Building Evidence to Change Women’s Lives


By Miren Bengoa, Executive Director, Fondation CHANEL

This blog is part of a special series marking the launch of the updated
Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)


Girls benefit from Corstone in India

A saying that motivates our philanthropic work at Fondation CHANEL is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” This humble recognition drives us in filling our blind spots through evidence building so that we can succeed in delivering on our social mission to advance women and girls in society.

As a global private donor, we select amongst many filters to decide who and what to support. But how can we make those choices with greater confidence? For the past seven years, we have built a stronger knowledge base by compiling strategies from around the world that make a difference for girls and women. By cooperating with several grassroots and development organisations, social businesses and research institutions, the Foundation is bridging some gaps in understanding what works in which contexts and how to approach the complex social changes needed to reduce gender inequalities.

So what are the key stages for uncovering the unknown?

First and foremost, shedding light on established situations that impede women’s empowerment requires a pragmatic understanding of gender norms in specific contexts through objective data. The 2019 SIGI by the OECD Development Centre — as a major source of such data — shows substantive progress regarding legislation as well as the application of the law and popular beliefs on gender equality globally. Yet, deep disparities and prevalent discriminatory practices remain widespread. For example, women in France can fully access all professions, yet studies highlight the persistence of gender stereotypes in school textbooks, in the media, or even in public and political settings. It is striking to realise that in France, even if domestic violence legislation covers physical, sexual and psychological abuse, it can often fail to recognise economic abuse. Statistics show that women will earn an average 24%1 lower wage than their male counterparts, that they bear the greatest burden of unpaid care work and receive lower pensions due to interrupted or part-time careers.

It is thus important to see the actual reality hidden behind favorable gender equality rankings. How is this possible? Reality often builds from concrete case studies or reflects slow but steady evolutions in mindsets. Strikingly, pressure is growing to address these discrepancies between word and action. For instance, a series of recent scandals in France raised public concern about the absence of a minimum age for sexual consent. An open debate made it clear that new measures needed to be enforced to further recognise youth vulnerability to sexual abuse and appropriately defend their rights. In many other countries too, legal provisions to enforce women’s rights to inheritance or divorce are counteracted by ingrained cultural assumptions that say they are not full subjects of rights and cannot make their own decisions without male oversight.

Therefore, funders who aim to advance gender equality should invest time in researching current available data and deeper analysis. Getting closer to local realities helps. Consider the case of Corstone, a US-based educational NGO, that runs a resilience programme dedicated to adolescent girls in India. Corstone investigated and produced data to convey a full understanding of local customs and key realities facing rural, out-of-school girls in Bihar. Thanks to a field visit, Fondation CHANEL was convinced that this intervention was producing effective results, largely because it appropriately responds to an underlying problem. Parents are encouraged to send their girls to dedicated hostels where, given the protective environment, they benefit not only by gaining a basic education, but also by building their own sense of uniqueness and strength through resilience training. This has helped many girls to delay marriage and to pursue higher levels of training, leading to financial and personal independence. Following pilots in eight locations, this curriculum for girls’ increased assertiveness and resilience in vulnerable social contexts has now been fully endorsed by local authorities and will be scaled-up to the entire state. A context-specific approach can therefore be a powerful lever to attract and enhance philanthropic efficacy and build stronger, more sustainable social change.

Second and equally important, the local, context-specific understanding helps paint the big picture. Our context analyses improve our systematic scrutiny into the legal frameworks, key gender statistics, and the most significant social, economic and cultural barriers affecting women’s empowerment. Thanks to this knowledge, it becomes easier to select top focus areas. From the outset, Fondation CHANEL has developed an integrated approach to gender equality, discarding narrow thematic interventions in favor of broader cross-sectional programmes. These interventions use such entry points as vocational training, improving access to reproductive health or entrepreneurship, but apply a broader gender lens to the context to appropriately respond to larger issues affecting girls and women. Encouraging access to sports, culture, technology or leadership skills are all effective strategies that can complement health or educational programmes.

We believe that sex-disaggregated data, sociological studies and evidence of what is acceptable or not in a given context are key for long-term change to occur, particularly for the most marginalised. Acknowledging and understanding social norms bring us much closer to designing effective and acceptable support strategies. These serve to promote women as agents of change and help to measure progress. It can drastically contribute to uncovering the lived experiences and beliefs by which women are integrated into society. It can involve both women and men in raising awareness of gender discrimination and proposing culturally sensitive opportunities and approaches to reduce such discrimination. And if the rich information available through the SIGI is widely shared and used, development workers, decision-makers and funders will have a chance to invest more in addressing the underlying causes of this discrimination. Ultimately, achieving gender equality is a complex challenge that requires systemic consideration of social norms, local context and innovative strategies to empower women globally — and this all starts with the right evidence.

Source: OECD (2019), Gender, Institutions and Development Database

1. The latest figure published by the French Ministry for Gender is 24% (Insee 2014).