Q: How can we improve the outcomes of gender-based programming? A: Immersive listening

What is 'immersive listening' and how can this technique be used across diverse sectors of gender-based programming to generate optimum results?


Programming for women’s empowerment takes many forms: advocating for more women representatives in parliament; lobbying for equitable labour laws in the formal and informal sector; improving maternal and adolescent health …the list goes on… What’s common across these seemingly diverse sectors is that each would benefit from ‘immersive listening’ for better programming outcomes.

In a recent OPM podcast  Johanna Riha, who works for the United Nations University- International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH) argued that outcomes should be the focus of all gender programming. In this blog, I argue that for optimal programme outcomes, we need to adopt the immersive listening technique.

What is immersive listening?

Immersive listening is an approach that allows practitioners to not just gather relevant information but also pay close attention to understanding and processing the information from the subject’s perspective. Here, the practitioner puts themselves entirely in the subject’s reality when designing a programme. It requires careful consideration of all factors that contribute to her lived reality. The practitioner needs to think through how each of these factors will affect the outcome of the intervention, any unintended consequences of the core intervention, measures to mitigate these consequences, and flexibility to go back to the drawing board if mitigating measures are not adequate. It’s like walking in her shoes, noticing the cuts and bites and being prepared with appropriate responses.

What traditional programmes can lack

For instance, traditional programmes to reduce intimate partner and domestic violence tend to focus on drafting laws enabling punitive action against the partner, access to shelter homes and medical care. While thoughtful, these measures would not lead to optimal outcomes simply because these do not listen to two very key realities. First, reliance on the partner for basic needs with no support system from the natal home either due to financial limitations or social norms that look down on women who are not under the ‘protection’ of their partners. Second, a possible preference for counselling over punitive action partly due to factors pointed out in the first point or concerns over children in common.

How immersive listening differs

Programmes are only addressing part of the problem if they do not listen meaningfully. In the case of survivors of violence, immersive listening would warrant programmatic action that includes: gainful employment options in the immediate term; social behaviour change measures that de-normalise domestic violence; the offer of time-sensitive counselling to both partners; mental health support; or even the creation of support groups in the locality that stop the violence whilst its taking place.

Each of these measures are of course context-sensitive and needs to be localised- leading us to the first of three key questions that immersive listening warrants.

  • Am I locating the woman in her context? - Data points are important. A quantitative survey that understands the overwhelming preference of women when faced with violence should be followed by a qualitative survey that understands the reason behind these preferences. Do these preferences vary when the woman is viewed through intersectional identities of race, caste, physical abilities, age and so on?
  • Am I bucking a norm? If yes, does my programme provide adequate support to counter any backlash? It’s not enough to have designed and implemented a programme that reaches programmatic goals. It’s important to ask whether the woman will face any negative reactions after and what can the programme do there. Female genital mutilation and its implications on social acceptability, or support needed by women who access abortion centres (expressing their reproductive health rights) is a good example here.
  • Am I creating a problem while addressing one? It’s important to think through unintended consequences. In an economic empowerment programme, have increased income-generating options for women also led to an increase in work hours by adding revenue-generating work to domestic work - what can be done? Have increased cash transfers to women also led to an increase in domestic violence over the money? If my programme advocates for maternity benefits for formal female workers, has it also thought through clauses that reduce discrimination against hiring women. In the case of the informal sector, has it thought through clauses that ensure maternity benefits are delivered without compromising her bargaining power in the equation?

The outcome

Immersive listening is a sure and necessary approach that programmes need to adopt in their design, delivery and evaluation to achieve programmatic outcomes that are impactful and sustainable. It requires honest investment from the practitioner to examine all factors that contribute to the subject’s lived reality, and if done correctly will certainly prove to be a positively rewarding approach.

Areas of expertise