Description of GWIA by ITDG

The Grassroots Women’s International Academy GWIA –
A grassroots methodology for knowledge building and knowledge transfer

Background and Justification

Throughout the world informal and some more formally organized women’s groups and associations are active in their settlements and communities. They function to provide social support and organize improvement and development activities that have an economic development role as well.

Despite this presence the organizations of women rarely rise above a largely local and small-scale level of activity. In many cases the potential for grassroots women’s groups and organizations to become immersed in the regional, national and global debates and policy formulation has barely been realized.

  • Issues of concern for many grassroots women include:
    ? Quality of urban living spaces,
    ? family health,
    ? sustainable housing,
    ? reconciliation of family and work,
    ? increased involvement of fathers in family and household,
    ? social inclusion,
    ? gender sensitive public transportation,
    ? income generation and livelihood,
    ? safe water supply and sanitation,
    ? waste collection,
    ? women and child friendly cities,
    ? efficient, accountable and transparent governance,
    ? community education.

Most countries have legislation or policy recommendations on all or most of these issues but inevitably these were drawn up by experts and professionals close to the political powers. Consultations with people affected by these policies are often limited and selective. Additionally, the link between national policy issues and action at the grassroots level is likely to be tenuous. The two processes generally do not support and reinforce each other.

The Grassroots Women’s International Academy (GWIA) was set up to promote knowledge sharing and learning among local women’s groups and organizations throughout the world. This focused on women meeting at organized learning events to discuss their experiences and find ways of how they could become better at addressing local development needs and link their initiatives to the wider policy questions. GWIA was not intended to replace formal education and training processes but to develop more synergy between them. It aimed to highlight the experiential and tacit learning many people undertake through managing their everyday lives. People rarely get the opportunity to share the knowledge acquired in this way beyond their immediate level of contacts and in very informal ways.
GWIA History

The Grassroots Women’s International Academy (GWIA) was first conducted in Germany during the Expo 2000 and has since been repeated in several countries and at several international occasions by international grassroots women’s networks. It was designed and produced by members of the Mother Center International Network (mine) as a format to create ownership and visibility for grassroots knowledge and conducted in partnership with Groots International and the Huairou Commission. The worldwide Expo 2000 event that was held in Hannover in Germany was a good opportunity to reach a large audience with the objectives of GWIAs and to highlight the significance of local grassroots knowledge for extending community development initiatives.

Before Expo 2000 two preliminary GWIAs were organized among European grassroots groups to develop the processes and to create interest among potential participants for the Expo GWIAs. In 1998 a GWIA was held which focussed on multicultural grassroots women’s work in Western Europe. The 1999 GWIA gathered together grassroots womens’ groups from Central and Eastern Europe to define a grassroots women’s perspective on development in post-socialist countries.

At these GWIAs women were able to present and discuss case studies from their own experiences and to identify common factors between them. They laid the groundwork for the organization of the processes for the GWIAs at Expo 2000.

Meanwhile eleven Grassroots Women’s International Academies have been held.

A step towards creating a sustainable structure for GWIA has been undertaken
in the creation of the Nest! Foundation that hosts the GWIA website and has
published the GWIA handbook. The Nest! Foundation has been awarded the 2006 Dubai Award for the Transfer of Best Practices for the Grassroots Women’s International Academy (GWIA). This is a biannual award of the UN Habitat program of Best Practices for the Improvement of the Living Environment.
Strengthening the Capacity

Education was the purpose of GWIAs; but the focus was that this needed to be connected to and benefit the community, rather than be seen as a commodity on the market to promote upward mobility and secure individual careers. Education would then be a tool for empowerment, a method to understand systems that base their power on competition and exclusion, a tool to see through mystifications and ambiguity, and to challenge directions based on ignorance and hidden agendas.

GWIAs aim to construct educational space, in which grassroots expertise is mirrored both horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, grassroots groups support each other in understanding the implications of their own practice and share knowledge about their experiences. Vertically, participants develop an understanding of how their experiences and knowledge can influence institutions and policies to place their concerns and issues into the mainstream. The latter process also involves the participation of institutional representatives.

In GWIAs community groups are profiled and recognized as experts. GWIAs are about increasing the negotiation power of community groups, by bringing to the forefront first hand knowledge in an educational format. Grassroots expertise is often not framed as knowledge, as it does not come out of professional channels. GWIAs focus on identifying and documenting grassroots expertise in its own right and producing a basis for dialogue with mainstream partners. GWIAs enable the creation of channels through which grassroots issues and grassroots knowledge can be structured, without losing grassroots authenticity and ownership.

Mainstream education systems often fail to address grassroots ways of learning and creating and managing knowledge because they overlook grassroots values and priorities in education and knowledge building. This creates a schism, a culture and power gap between knowledge on the ground and mainstream public knowledge. GWIAs are intended as an educational setting that enables grassroots groups to form global linkages and learn from each other. At the same time it enables mainstream partners to perceive and learn from grassroots learning systems and the wisdom gathered on the ground.

The GWIA format developed through the two preliminary GWIAs had been shown to present suitable opportunities for peer learning as well as for scaling up of grassroots practices. It was designed in a way that created space for horizontal reflection and collective analysis of what was happening at the grassroots level. It was a medium for community leaders and movement builders to meet and exchange experience, in order to harvest and organize grassroots knowledge from their own perspective.

Much of the grassroots wisdom is held in places so widely dispersed that it is difficult for others to access it, and thus it enters the channels of public decision making very inadequately. GWIAs stimulate a process where grassroots groups engage in translating their practical knowledge into something that can be used in education and policy.

Components of GWIAs included some or all of the following, depending on the priorities and knowledge of the participants:

  • Organizing the Group
    Tools for Organizing
    Conflict Resolution and Leadership Development
    Women’s Education and Training Methods
    Engendering Local Governance
    Governance Models
    Advocacy Tools
    Partnering Skills
    Community Development
    Housing and Urban Planning
    Social Cohesion
    Safety of Neighbourhoods
    Accessing Resources
    Financial Management
    Savings and Credit
    Tools for Income Generation and Livelihood
    Protecting the Environment
    Sustainable Farming
    Waste Management
    Forest Protection
    Basic Services
    Disaster Resilience
    Neighbourhood Services

For the facilitation team the GWIAs have also been a learning experience on how to improve their organization and understanding the potential GWIAs can realize. The participants in the GWIAs gained much new valuable knowledge that they were able to use and develop within their own communities and in partnership with other community groups and development organizations.

There are numerous examples of incidental learning achieved by the GWIA participants. The women’s group from Honduras, for example, found out about food products from cassava the group from Cameroon were making and selling. Afterwards they set up a successful stall selling cassava products in Honduras. GWIAs have also helped women’s groups improve the organization of their credit and savings activities.
The Scaling-up Experience

The main component of scaling up of the GWIAs was the organization of the Expo 2000 events. This brought together 60 grassroots women’s groups from throughout the world. The groups contributing to the GWIA came from Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Latin America, Europe and North America. Over 25 countries were represented. Six one week GWIA events were held during Expo 2000.

Subsequent GWIAs were also held during the General Assembly Special Session on Habitat II+5 at the UN headquarters in New York in 2001 and in preparation for the International Conference on Aids and STIs in Africa (ICASA) in 2003. A GWIA on Engendering Local Governance as part of the World Urban Forum in Barcelona in 2004 in cooperation with United Cities and Cordaid highlighted grassroots women’s strategies for partnerships with local authorities and local community leadership. Preceding the World Urban Forum 2006 in Vancouver a GWIA was conducted on the theme “Women Building Sustainable Communities Amid Rapid Urbanization and Decentralization”.

The organizing of GWIAs at these prestigious international events has enabled their profile to be raised. It has allowed public sector decision makers to participate in them and to explore the synergies and constraints for the public authorities and grassroots groups to work together better for the solution of problems with common objectives. The GWIAs have also greatly facilitated the effective participation of individual women and groups in the important decision making forums of these global events and promoted active advocacy from the grassroots.

GWIAs have provided a way for many grassroots women’s groups throughout the world to connect to each other. Their learning experiences have helped them to create better a range of capabilities to facilitate their local development initiatives and making linkages to other organizations for accessing resources, skills and capacities for making change happen.

GWIAS have resulted in the transfer and scaling up of several grassroots women’s best practices, of which the following are some examples:

  • ? Community controlled financial assets in India promoted by SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) and SSP (Swayam Shikan Prayog – Self-learning for Empowerment). This has inspired Mother Centres in Germany and Bosnia to adopt the Indian community-based savings and credit model in their local environments. They are using savings and credit groups as a key strategy for strengthening financial self-confidence and self reliance and for strengthening solidarity and social bonding in the group. The groups have enhanced the financial empowerment of vulnerable groups, like unemployed women, single parents and women on social welfare. This has been a remarkable example of the transfer of a development process from the South to the North.
  • ? Community Mapping and Information Gathering as a Governance Tool in India and Turkey. GROOTS International organized exchanges and study visits between groups from two earthquake hit regions. The groups were SSP in India and the Foundation for the Support of Women’s Work in Turkey. The Turkish women learned from their grassroots sisters in India how to organize community women and how to be at the forefront of reconstruction after natural disasters.  Following the Marmara earthquake in Turkey, women in the affected communities conducted  surveys in the prefabricated temporary settlements to identify house owners and tenants, to find out the extent to which houses were damaged in the earthquake and to map the locations of shops, markets, schools, medical services and community centres. The information gathered by the women was used to challenge government  information on the extent to which houses were inhabitable and to discuss ways of improving access to services. The women invited local officials for a discussion of their concerns in the process of resettlement. The method of gathering information and conducting community surveys as a governance and partnership building tool, was piloted by SPARC and SSP in India and successfully transferred to Turkish communities.
  • ? Leadership Support Process (LSP) – a Grassroots Approach to Collective Leadership, developed by the National Congress of Neighbourhood Women in the USA. LSP is a method to encourage grassroots women to reflect on and create visibility for the leadership qualities they demonstrate in community initiatives. Debates are structured through a set of carefully defined questions. Recognition and equity for the contributions of each participant are intrinsic to the process. This provides safety and trust, beyond social, cultural and ethnic diversity. The LSP method was transferred first to the Netherlands and Germany and then to Bosnia, through the Groots and MINE networks. Workshops for the trainers were conducted by the National Congress of Neighbourhood Women in Germany. This was done in cooperation with the regional network of Mother Centres in Baden Wuerttemberg in Germany. The trainers graduating from these courses, are replicating the LSP methodology further in Europe.

Participants in the Process

It is the women’s groups themselves who are the most important participants in the GWIA processes. Many groups and organisations present their experiences and highlight the issues that are important for them at the GWIAs. These have included mothers of soldiers in the Russian army highlighting the issue of violence on and among recruits and how they have been addressing this, a rural women’s grassroots organization in Zimbabwe who are managing their own development without donor support, and women’s groups in Cameroon who have reintroduced the growing of the staple crop of cassava, which has prompted some people to return from urban areas back to their rural villages.

The subsequent GWIAs at Habitat II+5, ICASA and the World Urban Forum have enabled many of the groups from the original Expo 2000 GWIAs to continue their learning experiences, discuss additional issues and increase their skills of organizing GWIAs. Other groups have joined the GWIAs for these events, so they have become a growing movement. Increasing dialogue with policy makers during these events has been a characteristic of the most recent GWIAs. At the World Urban Forum events there were extensive discussions with senior officials and mayors from local authorities throughout the world who were also attending the forum.

The women who took part in the GWIAs had a diversity of backgrounds. Some were from developing countries, others were from Eastern European transition countries or from Western Europe or North America. Some were active in rural areas while others focused on the urban context. Some focused on practical development projects within their local areas while others had an advocacy and lobbying base. Despite this the groups found that they had a lot of synergies between the issues and problems they faced. They were able to share their experiences of how they were addressing these from different perspectives. The diversity of the groups in fact contributed to the success of the GWIAs.

The level to which institutional partners have become increasingly involved in GWIAs is another strength of the project. GWIAs offer policy makers, donors and other partners, an opportunity to gain insight into what works on the ground and what the implications are for effective and efficient policy making. In a step by step process GWIA provides space for joint analysis of the innovations on the ground and the conditions and strategies for transfer and scaling up.
Dissemination and Communications Issues

The GWIA process was developed as a tool to enhance opportunities for self determined action by self reflection and a comprehensive understanding of the environment by women involved in grassroots actions. The grassroots groups were not targets or beneficiaries of education or knowledge dissemination. They were the originators of a body of knowledge extracted from their own experience and their own learning.

The case for GWIAs is evident by the way knowledge is generated, accessed, controlled and used in our societies through mainstream knowledge systems. These have to a large extent failed to address the persistent problems of poverty and lack of sustainable development, despite in many cases abundant natural, human and information resources at the local level. The experiences of local women’s groups and other community organizations are often not documented in the usual formats that are used to disseminate global information. Their practices are more vulnerable to being misappropriated by mainstream actors, who are better equipped with packaging and dissemination tools.

GWIAs aim to challenge the inadequacies, barriers and limitations of mainstream information and knowledge streams by enabling women active at the grassroots to articulate and share their experiences and develop the tools to disseminate them. Formats like the GWIA are needed for grassroots groups to claim their knowledge and disseminate and scale up their practices in their own name. GWIAs were created as a tool for grassroots groups to enhance their power by identifying, controlling and owning their own intellectual property. GWIAs produce a strategy to bring ownership back to the level of the grassroots, where many solutions are generated. GWIAs are intended as a long term process of identifying and claiming grassroots knowledge and setting up learning and transfer systems, in which grassroots women teach and disseminate their own expertise.

Grassroots women’s body of knowledge is gained from everyday life, from practical experience and from a wealth of cultural and spiritual traditions. It is knowledge that is often transferred in oral form and based on community relationships. GWIAs were set up to build on these formats through developing dialogues, reaching consensus and creating relationships.

GWIAs were designed to build and strengthen partnerships and alliances and to link grassroots and professional expertise. Interactive joint problem solving sessions between grassroots women’s groups and partners from government, international agencies, churches, academia, foundations as well as the private sector, are an integral part of the GWIA format.

GWIAs host an environment which invites cross-sectoral discussion and learning and facilitates a cross-fertilization of experience and perspective from both grassroots and mainstream actors. The GWIA partner dialogues contribute to collectively defining the issues and challenges that are best dealt with in partnerships and to understanding the roles each partner can play in joining forces for joint advocacy.

The GWIA format consists of ten elements:
? Peer learning
? Resource orientation
? Taking time to go into the matter
? Culture and enabling infrastructure
? Curriculum based training
? Tracking of learning
? Gender mainstreaming
? Extracting policy implications and lessons learned
? The partner dialogues
? Documentation and training products.

An active group of women are now taking the GWIA process forward at the regular GWIA events. However, the process is not exclusive and new groups are joining. A feature of GWIAs has been the extent to which all the groups, both those with experience of the process and those undertaking it for the first time, have been able to contribute usefully and learn from the process.

A website has been set up on GWIAs ( This presents the objectives of and some of the participants in GWIAs as well as details of the proceedings of each of the GWIA events. GWIA events have been followed up by a regular newsletter sent to participants, as well as exchange visits organised through the mine and Groots International networks.
Highlights and Achievements

The Grassroots Women’s International Academies have become a very successful format for generating and disseminating knowledge from the bottom up. Investing in grassroots women’s processes of capacity building proves an essential element in creating a sustainable future.

More than 60 grassroots women’s organizations from the South and the North have participated in the GWIAs and have been brought together to support and reinforce each other’s development and advocacy initiatives. They have learnt through dialogue about each other’s knowledge and experiences and have applied the lessons through their own activities.

GWIA processes have been developed and extended through a committed group of activists and innovators who have organized the GWIAs. Each successive GWIA has been able to achieve more, particularly in linking grassroots groups to policy and decision makers and institutions.

The organization of GWIAs at high profile global events such as Expo 2000 has done a lot to raise the visibility of grassroots women as organizers, innovators and facilitators in their own communities. This ‘piggyback’ effect has proved to be quite successful. GWIAs have brought to the fore and given validity to the women’s knowledge acquired within their own organizations and from the local events and activities they have been involved with. They have given more confidence to the women in planning and organizing their activities and enabled them to get the support and endorsement of other women throughout the world who have taken part in GWIAs.
Lessons Learnt

The GWIA process has gone a considerable way to counteracting the practice of ignoring, misappropriating and rendering invisible knowledge generated outside the mainstream institutions. GWIAs have been shown to be tools for grassroots groups to enhance their power by identifying, controlling and owning their own intellectual property. The format of the GWIAs has enabled areas of common ground to be recognized across cultural and national differences and have proved useful and relevant to women whether they were from the South, Western countries, or Eastern transition countries. The factors that have contributed to the success of GWIAs include:

  • ? Getting decision and policy makers such as governments, international agencies, churches, academia, foundations as well as the private sector, involved as participants in GWIAs is important for increasing the effectiveness of the process. In this way policy makers can also found out about what issues are really important for people in their settlements and communities.
    ? The process starts from the participants own knowledge. It aims not to try to teach them in the formal or conventional sense; instead the process is about facilitating the women to learn from each other and create and develop new knowledge in the process. Participation is at the core of the process.
    ? The process aims to highlight the knowledge of the participants and how this is relevant to the policy environment that affects their lives. Involving the women with policy and decision makers at the GWIA events is important for them to negotiate better with organizations in their own locations that have an impact on their lives.
    ? The process highlights the strengths and capabilities of the participants and puts them at the centre of development processes. This has also been amply demonstrated by the roles played by women in reconstruction and rebuilding of the social fabric following natural disasters and other disruptive events. Involving participants so closely in this way contributes significantly to development being sustainable. People at the grassroots are the ones who are most knowledgeable about the issues and problems that affect them; they are the ones who have most to gain from these being addressed, and will actively work with organizations that recognize their capabilities.
    ? GWIAs have been effective at promoting leadership and other skills among the participants.
    ? The experience grassroots women have gained from their everyday lives has to be highlighted as fundamental to the development of mainstream knowledge and policies. At the GWIA events the women were able to do this for themselves.

Further Information

For a detailed description of the 10 elements constituting a GWIA see the GWIA Handbook, which can be ordered at

For further reference and literature on the Grassroots Women’s International Academy (GWIA) see the gwia website: