From November 2001 until May 2003, Mercy Corps Kosovo implemented the USAID-funded Healthy Community Initiatives (HCI). HCI used health as a vehicle for engaging communities as active members and leaders in local decision-making in order to promote community mobilization and strengthen civil society linkages. The program is considered a successful model within Mercy Corps because of its success in mobilizing communities in a relatively short time frame (19 months), the high level of community match, maintenance of the programs, engagement of government and business, and community enthusiasm. This article focuses on the creative use of gender to the benefit of all.
Kosovo is largely a patriarchal society and a key challenge of community mobilization activities in Kosovo is the genuine involvement of women. A contextual analysis had identified that issues relating to health were not only a priority need in but also offered a unique opportunity to engage women. Health has traditionally been a woman's concern in rural Kosovo and this sector not only provided an opportunity to improve the overall health of the community but it also empowered women to participate in other decision-making needs in the community in a manner that was non-threatening to the men.
Basic health education is perceived as primarily the responsibility of the women and does not involve a large investment of resources into the community. The first stage of the project was health education. However the objective of these sessions was not only to increase basic knowledge among the female participants, but also to raise the level of involvement and empowerment of local women. The decision to move into the second, infrastructure phase of the project in any particular village was based on the activeness of the participants in the first phase. The first community meeting was then used not only to describe the possible funding and criteria for future projects, but also to "advertise" the fact that the community had been selected because of the success of the women in the health education phase. This not only increased the self-esteem of women in the village, but from the beginning instilled a sense of ownership of the project. During the infrastructure projects, Mercy Corps staff repeatedly heard women reminding their communities that HCI was in their village because of them.
There were inevitably challenges maintaining the level of involvement of women during the ‘bricks and mortar' phases of the project. One of the first challenges to electing women to the Community Health Advocacy Groups (CHAGs) came from the women themselves. Understanding that involvement in the infrastructure projects and training would be time consuming, many women previously active in health education refused positions on the CHAG because of household and child care duties. Another challenge was the type of roles that women were given once elected to the CHAG. Many women were uncomfortable in taking lead roles in the CHAG, or roles connected to monitoring construction. As a result, it was difficult to keep female CHAG members closely involved as the project shifted to the construction phase. While this is a concern, it should also be kept in mind that realistically there are very few cultures in the world where women would take a central role in construction. HCI staff did their best to ensure female CHAG members were involved and in many cases, although not out in the mud monitoring projects, female CHAGs were directly involved in other key activities such as informing community members about the process of the work, community match, etc.
Another way that HCI implementation was gender aware was to hire mainly female staff for the program. All community workers hired for the program were female. Additionally Mercy Corps Kosovo attempted to hire female engineers. Although this action did help raise the level of comfort among female community members, hiring all female staff did at times mean programmatic activities were more difficult to implement. For example when hiring female staff it is often more difficult to find those with drivers license. Additionally female staff often have more difficulty gaining confidence among male community members, especially in a patriarchal society.