Interview with Emily Bove by Inspirational Women Series
Emily Bove is the Executive Director of Women Thrive, a nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering grassroots women to shape local, national, and global policies to help women and enable their families to break free from poverty, violence, and inequality. After finishing a Graduate Exchange Program at Georgetown University, Emily worked in post-tsunami Aceh to develop community-based beneficiary feedback mechanisms and supervise the German Technical Corporation’s Economic Recovery and Microfinance Program’s monitoring and evaluation activities. She has also worked in Cameroon, where she managed and implemented a Gender Transformative Fund from the German Technical Corporation in the field of gender-based violence, with a special focus on rape, HIV, and breast ironing. Moreover, Emily worked on an initiative related to gender and financial adaptation in the Caribbean with disaster risk management teams at the World Bank. Emily holds a Bachelor’s degree from the Institute of Political Studies of Lyon, France, and a Master’s in Migration Studies from the University of Sussex, UK.
How did you first join Women Thrive and can you tell us about Women Thrive’s impact on the community so far?
I had always been interested in Women Thrive, and had actually applied to several positions before being recruited in 2014. I loved their approach to development and their focus on grassroots women’s voices. Since I’ve worked here, I’ve seen how important it is for women from all around the world to be able to be heard in policy-making. Women Thrive has indirectly impacted the lives of millions through its advocacy for gender-sensitive policies and programs. We also have impact directly thousands of advocates in over 50 countries, who thanks to our programs, are now better equipped to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. The growth of our network is also a key sign that grassroots women’s groups are getting a lot out of our learning community and collective advocacy: we’ve grown from 80 to 270 members in just two years.
Can you tell us about some of Women Thrive’s capacity building programs?
Our capacity-building program is called Raise Your Voice. Raise Your Voice is more than just a training program: it has become a strong learning community where knowledge is exchanged by all and for all. While Women Thrive provides strong tailors tools to members, they also share their own knowledge with one another and learn from each other’s past experiences through our Alliance Online platform. Raise Your Voice provides online courses on Fundraising, Communications and Advocacy, as well as one-on-one coaching for members who need extra help building their strategies. We aim at helping these amazing groups multiply their impact by building their skills, identifying revenue and leverage the power of social media. Sometimes, for a rural group in Africa, all you need is someone to take you through how to use Facebook and Twitter. We’ve had members who only accessed the internet once a month create the most wonderful Facebook page. They can then share their work and impact and build support.
What are some challenges you experienced through your job, and how did you overcome them?
The development sector (practitioners and donors) still don’t understand the power of movement-building and the importance of networks. We are still looking at the traditional development programming model, and it can be hard to convince people that building solidarity and trust is an integral part of ending poverty and inequalities. Also, gender issues are now mainstreamed, but women’s participation is still often tokenistic. We face many barriers in convincing decision-makers that rural women should have a seat at the table for example. We don’t want them to just tick a box, we want them to actually included women and take their contributions into account.
Can you share some of your experiences in Aceh, Cameroon, and the Caribbean?
Starting my career in Aceh was the best thing that could happen to me. I learned so much from the Acehnese people, their resilience, their open hearts. I think the post-tsunami Acehnese context was an example of the best version of development. Of course there were some mistakes, and money wasted, but local communities were for the most part included in the choices that affected their lives, from the shape of their new homes to the running of micro-finance programs. There was a true partnership between the people of Aceh, and the NGOs coming in to support the recovery of their province. Aceh taught me that development doesn’t work unless it is a partnership with the very people who are supposed to be benefiting from it.
My time in Cameroon taught me about the patience you need to work on social change, and how supporting local communities to be the drivers of that change is fundamental. Social change can only come from within a community. As an outsider, you simply do not hold that power. You can have all the right tools and understand the environment and context you are working in, social change is about insider champions. I learned to be the person who can identify and support those insider champions, and do so by not interfering with the work at the local level. It also taught me there is a lot of work to do with both women and men to end gender-based violence: often women are their own biggest enemies when it comes to disrupting stereotypes and harmful attitudes and beliefs. The work we did in Cameroon looked at working with the community as a whole, not just women or men.
In St Lucia, I went through a reality-check: sometimes as development practitioners, we can do more harm than good. The people of St Lucia have a very strong understanding of what they need to combat climate-change and gender inequalities. The problem is, the development community isn’t listening to them. Instead, major multilaterals are coming in with a set agenda, and pushing aside local priorities, certain to know what is “best” for the island. My work in St Lucia taught me to be humble about what I think I know and what I can bring to a situation. Mostly, it taught me to always listen to someone from a community before talking, and always self-criticize my own beliefs and certainties. As a development practitioner and a women’s rights advocate, that is the most important thing to do.
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Women’s empowerment matters to me because it is linked to everything else. We won’t build strong economies without women’s economic empowerment. We won’t build strong public health strategies and outcomes without women accessing their rights and adequate health services. I could go on forever. Women’s empowerment is the promise we can be better societies, better communities. If we were able to reach a model of gender equality for all, then a lot of the problems we have, the violence, the discrimination would end. For me, it really is about the bigger picture, the very best version of the collective us that we can aim for. And also, it’s a question of survival for so many women. We are living in a world that allows women to die every day in the hands of men, whatever continent you live on. There needs to be a strategy to get out of the cycle of violence. And strategies to empower women can offer ways out.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
It’s funny that I can’t choose one woman in particular… all I keep seeing when I ask myself that question are the hundreds of faces of women that I have had the privilege to sit down with, share a meal with, listen to. Those Tsunami survivors in Aceh who held their communities together after the horrific trauma they endured; the women in the Far North of Cameroon who continued organizing despite the threat of Boko Haram (a violent extremist group operating across Nigeria and Cameroon); and the elderly women in St Lucia trying to support younger single mothers in their communities. Those are the women whose strength and resilience inspires me to do what I do.
What advice do you have for future leaders of organizations focused on women’s roles in international development?
Be humble and value the inputs of those you are serving. Development is too often framed within western methodologies and knowledge. Take time to get to learn the local knowledge and methodologies, and incorporate them in everything you do.
What are your favorite books, website, films and resources related to women’s issues and international development?
Everyone should read Women’s Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms by Amrita Basu, as well as Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last, by Robert Chambers. I would also argue that a month living in a village or being embedded in a local women’s group counts as much as reading 100 books. Sometimes knowledge is better past from one advocate to another rather than through pages. The world is your classroom!