Feminist approaches to online consultations and what they reveal

Lessons learned from talking peace with women in Yemen.

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In March 2021, in partnership with the Office of the Special Envoy for the Secretary-General to Yemen (OSESGY), Build Up held ten focus group consultations over WhatsApp with 93 women from different governorates across the country. The aim was to gauge opinions, perspectives, and insights on peace and conflict in Yemen, and how protracted insecurity affects women’s daily lives.

These focus group consultations built on two previous pieces of work. In late 2020, Build Up administered a survey via WhatsApp to identify topics related to peace that women would want to discuss further (results of this survey were reported separately). In February 2021, Build Up conducted a tactical mapping to identify a diverse network of women to participate in focus group discussions, and a light exploration of conversations on social media to validate and expand upon the topics identified in the survey.

Build Up’s research team paid close attention to the design of these consultations, incorporating feminist research approaches; the first part of this post shares how we integrated a feminist perspective to an online consultation. The consultations also revealed new, intersectional perspectives on what women think about peace in Yemen; the second part of this post shares headlines of our key findings.

Feminist research: what, why and how

You may be asking yourself: what’s feminism got to do with research? At Build Up, we think feminism is central to research design. As peacebuilders, we have a responsibility to highlight patterns of exclusion and gendered bias and challenges, and conduct analysis that looks at how all factors in a person’s life contribute to increasing or decreasing their marginalization. Feminist research methodologies have emerged as a response to concerns by feminist scholars about the limitations and constraints of traditional research methodologies that consistently fail to register patriarchy as a power variable. Those challenges include the ability to capture the experiences of women and others who have been marginalized in research and knowledge production, and therefore by much of the policymaking and action that is informed by gender-blind analysis. A feminist research design seeks to disrupt power imbalances between researcher and subject, making the experiences of women the starting point.

Removing power imbalances may sound like an abstract, rather lofty goal. To make it real, here is how we practice feminist research concretely in online spaces, in our work in Yemen and elsewhere:

  1. Understand how gendered power plays out on platforms

Understand how gendered power plays out on platforms

To further inclusion, it’s important to make a deliberate effort to go where participants are and let that influence operational choices, such as what platform to conduct conversations on and how to structure the timing of conversations. In Yemen, we initially attempted focus groups on Zoom, with disappointing results. The switch to WhatsApp was a result of an assessment of the affordances this platform offers vis-a-vis feminist research principles.

Agree on a code of conduct that keeps everyone safe

For as many participants as possible to feel safe to share their thoughts, experiences and opinions, it is important to emphasize voluntary participation, uphold a code of conduct and facilitate in a discursive, accessible manner. In Yemen, all participants were contacted individually on WhatsApp to get their consent to participate, and a private channel was maintained where participants could request to leave at any time. The code of conduct agreed at the start of the consultation stated:

We hold this group as a space of trust and agree to adhere to a simple code of conduct:

Do not take screenshots, forward messages, or otherwise disclose the opinions of individual participants.

Do not share the contact numbers of other participants without their express permission.

Do feel free to refrain from answering any of these questions. (You can message facilitators privately if you want to give a reason why you find a question unsafe, problematic, or difficult, we would like to document it for our learning.)

Do signal to stop the process at any point if you feel there is a sensitive topic using the stop emoji.

In general we ask that we all keep and preserve a culture of understanding and respect. You can all talk to facilitators by replying privately to a message if there are any problems or inequalities with the flow of conversation. We will do the same.

In addition to this code of conduct, facilitators clearly committed to document answers anonymously, so that personal data would not be connected to the final reflections.

Invest heavily in group trust and group norms

Even with a code of conduct in place, women may not feel safe or comfortable sharing their experiences or opinions honestly, given historical tendencies to disrespect women’s voices. Facilitators need to invest heavily in building group trust and group norms, more so than in other consultation environments where participants may feel more entitled to an opinion. In Yemen, Build Up facilitators had individual WhatsApp conversations with all participants, taking time to get to know them and answer questions. The process was arduous but paid off, with participants expressing the uniqueness of these WhatsApp groups.

As well as individual conversations, facilitators suggested clear forms of communication to enable a flow in the conversation and create a group norm about how to share opinions.

GROUP COMMUNICATION NORMS

Forms of communication (facilitators):

We will send each question as an image + in a voice message to clarify the meaning and any considerations about the topic

We will send summaries of all poll results after all data has been collected in the chat

We will send voice notes and visuals summarizing the inputs we have received to see which results resonate with participants, and if there is any disconnect between answers and the context on the ground

Forms of communication (participants):

Send inputs and ideas in any format that suits you. We encourage use of voice notes instead of text to make sure you are getting your idea across clearly and comfortably

Feel free to use visuals and short videos, but please make sure they can be sent on the group without delay!

If you have been online but are not engaging in the conversation, facilitators may ask you to comment or follow up on a previous idea

If you have been tagged in the chat but cannot answer at this time, please reply to the message directly to notify the facilitators and participants of this delay

Focus on the lived experience of women

For a research process to remove power imbalances, it must be truly inclusive and diverse, placing a clear focus on the lived experience of women. This means reaching out to women beyond codified networks and making operational adjustments to ensure those who aren’t typically invited or who don’t typically show up to consultations can make it on their own terms. In Yemen, participants for the focus groups were identified by snowballing outreach starting from key community mobilizers from different governorates whose contacts were fielded by the team from the previous survey round. Contacts identified through snowballing were combined with connections Build Up formed through other channels (including social media) and projects to arrive at a list of 115 women, of whom 93 were added to the WhatsApp groups.

We also acknowledged that it is our responsibility to remind participants of the focus groups, to encourage them to participate, and to ensure that they have all the information they need ahead of the start date. Through private messages, participants were informed that they would be contacted on an appointed day, at a specific time, to launch the conversation in a group they would be added to. All focus groups lasted at least 10 hours, allowing women who might have busy schedules to respond at their own convenience. This also acknowledged that some women might require privacy (away from family, friends or colleagues) to answer; by allowing them a longer time period, we hoped that they would be able to do that.

“This was a unique experience and a beautiful opportunity. It was the first time I got the chance to participate and express my opinions with people I had never met.”

Key findings: Yemeni women at the intersection of patriarchy, violence and politics

A feminist research methodology emphasises the importance of conducting inclusive and intersectional analysis, ensuring perspectives of class, race and sexuality are recognised. In practice, this means facilitators need to return to the same questions over and over, to go deeper, find consensus and acknowledge differences. In Yemen, an introductory script was broadcast every morning to the WhatsApp group, followed by questions broadcasted at intervals. Respondents were free to answer by voice or text message, with the Build Up facilitator taking notes, asking follow-up questions, and facilitating the conversation. After an hour of discussion, the Build Up team moved to summarise answers in order to validate these summaries and generate additional reflections on differing views.

The results of this iterative process, facilitated in an environment that sought to remove power imbalances, was a set of findings that reveal new, intersectional narratives about women’s experience of peace and conflict in Yemen. Concretely, the following key messages emerged.

Women feel a deterioration of the social fabric in Yemen. Political polarization is mirrored inside homes, affecting marriages, families, parenting, careers and more. Work and study decisions are politicized. As a woman, you are not entitled to a political opinion but you must have one (to respect your male kin). Furthermore, social media use by women is censored in the home, decreasing their access to alternative sources of information or narratives.

“In Yemen, we are confined by our pens as well. You have to take sides, otherwise you’ll face attacks from both sides which can lead to hurting you in all ways until you go back on your conviction.”

Barriers to mobility are a key feature of women’s lived experience, and it’s perceptions of women that are the biggest barrier to mobility. Women are regularly harassed when they travel, and hence trauma are a deterrent to future travel

“Travelling is humiliating.”

The war has impacted women’s livelihoods: there is a greater need for paid work, and also a greater need for unpaid care. Women are often either treated as (income-generating) commodities or kept at home to perform a host of unpaid, unacknowledged labour. Where women choose paid work, they suffer shame and misogyny.

“In some families, women and girls are forced to work ‘illegal’ jobs that answer to their needs. She gets beaten, insulted, and violated which leaves her with no option and nowhere to go to get protection. She is also unable to refuse doing these jobs.”

Hate speech about women is widespread: women refer to “a lifetime of hateful narratives”, starting from a very early age, and explain that hateful narratives are often a barrier to the application of the law. Regular negative responses to challenging hateful narratives become immobilizers for women, but education is seen as a light or hope to begin addressing these

“Any man who is a failure is described as a woman or of being brought up by a woman, as if she is a symbol of failure and shame.”

There is limited awareness of the peace process among women. Women speak openly about the contradiction between how the peace process is depicted in the media and how it is in reality. Despite the disheartening prospect of any real, meaningful participation, women regularly request inclusion in the process.

“Indeed, women do not have any right to make any decision or give any opinion, whether about peace or otherwise. Rarely do we see participation from women, especially working women, trying to improve their field. In politics, I cannot say she doesn’t have a presence, but there is no validity to her opinions. There is nothing tangible for her in the political field, and with that, in general, there is no inclusion of women in peace.”

Feminist approaches reveal diverse forms of power

At the Build Up team, we are in constant conversation (internally and with women we speak with) about how to center feminism in our research and consultation work. We disagree often, we get things wrong, we have so much to learn. Yet there is one thing we all agree on: there is a need for safe spaces where women-only discussions can take place — and happen continuously, not just for a consultation. In Yemen, once we’d invested in creating group trust, we found participants had great ease in naming problems they face, but struggle to find ways to collectively combat them. We heard a lot of fear and a feeling of helplessness in confronting systemic challenges, like hate speech and restrictions to mobility. Creating spaces for women to think together about strategies could begin to address this, and our sense is that there is great appetite for this in Yemen. We intend to continue gently holding that space, to see what emerges.

Want to hear more about these findings? Join the webinar. Have other thoughts on how to put feminist research into practice online? Leave us a comment below!

Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.