Systems thinking can help end practices that harm women worldwide

It’s been said that many of the world’s harmful practices and problems are too difficult to fight and too complex to end. Often problems like extreme poverty, food insecurity, gender-based violence and other humanitarian crises feel insurmountable. These problems are exacerbated by the existential threat of climate change, which disproportionately affects the world’s poor. Among them, children, women, and people with disabilities are the most vulnerable and the least equipped to adapt.

These problems are indeed incredibly complex. But they are not unsolvable.

How do I know? Because I worked with dedicated groups on a project committed to ending female genital mutilation and forced marriage. And in the communities in Kenya we worked with, those harmful practices ended within a generation, sometimes in even less than 10 years.

After more than 30 years in technology, including many years at Microsoft working across multiple industries and in education to help those organizations digitally transform, I sought to take what I had learned and apply it to complex global issues. For over a decade, I’ve been working on gender-based violence issues such as female genital mutilation and child marriage through organizations like World Vision and Global Give Back Circle and, more recently, my own organization, Mekuno Project.

The key to solving many of the world’s biggest problems isn’t by tackling them individually – it’s by approaching them with an interconnected mindset, because the biggest issues don’t exist independently of other problems.

Solving problems in individual communities is one thing. But many solutions can be scaled across regions, continents and even the world. When seeking to solve extremely complex problems, there are some common approaches that can apply to multiple issues.

Some of what I’ve learned in my technology career can be applied to the public sector and the nonprofit space. Here are some insights and tactics that can help organizations, particularly those that seek to improve human rights and end harmful practices.

Understanding and solving multi-faceted problems by applying systems thinking

Those who have worked in technology may be familiar with systems thinking. In the simplest terms, it is an analysis approach that breaks down complex problems into smaller logical parts. The practice involves understanding how a system’s various parts interrelate while perceiving the system as a whole rather than a series of different parts. The goal is to ultimately simplify the complex, which Microsoft applied when it sought to overhaul its internal culture.

When looking at gender-based violence issues in Kenya, for example, systems thinking requires us to think beyond the specific problem of, say, forced marriage, and instead look at the bigger picture and why the problem exists in the first place.

It isn’t enough to simply look at the problem – we need to look at the ecosystem in which the problem exists. FGM and child marriage, for instance, do not exist in a vacuum. They are practices that are linked to extreme poverty, cultural norms and high rates of illiteracy, all of which disproportionately affect girls in rural communities. These risk factors have also been exacerbated by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a spike in the rates of both harmful practices. This cycle then often continues to the next generation as these underlying causes continue to impact communities.

Removing harmful practices requires a holistic, scalable, intersectional approach on the ground, with help from a coalition of partners. Without this, any intervention cannot bring about sustainable change.

We can begin to eliminate global problems and harmful practices if we understand the reasons they exist. Systems thinking allows us to see the bigger picture and solve these problems.

Empowering communities to thrive through people-inclusive design

Eliminating problems, including gender-based violence, through a holistic community approach not only works in one community, but can be scaled when multiple organizations work together to achieve their goals.

However, there are ways to go about this that do not foster trust in a community, and we must always prioritize success on the communities’ terms. A people-inclusive design approach is rooted in empathy, meaning we must listen with the intent to learn what works for a community to build trust, inclusivity and a shared vision with them.

Empathy applied this way will lead to new innovations that bring about transformative change more quickly. If we don’t build coalitions within the communities we are trying to help, we cannot make sustainable and large-scale changes.

So, engaging local communities, listening with empathy, co-creating solutions, being transparent and communicative, and respecting and prioritizing the needs and concerns of the community are some of the most important aspects of solving complex problems.

Engage faith leaders in the community

This is a critical and often overlooked aspect to solving deeply rooted issues in many communities.

Blessing Omakwu, deputy director at the Gates Foundation, has said that gender equality cannot and will not be achieved without engaging religious partners. Faith leaders are often some of the most trusted figures in a community and can help organizations create a moral framework for engagement with the community. In fact, the World Economic Forum says that faith leaders are an untapped resource in working with communities.

While our problems can seem insurmountable and unsolvable, they are not. The key to solving many of the world’s biggest problems isn’t by tackling them individually – it’s by approaching them with an interconnected mindset, because the biggest issues don’t exist independently of other problems. It’s only in today’s interconnected world that we can begin to solve these problems. And by using a multifaceted strategy, we can begin to create a better world within a generation.