What hopes and dreams do you hold for your children’s future? Perhaps it is a hope that they will find a loving relationship, a meaningful job or financial security. Perhaps it is simply that they will find a path that makes them happy.
In my line of work as a gender advisor for World Vision Australia, I hear a lot about the hopes and dreams of girls and women in the developing world. And yet, when World Vision recently asked female staff from around the world to share their aspirations, I still found myself a little surprised by how much their answers resonated with my own views of the future.
“I need to give my children a good education so they look after their own lives in the future,’’ said one woman from the Solomon Islands.
“I hope to be someone who can make a difference in people’s lives, whether through my work or through my personal relationships,” said another from Lebanon.
“I’d like to save to build my own house in my village,” said another.
And my personal favourite — “I would like to be less careful and more carefree in my life. I want to love, be loved and live.”
Doesn’t every woman want a bit of that?! And yet the challenges facing many of these women differ so drastically from the challenges I struggle with.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t have work to do here in Australia; pay inequality is still an issue; we have not eradicated domestic violence; and some women in our society still don’t experience a true sense of freedom. But these are all problems that we see magnified in the developing world.
To give you the big picture, wrap your head around this – globally, women do 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of the world’s food, but only earn 10% of the world’s income and own only 1% of the property. The figures are even more staggering when you look at particular sections of the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, women own less than 2% of the land but produce 90% of the food!
This is aside from all their other responsibilities. Everywhere I travel I hear stories of women at work from dawn to dusk: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for children, selling produce at markets, collecting water and firewood. The amount of effort this takes is astonishing.
Just this week in Honiara (Solomon Islands) I spent a couple of hours with some youth after work, cutting grass with bush knives. The area we worked in was not huge but the task was exhausting, back-breaking stuff and I was amazed to hear that women are responsible for doing this task in large fields.
In some ways, it’s the micro-level challenges that shock us most – domestic violence, female genital mutilation, human trafficking, high rates of death during child birth, obstetric fistula and other birthing complications.
The United Nations theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Empower Rural Women: End Hunger and Poverty,’ in recognition of the important role women play in improving food security and enhancing agricultural and rural development.
There are hundreds of millions of small farms in the developing world, and far from being idle observers in this landscape women actually play a significant role. Worldwide, more than 1.6 billion women live in rural areas, and they make up 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force.
Despite this, the voices of rural women are largely absent from key decision-making. They may have access to some resources like land or cattle, but are not allowed to make decisions regarding these assets. Often, women have no say about how the income generated from agricultural production is spent. This is despite studies that show that when given the opportunity to make decisions about spending, women invest around 90% of income back into their families.
This year, global leaders have identified rural women as the key to increasing food security. And there could be no better time for such an initiative. Last year, the world was stunned by images of women and their starving children walking for weeks through the desert in search of food and water. The Horn of Africa famine threatened 13 million lives, and despite a global aid response, tens of thousands of people are thought to have died. This year, experts are warning of a similar event developing in West Africa, through the countries of Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The UN is warning that around 20 million people are facing a food crisis.
The hope is that by empowering women with training and resources to increase production on their farms, we could see a vast improvement in global food security. By UN projections, if women were able to increase their farm production by 20-30 per cent, agricultural output would increase by 2.5 to 4 per cent, global poverty would decrease by 12 to 17 per cent and 100 to 150 million people would no longer go hungry. It’s the ripple effect at its most ingenious.
World Vision and other development agencies are contributing to this objective in many ways; through community empowerment programs, micro-finance and women’s savings groups, education and literacy, health, water and sanitation, mid-wife training, and significantly through empowering men to address issues of decision-making and power.
Interestingly, by economically empowering girls and women we also see generational improvements in health, education and child well-being.
Through my work, I have seen the resilience and strength of women living in developing countries. It is something I am often awed by. For me, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect not only on what it means to be a woman, but also on how I can help other women who face enormous challenges.
Michelle Lokot is a Gender Advisor at World Vision Australia.