Guest Articles

September 25

Mara Bolis

The Development Tool Nobody’s Using: Why it’s Time for the Women’s Empowerment Sector to Leverage Media and Advertising

In women’s economic empowerment (WEE) circles, there’s no shortage of development initiatives involving corporate partnerships with NGOs. This makes sense, of course, since women working as smallholder farmers or laborers at the very end of these supply chains are often poorly compensated for their time and/or products, and often operate in unsafe working conditions. But sometimes I feel like the development community sees corporate supply chains as the only WEE partnerships game in town. To take just one example, see the website of BSR, a global nonprofit organization that works with a network of more than 250 member companies and other partners to build a just and sustainable world: The site’s compilation of women’s empowerment reports is dominated by multiple reports on the garment industry, agriculture and jewelry supply chains. It feels a bit myopic – because these are the sectors we’ve focused on for so long, these are the sectors we focus on today.

This myopia has led us to overlook other potential focus areas that could also deliver impact. For instance, what about media outlets and advertising companies? Is it possible that they could have as much – or even more – influence in shaping women’s economic opportunities as changes to global value chains?

Take, for example, “I Laba Yu,” a communications campaign Oxfam launched on Valentine’s Day 2019 in the Philippines. It is the product of a partnership between Oxfam, a PR, media and marketing company called Harrison Communications and Unilever. In it, a middle-aged husband sees several young couples flirting or embracing in the street, then realizes he can help “bring back the romance” and show his love for his wife by helping her with the housework. He surprises her by buying a two-person laundry tub, then helps her wash the clothes: The ad ends with the tagline #careworkisteamwork.

The advertisement has been seen over 42 million times – I recently saw it in the airport of Tacloban City where, through an Oxfam partnership with the media company that places ads in Philippine airports, the video runs regularly. By using data analytics, Oxfam in the Philippines knows that the video isn’t just getting viewed – it’s also sparking conversations. The organization has seen that women tend to send the video to men (presumably their partners), and men are sharing it with other men (presumably their friends). By launching the campaign over social media, Oxfam has taken advantage of the ubiquitous social media infrastructure that exists in the Philippines, where in 2018 there were 36 million smartphone users and a smartphone penetration rate of 33% of the population.

Why has the campaign been so resonant? The Oxfam team will be coming out with a full documentation of best practices in the coming months, but here are a few insights that I’ve picked up in conversation with the Oxfam Philippines team:

  • On-the-ground research by Oxfam and its partner organizations in rural areas of the Philippines helped them to understand the real issues facing women, and ensured that the content was fully authentic. They asked why women are excluded from economic opportunities, and found that they are tied to their homes and constrained by hours of unpaid care work, which does not shift when they take up outside income-generating activities. The team has done extensive research and programming work around women’s unpaid care burden to understand this reality. Their study found that 74% of women reported an injury, illness, disability or mental harm related to the number of hours they spend doing unpaid care work on top of their regular income earning activities. This is aggravated by poverty, and by poor access to basic services such as health care and water. In rural communities covered by the study, women need to make an average of five trips to collect water for a single load of laundry.
  • It’s valuable to establish partnerships with the private sector that are a true give-and-take. While the media company Oxfam worked with was committed to the cause, their focus is on getting as many views as possible. As such, their first draft of the advertisement involved a double-entendre that hit the wrong note from a gender equality standpoint. However, the trust, creativity and openness shared by the two teams allowed them to move past that first concept to one that was both highly attractive and fully consistent with the messages of gender equity and partnership.

When a well-crafted media campaign gets traction, it can have an impact that goes far beyond metrics on viewership or social media reach. The outcomes from Oxfam’s effort have the potential to change the landscape for women’s opportunities in the Philippines. For example:

  • At a national level, this simple ad has sparked a robust policy debate. Oxfam has been invited by the Philippines Statistics Authority to help them develop questions about unpaid care work for the first time ever in the 2020 census. At a minimum, these questions will ensure that everyone taking the census will have cause to reflect on the nature of care work in their homes, who carries what burden and why. But much more optimistically, this census data can lead to a change in resource attribution in future budget rounds, towards developing timesaving infrastructure for challenges such as water accessibility, child care and elder care.
  • At a local level, these sorts of changes are already happening. Both Tacloban city and the municipality of Salcedo in Eastern Samar province, with the help of Oxfam and its partner organization Sentro Para sa Ikauunlad ng Katutubong Agham at Teknolohiya (Center for the Development of Indigenous Science and Technology), have enacted ordinances on unpaid care work. That means this issue will be included in their planning and budgeting, which is likely to lead to improvements in women’s access to safe water and childcare centers.

The power of media to influence the choices we make is undeniable – and the results can change social norms on a massive scale. In Brazil, for instance, World Bank research showed that the popularity of telenovelas whose female leads had zero or one child led to “significantly lower fertility,” and that the effect was stronger for women of low socioeconomic status.

However, until now corporations have been the only ones who decide which messages women, girls, fathers and husbands will imbibe about what a woman should do or be. There is a major opening for the development sector to begin leveraging the power of media, and vast, untapped potential in inviting media and communications experts to join the movement toward women’s economic empowerment. I for one can’t wait to see what happens when this potential is recognized.


Mara Bolis is Senior Advisor on Market Systems at Oxfam America.


Photo from Oxfam’s “I Laba U” video campaign.




gender equality, global development, human rights, marketing and advertising, NGOs, nonprofits, supply chains