the Women’s Learning Partnership?

WLP was founded in 2000 in response to the expressed needs of a network of women civil society leaders and grassroots activists in the Middle East-North Africa region after the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference for Women. We started with three partner organizations in Palestine, Jordan, and Morocco and have grown to include partner organizations in 18 countries – Afghanistan, Brazil, Cameroon, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palestine, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. While each partner organization is independent with their own board, staff, and structure, we share the values and aspirations of the Partnership as a whole, in particular the promotion of a democratic view of leadership that is based on a participatory, inclusive leadership concept that values each individual’s contribution and encourages their creativity and full engagement. WLP International and partners work together on three thematic areas. We develop culture-specific leadership training curricula. We organize training of trainers, institutes at the national and regional levels to help build the leadership, information technology (IT) skills, and capacities of individuals and organizations. And we carry out campaigns for legislative change.

Q: Does the specific topic the WLP works on have a special impact on the way the network functions?

Yes, we are working towards gender equality, rights, democracy, and peace, and we believe that a qualitative change in the practice of leadership and the nature of leadership are required to realize these goals. Therefore, WLP models a style of leadership that is inclusive and participatory rather than competitive and hierarchical. This style of leadership impacts how the network functions because it helps us build strong relationships of trust, respect, and cooperation that solidifies the partnership and creates a dynamism and synergy that allows us to collectively have a much larger impact.

Q: How does the WLP address its members, and how do you enable them to transmit their needs to the network?

Communication within WLP is an essential means of support and solidarity, especially through the use of cost-efficient and immediate means. In addition to regular face-to-face meetings, we stay in contact with our partners through phone conferences and especially email; therefore IT plays a very important role.

One of WLP’s goals is to make South/South communication possible. Partners consider sharing of experiences, exchange of best practices, analysis of challenges and impediments, and discussion of useful strategies among activists in similar contexts among the most valuable benefits of our work together.

We provide the space for brainstorming, debate, and generation of ideas, and we co-produce the content and framework for WLP programs and curricula with partners. WLP partners act as national or regional hubs through which jointly developed knowledge and tools are tested, adapted, and disseminated through workshops, eCourses, training of trainers institutes, and other programs.

We ensure that partners have access to the resources, curriculum, and technological tools they need to implement trainings in leadership and empowerment and information and communication technologies (ICTs). We are currently testing a program evaluation manual that will enhance partners’ ability to effectively evaluate and report on their programs. In addition, each partner evaluates their experience with WLP International at the end of the year.

Q: You adapt your curriculum to different cultures and languages. How important is it to address an issue in different countries in different ways?

This is very important because while concepts like women’s rights are universal, the ways in which each society reaches these rights is culture-specific. Our participatory leadership concept is based on a shared vision of the kind of world we want to build for our own and our children’s future. In order to expand this concept and carry it to the grassroots in a variety of cultural contexts, we need to adapt and adjust the curriculum to specific circumstances where it will be implemented. For example, we do not include the story of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, in the Egyptian version of LEADING TO CHOICES because microfinance has had a troubled history in Egypt. In each community, partners use case studies based on the community’s specific experience.

Q: How often does the WLP hold meetings or conferences? How has it used information and communications technologies (ICTs) to foster connections among members?

WLP holds at least one annual meeting among partners. We just convened our most recent Partners Meeting in Washington, DC from September 2 – 6, 2006. We brought together partners from 15 countries to share ideas, knowledge, and experiences of current socio-political challenges and to exchange methods for building organizational capacity to sustain their work and activism in periods of crisis.

ICTs are a very important means to maintain communication with partners. Just recently, WLP created an Intranet for the Partnership to strengthen communication and sharing of documents, information, and knowledge among partners. The Intranet acts as both a repository for activity reports as well as a space for sharing successes and concerns. We are also developing multi-lingual capacities by continuing to expand our French and Arabic websites. We also recently launched an interactive web blog for our campaign for Arab women’s right to nationality, “Claiming Equal Citizenship,” to raise awareness about the campaign and to advocate for reform. The blog is located at www.learningpartnership.org/citizenship.

In addition, we send out a WEEKLY NEWS WIRE to keep partners informed about what is happening in other parts of the world, and we send quarterly updates on the Partnership’s activities.

Q: How do you measure your success?

Our greatest achievement is the nature of our partnership itself. The unprecedented close and ongoing communication and exchange among partner organizations in four regions of the world-based on mutual respect and reciprocity creates possibilities for knowledge exchange, for mutual support, for South/South as well as North/South dialogue, which is extraordinarily effective. Through this relationship we have been able to produce curricula in 17 languages, each suited to the specific cultural context of the intended community. We have developed a methodology that is inclusive, consensus-based, and interactive rather than the hierarchical, competitive model now in practice in business and politics. Through implementation of thousands of workshops, we have cultivated the leadership skills of women in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to enable them to successfully negotiate at the family, community, as well as the national levels for equality and justice. Our technology workshops have taught women the skills necessary to access information about their rights and engage in dialogue with women around the world. We believe that increasing the number of women in decision making to reach a critical mass is very important, but the quality of the leadership they bring forth is even more important.

I believe the continuous communication, the ongoing collaboration on creation and adaptation of our curriculum, the constant rethinking of our concepts and systems, and above all the synergy that is created by this style of joint endeavor make possible maximum use of our collective resources. The thousands of leadership skills-building workshops we have conducted in the various communities have been an important outcome of our work. But most importantly, I believe, is the creation of strong activist networks whose members share a common understanding of human rights and democracy and have developed an effective methodology for reaching shared goals.

Q: There are currently five core programs under the WLP. How did they come about and how have they developed over time? How do they enhance the WLP’s overall networking efforts?

The programs are inter-related and feed into each other. Leadership and empowerment learning involves enhancing capabilities of individuals and organizations. Organizational capacity building helps strengthen organizational infrastructure and ensure sustainability. Technology capacity building enhances communications. Human rights and culture of peace relate to the overall goals of the partnership and help us organize our efforts around advocacy themes that are of urgent concern for the network. All five program areas have grown out of the needs and priorities of the partnership and strengthen and advance the mission of the WLP network.

Q: How has the WLP adapted to meet global and regional developments since its inception in 2000?

We are a “learning organization,” that is, an organization that is flexible and is constantly changing and evolving in response to changes in the environment. The flexibility and responsiveness helps us adapt and adjust quickly. This applies to all partner organizations. For example, during the war in Lebanon, our partner, Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A), swiftly adapted itself by applying the concept and methodology of our collaborative leadership trainings to the crisis situation. They took the lead in finding appropriate shelters for women and children and making sure women were able to have a say in distribution of resources in an equitable manner. Even though CRTD-A is not a relief organization, they were able to use their networks and their know-how to help meet some of the immediate needs of women during the conflict. WLP International mobilized the partner countries to raise funds and to bring international attention to the situation of our Lebanese colleagues. Faced with new challenges, we work together to find alternative strategies and innovative solutions and we all come to the aid of the group that is facing a crisis.

Q: What are the biggest challenges the WLP faces today as a network?

Our greatest problems are the growth of extremism and fundamentalism, which always affects women’s activism, and authoritarian governments that are now both more threatened by current political conditions and also more prone to use these conditions as a reason for tightening their hold on civil society. For example, in 2005, activities in Uzbekistan ground to a halt due to a government crackdown on NGOs, and communication with partners in Iran became increasingly difficult in the climate of fear that developed with Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. Another impediment is change in the funding environment, especially the decrease in funding for women’s rights activism and restrictive legislation that limits or prohibits acquisition of funds from international donors. WLP partners live in societies where a culture of philanthropy does not exist. Most local donations go to charity or to religious institutions.

But the positive side of the situation is that in spite of the serious challenges we face, we are better situated now than ever before to overcome impediments. We have an unprecedented degree of awareness around the globe of the importance of full participation of women in decision making, and there is agreement that neither sustainable development nor creation of democratic and just societies will be possible without women’s full involvement in the process. Another positive development is the increase in the level of education of women at the grassroots as well as the availability of a large number of women with management and leadership skills to take on key positions.

Thank you very much for your time and sharing your insights with us.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Kudos to @RepRoKhanna & @RepMattGaetz on their bipartisanship efforts in passing the Khanna-Gaetz amendment in the #House. We're a step closer to preventing another unnecessary/costly war in the #ME. Congrats to @PAAIA & other allied #Iranian-#American orgs for their #advocacy.

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Quotables – Empowerment

"To play their role properly, women everywhere must become far more involved in the affairs of their respective societies. Women must become empowered." - Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

"Women's empowerment is a process, a holistic approach that involves raising consciousness, building skills and reforming unjust laws that limit women's education, their employment, their participation in decision making, and above all, their opportunities for economic independence." - Freedom Leads To Empowerment

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

Quotables – Technology

"[Modern information technology] has the potential to empower women in ways unprecedented in the social and cultural evolution of human history" - Making IT Our Own: Introduction

"The new information technology, indifferent to human suffering, does not accommodate humane needs unless we harness it and make it do so." Leading To Choices

"We must be bold and creative, our feet firmly grounded in the realities that surround us, but our gaze aimed at the lofty possibilities that our advancements in science and technology promise and that our growth as a global society is only beginning to comprehend." - Toward A Compassionate Society

“International movement building in the 21st century and involvement of youth in advocacy will be made possible largely through technology" - Engendering IT Tools
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