Often excluded from decision-making, poor and lower-caste women can contribute to the development of their communities through volunteer work, experts said, calling for more opportunities for marginalized women in governance and local groups.
In many developing countries, only more privileged women are able to influence decisions made in local government or community groups that affect the lives of women across social classes, said Rosemary Kalapurakal of United Nations Volunteers.
"Even in volunteering, the access for women from marginalized communities is less than for women from more privileged communities," Kalapurakal, UNV's deputy executive coordinator, said by telephone from New Delhi.
"We would like it to be a level playing field, for all women, regardless of what background they come from."
In an analysis released this month of volunteers' contribution to better governance, the UN said that more than 1 billion people around the world volunteer to different causes – from helping during West Africa's Ebola outbreak to scrutinizing city contracts for corruption in Brazil.
But the report noted that many governments are failing to harness the potential of volunteers in their development plans and said volunteering also helps marginalized groups such as women and minorities have their voices heard.
The UN report included several examples of women volunteers making an impact through informal groups and local authorities on issues ranging from peace-building in Liberia, to violence against women in Bangladesh and caste-based discrimination in India.
In northern India's Uttarakhand state, for instance, village groups that included a woman volunteer from every family initially focused on pre-school education and then widened their agenda to address issues such as equal distribution of water.
Many women from these village groups later became elected representatives in their communities.
In Nepal, even though the constitution requires a third of seats on local governance boards are held by women, their representation is "extremely low," the report said.
Women were provided with training to help them raise their concerns. In one village committee, women asked for part of the budget to be used for stretchers for women in labor.
"Women's engagement through volunteering has empowered them as individuals and as a group to address issues of importance to them and to the community," Kalapurakal said.