Strategies for change left illustration
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Learning from examples

Strategies for change

How can you promote gender equality through volunteerism? See some examples from countries that can be adapted and scaled up in line with context-specific needs.

The first five categories focus on how volunteering can be better shaped to support gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Data and evidence approaches

Invest in statistics on volunteering and gender

Improving gender-disaggregated data is crucial for understanding any gender dimensions of volunteer work. Several countries have already made commitments to measure the care economy (for example, Ecuador in 2008, Colombia 2010 and Peru in 2011) (Scuro Somma, 2020); measuring inequalities in volunteer work as part of this can shed even more light on unpaid work dynamics.

National data on volunteerism are being increasingly included in employment statistics, and, where available, can be found on the ILOSTAT database. National statistics agencies can collect data on volunteer work using these tools for Labour Force Surveys, rapid surveys and population censuses. When questions on volunteer work are included in nationally representative surveys, demographic data on age, disability and ethnicity can be explored in addition to gender, thus allowing for a better understanding of volunteerism inequalities.

Integrate volunteering as a form of work and a form of participation for national gender equality audits and assessments

Many countries have a national gender equality body or other institution which carries out regular reviews of public policies and policy implementation. For example, the 2011 National Policy for Gender Equality of Jamaica highlights the need to gather data on women’s unpaid work in the household and beyond and to estimate the economic value of this work under the Bureau of Women’s Affairs.9 This is one of five outcome areas monitored by Jamaica’s Gender Advisory Committee, which includes Ministers and others who can support the necessary budget allocations and legislation in parliament.

Countries often have a framework for auditing or assessing gender equality indicators, which include data on issues closely related to volunteerism (for example on gender and labour, or gender and civic participation). Integrating dimensions of volunteerism in these areas can help keep focus and attention on this issue while also ensuring accountability of the relevant stakeholders.

Addressing gendered barriers to volunteering

Include gender messaging in volunteer recognition campaigns

Campaigns and other initiatives can help update social norms around volunteering. For example, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation have both worked to promote volunteerism and improve its recognition through “year of volunteering” initiatives, held in 2020 and 2018 respectively. Under this initiative, the Russian Federation implemented a new standard on volunteering support, which has been rolled out in regions throughout the country. The Russian Federation also set up an association of volunteer centres, a national online platform and many other initiatives (such as a federal awards competition) to highlight the contributions of volunteers. However, in contexts where local norms around volunteer work are gendered, such recognition initiatives can also include specific messaging and activities aimed at increasing participation among a certain demographic, or encouraging people to volunteer in occupational sectors less associated with their own gender.

Address gender-specific safety and security concerns

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is one of the world’s largest volunteer organizations. The IFRC and its members have researched the gendered risks of volunteering in crises and conflict, and provide a number of resources including psychosocial support for volunteers.12 The United States Peace Corps also provides training and resources on the safety and security of volunteers. In 2019, the International Forum for Volunteering in Development launched a new global standard for volunteering which includes dimensions relating to safeguarding and duty of care.

Mitigate gender resource gaps

Volunteer activities not only rely on volunteers’ time and efforts, but require a minimum level of infrastructure or material resources to enable participation. Where gender gaps exist, perhaps in terms of time availability, material or financial resources to participate, or access to technologies, these can be reduced to ensure that opportunities to participate are more equal. For example, a 2018 study showed that in developing countries, boys are twice as likely to own a smartphone as girls, and even if girls were able to borrow phones, their usage was limited compared with their male counterparts.13 Although not specifically gender- targeted, in Peru, the Bicentennial Special Project worked with phone companies to provide data free of charge for volunteers running a COVID-19 helpline for vulnerable persons.14 Such public-private collaboration can be used to improve access to resources in order to enable participation in volunteering where gender gaps also exist.

Address sector segregation in volunteering

Addressing sector bias in volunteering opportunities may require specific programmes or investments aimed at breaking down barriers or providing new opportunities. Technovation Girls Mexico brings together public and private partners from the education, technology and recruitment sectors to enable female mentors to teach girls about information and communications technology (ICT), specifically app development. So far 1,200 girls have benefited from the programme, including Lilia Arceli Lobato Martínez, who won the first-place cash prize in 2016 to further develop her app that promotes volunteerism in Mexico (see annex 1).

Challenging the gendered distribution of volunteer work

Include relevant volunteer work in policies to reduce the burden of unpaid care work

From a policy perspective, there is increasing interest in reducing the burden of unpaid care work, as this can have multiplier effects for women’s social, economic and political empowerment. Care policies can allocate public resources to recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work. Examples of such policies include:

  • the provision of care services for children and elderly people, or groups with specific needs (for example people with chronic illnesses)
  • care-related social protection transfers for individuals with care responsibilities
  • the provision of public infrastructure to facilitate care work
  • labour regulations that contribute to achieving a better balance between paid employment and unpaid care work, such as leave with pay policies.

Based on national gender policies (such as those in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago), the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has called for the development of a regional policy framework that can help countries implement policies that promote a more equal sharing of unpaid care work between men and women, thus enabling women to participate more fully in the paid labour force. Such work should go beyond that carried out in the household to include women’s community care work, including supporting people with home-based health-care needs (such as those living with cancers, HIV or AIDS), taking care of public hygiene facilities and providing labour to households without economically active members (households headed by children or elderly people). Such policy priorities can be addressed through gender-responsive budgets (box 5.1).

Box 5.1.
Gender-responsive budgets
Support men’s participation in non-traditional community volunteer work

Another way to reduce gender inequalities in volunteer work is to better involve other groups to meet priority needs, thus leading to fairer distribution. For example, the School for Husbands is an initiative in Niger which brings together women and men to discuss priority issues, including sexual and reproductive health needs. The men attend meetings twice a month that are supervised by the district head of health, who introduces them to topics such as family planning and maternal health. This initiative encourages men to involve themselves in community health more broadly, taking on roles in relation to community water, sanitation and hygiene, which are often left to women. The meetings and lessons can be assisted by other important members of the community, such as religious leaders, if deemed necessary. Model husbands share information in their villages and contribute to other initiatives, such as building sanitation infrastructure. The schools also encourage men to participate in household chores and to help their wives with these duties (for more information, see annex 1.)

Use incentives to address gender imbalances in volunteer work

Volunteer incentives are a complex issue that have mixed results in terms of shaping rates of voluntary participation. For example, a 2017 study of BRAC volunteers in Bangladesh found that volunteer incentives had contradictory impacts on volunteers depending on their primary motivations. Similarly, a study from the United States found that financial incentives may in fact negatively impact the pro-social image and value associated with volunteering, in turn adversely impacting participation. Although financial and non-financial incentives should not be the primary motivation for volunteer work, it may be reasonable to consider whether and how incentives could be used to reduce the burden of volunteering, particularly for vulnerable groups, as well as shift gender norms in volunteering. For example, granting health insurance to volunteers can not only provide important coverage to those who participate, but may also help increase voluntary participation more widely in society. The 2006 Korean Basic Law on the Promotion of Volunteering and the 2005 Bolivian Law on Volunteerism include clauses on volunteer insurance, while in Poland, volunteers are eligible for state health benefits if they are not covered by any other activity (employment or education).

Promoting women’s voice and leadership through volunteering

Civic engagement and political representation

In Uttarakhand (India), local women began engaging with formal governance structures after developing new skills, capacity, knowledge and the ability to collectively organize from local volunteer activities. With the support of a local community-based organization, the Uttarakhand Environmental Education Centre, a social movement worked to organize informal women’s groups to discuss issues on running and maintaining preschool education centres. Groups began to establish themselves around these preschool centres in different villages, eventually developing into an informal network of over 450 groups spread across seven districts in Uttarakhand. The inclusion of a woman volunteer from every family in the village, irrespective of caste and economic status was a key organizing principle of the groups, encouraged by theUttarakhand Environmental Education Centre. Women’s engagement in these collective processes has helped build knowledge, establish networks and foster norms of inclusion. Several women from the groups have been subsequently elected as ward members, block committee members or representatives of the village panchayat (council) (Sharma and Sudharshan, 2010).

Women’s voice and leadership in conflicts

Under the European Union Aid Volunteers initiative, ActionAid developed the Gender Sensitive Humanitarian Aid Volunteering (GESHAVO) project, which worked to better involve and support women in protracted crises. In Zimbabwe, the Rural Women’s Assembly enables women to be at the forefront of prioritizing humanitarian support, including food distribution. In Jordan, Women’s Protection Action Groups (WPAGs) are helping to increase levels of safety, resilience and active involvement in decision-making for women in their local communities.

African Women’s Health Champions

In 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) together with UNV launched the African Women’s Health Champions initiative. The programme will support over 100 health professionals in epidemiology, public health, research and emergency management, among others, to boost women’s representation in the sector. It aims to produce the continent’s next generation of women leaders in health.

Building value around women’s volunteer work

National efforts to recognize women’s unpaid work

Trinidad and Tobago’s National Policy on Gender and Development contains a detailed section on unpaid economic activities and domestic and family life, which highlights how women’s work is often invisible in economic analysis and planning. The lack of recognition for unpaid reproductive activities carried out by women, including unpaid agricultural work as family workers on farms and within family businesses, was identified as an emerging area of concern for policy intervention. Among the measures identified for implementation in the Trinidad and Tobago policy are the following:

  • the collation, analysis and publication of findings from census data on unremunerated household work, consistent with the requirements of the Counting Unremunerated Work Act of 1996, to provide statistical data on the contribution of unpaid household work to national development
  • the examination of sex-disaggregated data and increased research on unpaid work in various sectors, including agriculture and family businesses, within formal and informal contexts, as a basis for the allocation of resources for the training and development of unpaid workers
  • the development of programmes aimed at increasing understanding of the value and visibility of housework and other forms of unremunerated work, including initiatives to encourage increased male participation in housework, childcare and other areas deemed to be ‘women’s work’ and which are normally unremunerated
  • the provision of increased innovative opportunities for women and men engaged in unpaid housework to access ICT, lifelong learning and part-time, short-term and long-term income earning possibilities, which also include contemporary employment strategies that allow individuals to work from home or take extended leave from work to care for young children and elderly people, and to return to the job market without penalty and loss of opportunities (Stuart, 2014).


Policies and investments to formalize unpaid work

Where social safety nets and public service infrastructure are lacking, the need for unpaid service delivery through volunteering increases. Transitioning invisible and unpaid work into the formal labour market is therefore a long-term strategy that not only creates employment, but gives women and vulnerable groups greater time and resources to invest in productive work, rather than reproductive work. In 2018, the ILO suggested that over 269 million new care jobs could be created by 2030 through recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work.Critical areas for investment and support include the provision of care for children and elderly people. Countries with higher public spending in these areas have reduced unpaid care work, even controlling for levels of economic development.Other macro policies that may influence levels of unpaid work include tax rates, though rates for secondary earners can also be an important factor, as can high wage gaps between men and women, which discourages labour force participation and increases unpaid work in homes and communities among women.

Accreditation and certification

Another way to give value and visibility to volunteer work is to link it to opportunities to gain and demonstrate skills and experience that are transferable, particularly for securing paid employment. This is an area where authorities can work closely with academia and learning institutions, as well as the private sector. For example, in Slovakia, the Platform of Volunteer Centres and Organizations has an online tool for skill certification awarded by Matej Bel University. UNV also piloted a skills certification programme in Latin America in partnership with a number of corporations including Axa, Vodafone, Telefonica and Deloitte. However, until now such approaches have often focused on volunteers in further education or early career skills development. Thus, there is a need to link to the unpaid work of women and men, specifically to help volunteers leverage those experiences to assist with entry or re-entry into labour markets. The CARE Campus is one example of an initiative developed by academic institutions and the private and public sectors to support the development of a comprehensive training programme for formal and informal caregivers in Europe. Similarly, the i-CARE project sought to back certification for informal migrant caregivers in Cyprus and Greece in order to support the professionalization of care work.

The next final two categories provide examples of how volunteering activities and results can contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Volunteering to support gender needs and priorities

Volunteering for women’s economic empowerment

In 2019, Oman presented a Voluntary National Review (VNR) to the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development, which documented how volunteer-led initiatives and a network of women’s voluntary associations are providing women with opportunities to learn skills for economic participation and employment. Similarly, in its 2020 VNR, the Solomon Islands documents that the West ‘Are’Are Rokotanikeni Association (WARA), a women-led, volunteer-run savings club with branches across the country (including remote areas), is helping women to learn about managing finances and storing their savings safely. In the savings club’s 10-year existence, the number of women volunteers has increased each year, over 1,000 loans have been taken out and over a million Solomon Islands dollars have been saved.

Addressing men’s health needs through volunteerism

According to WHO, mental health problems contribute significantly to global disease and disability. Although women and men are equally likely to be affected by mental health challenges, gender can be an important determinant of the type of mental health problems and experiences of women and men, including health- seeking behaviour among those with a mental illness. For example, with the exception of China and parts of India, the rate of suicide among men is three times higher than among women.Some volunteer-led mental health services provide specific types of support for women and men in line with their needs, such as the Kenya Red Cross, which trains local men’s health champions in informal settlements. These male volunteers provide psychosocial support to their community peers, linking them to any relevant services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the workloads of these champions has greatly increased, due to mass employment, anxiety and ill-health among family members.

Gendered vulnerabilities in conflict and crises

Different social groups can experience specific risks and vulnerabilities in conflicts and crises. As such, it is important to ensure that all groups have a voice and are represented in decision-making on protection and assistance. Evidence shows that engaging women in disaster planning can significantly reduce their risk and mortality. During Cyclone Gorky in Bangladesh (1991) the number of women that died outnumbered men at a rate of 14:1. Sixteen years later, during Cyclone Sidr, the rate had decreased to 5:1. In the years in between, many community-based disaster preparedness groups (several of which were led by women) developed disaster response plans, including enhanced early warning and evacuation plans, which helped to significantly reduce death tolls.

The Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work (see annex 1) in Turkey (formed in 1986) works to create a more equal society by promoting grass-roots women’s leadership and empowerment though poverty elimination, disaster preparedness and response, and the participation of low-income women in decision- making processes. During the response to the İzmit earthquake in 1999, the organization served as a meeting place for women to offer support to other women, provide services for children and work with young volunteers to help distribute humanitarian aid, with their roles later expanding to include establishing centres for women and children where women could self-organize, redistribute relief goods to the most vulnerable and involve themselves in their camp’s management duties to improve food and sanitation services and organize livelihood activities. The lessons learned during the post-disaster efforts showed possible ways to empower women through increasing their access to resources, capacity-building and self-confidence in leadership roles.

Box 5.2.
Practical and strategic gender needs and interests
Volunteering for strategic change and gender-equal societies

National strategies and plans on volunteerism and gender equality

In 2017, the Government of India partnered with UNV and UNDP to develop an action plan for the growth of youth volunteerism in the area of gender equality and justice (for more information, see annex 1). The action plan seeks to ensure that the country’s youth volunteering structures and institutions are genderresponsive, help young people to understand the principles of gender equality and justice, encourage women and members of the LGBTI community to participate in volunteering activities, and protect and promote their rights.

The action plan has identified three targets that it expects to achieve by mobilizing young volunteers. The first target is to address the root causes of gender inequality, which stem from the traditional values that are instilled in individuals from an early age and that present a barrier to women’s full participation in society. The second target is to increase young people’s awareness about gender equality and justice, thus breaking the cycle of intergenerational gender bias. The third target is to bring innovation to gender equality and justice through the participation of dynamic young volunteers.

To achieve its targets, the action plan benefits from the capacity of young people, who act as agents of social change. Lasting positive social change can be achieved through educating younger generations on the need for gender equality, justice and non-discrimination. A particularly noteworthy feature of this action plan is that it not only focuses on gender equality and non-discrimination between men and women, but also highlights the needs of other marginalized groups, such as members of the LGBTI community and Dalit women.

State programmes on the rights of and opportunities for transgender people

In India, the Department of Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (SSEPD) of the Government of Odisha has developed the Sweekruti scheme, which aims to promote transgender equality and justice under Constitutional article 14 (equality before the law) and article 41 (right to work, education and public assistance), among others. The scheme ensures that third gender people are able to secure registration cards giving them right to access services, as well as targeted support including grants for access to training and employment opportunities. The initiative also works more broadly within communities via volunteers to build understanding and acceptance of transgender persons in order to tackle violence, discrimination and marginalization.

Addressing norms and values

Volunteers often help disseminate messages, act as role models of positive behaviours and convene spaces for interaction and discussion on gender issues. Through the Youth-Mullah Gender Volunteer Caravans in Afghanistan, for example, young Afghan men and women spread gender equality messages. In the Arab States region, UN-Women, Wikimedia, Empower Women, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and volunteer champions launched the HERstory project, which highlights women’s contributions in history, politics, science, technology, leadership and religion, and enhances gender equality content on Wikipedia to close the gender knowledge gap.