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Roads to Agency: Promoting Women’s Participation in Rural Transport Projects


In all countries, the most frequently cited drivers for women’s participation were economic need and a desire to make a contribution to the community.

Agency, the ability to speak up and make choices in life, is key to improving our own lives as well as the world around us. "Roads to Agency: The Effects of Enhancing Women’s Participation in Rural Roads Projects on Women’s Agency," a comparative assessment of projects in Argentina, Nicaragua, and Peru, shows how rural road construction and maintenance projects can promote and enhance women’s decision-making power and aspirations, as well as challenge social norms—an important step toward giving women an equal voice and equal role in societies and households.

Three World Bank Group supported projects from Argentina, Nicaragua and Peru were selected for this qualitative research project. Each fostered women’s participation in rural road works and productive activities related to rehabilitated roads in a different way:

In Nicaragua and Peru, projects engaged women through community-run road work organizations and microenterprises for road maintenance. In Argentina and Peru, activities aimed to improve women’s livelihoods in areas with rehabilitated roads. Projects took explicit approaches to foster agency, such as providing soft skills and technical training, promoting participation in decision-making and leadership positions, providing safe spaces for women, and forming women’s associations.

Feeling Empowered

Women who were employed in road work and took part in other productive activities reported improved self-esteem, enhanced confidence, and increased aspirations: “I liked it very much because I [got] used to bringing my own money to the household and I did not depend on him [my husband]. I could buy what I wanted,” said one participant in Moyogalpa, Nicaragua. Husbands reported showing more respect for their wives and valuing them more highly as they became earners, suggesting women enjoyed greater bargaining power within the household.

Helping women enter into non-traditional work in Nicaragua and Peru, and participate in handicraft associations in Argentina, challenged prevailing social norms regarding women’s roles, abilities, and participation in public spheres. “I felt more confident because I saw the results of my work as chief and received the praise of engineers,” a road worker in Arequipa, Peru, said.

" My working has been a huge help. We’ve increased our income. I didn’t use to leave the house...Now I participate. My life is different. I move. If I need something, I get out …obtain information, train other people. Because of this experience I can now do things that before I wouldn’t otherwise have imagined I was going to be able to do. "

—Female participant from one of the selected transport projects in Argentina

The projects helped broaden women’s networks, through which they were able to meet peers and access social support and information.

“I learned many things from other people...When other people are interested in our topics, it’s like it lifts our spirits and generates an enthusiasm that is hard to explain. It’s something that helps you move on,” a handicraft association member from Pampa Grande, Argentina, said.

Motivating Factors and Constraints to Participation

In all countries, the most frequently cited drivers for women’s participation were economic need and a desire to make a contribution to the community. Despite initial resistance from husbands in Nicaragua, women said the work opportunity was too good to miss. Other factors supporting women’s participation included:

  • encouragement from their families for the application process and support for household work;
  • existing role models: women followed the lead of other women already employed in road construction works;
  • feeling confident in their skills as the tasks appeared similar to women’s agricultural work; and
  • previous experience in social organizations.

Importantly, the study shows how constraints to women’s participation and agency can be tackled through proactive measures. Lessons from the three projects highlight:

  • the importance of helping women secure childcare to enable participation;
  • conducting community outreach and sensitization to gain acceptance of spouses and community members;
  • diversifying assignment of tasks to prevent gender-segregation and provide sufficient training to prepare women for unfamiliar tasks; and
  • when working with indigenous women, accounting for any language barriers.


Building and rehabilitating rural roads has large economic and social benefits to the poor in terms of increased agricultural production, lower input and transport costs, increased school enrollment, increased access to health and other services. In addition, rural road construction, maintenance, and rehabilitation can be excellent employment and income-generating opportunity for the local population. Rural women in particular often have few, if any, income opportunities aside from agriculture, a fact which stresses the importance of ensuring equal access to employment opportunities in road works. Seeing women perform well in non-traditional jobs, such as working in road construction and maintenance, also challenges traditional gender roles and is in itself a step towards changing gender norms and advancing gender equality.

The study shows how participating in rural road construction and maintenance works can open up new employment and income generating opportunities for women, as well as increase their agency.  It suggests strategies for overcoming barriers and challenges to women’s participation, as well as demonstrates the positive impacts that ancillary activities such as agricultural training, rural financial services, and business development skills, can have in creating more sustained livelihood outcomes for these communities.

This research was supported in part by the World Bank Group’s Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE), a multi-donor trust fund investing in evidence, knowledge, and data needed to identify and address key gaps between men and women to deliver better development solutions that boost prosperity and increase opportunity for all.