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A woman and child in famine-stricken Ethiopia in 2008. Julien Behal/PA Wire

Column Women and girls hold solution to extreme poverty

Gender equality is good for everyone, writes Bernadette Crawford, Equality Adviser for Concern Worldwide, on International Women’s Day.

THE WORDS OF a Chinese proverb – “Women hold up half the sky” – conjure up a compelling image of women’s resilience and strength in holding their lives together and providing a future for their families.

The sky, however, is heavy in a world where girls are not given the opportunity of an education; where women are marginalised; where they perform two-thirds of the world’s work but only earn one-tenth of the income and where they own less than one per cent of the world’s productive resources. Despite the growing body of research showing clearly that enhancing women’s economic options boosts national economies, women lag far behind men, in access to land, credit, and decent jobs. UNICEF estimates that 70 per cent of those living in extreme poverty are women and girls.

Today is International Women’s Day, and on this day I want to pay tribute to the women and girls of this world who are living in poverty due to gender discrimination. It is especially poignant now as the current economic crisis threatens to further increase the discrimination and vulnerability of women and girls as they are forced to manage ever shrinking limited household income, forcing them to seek out risky and potentially life-threatening livelihoods.

As Equality Adviser with Concern Worldwide, I have the privilege of meeting some of the incredibly strong women who are holding up the sky, however best they can, to feed their children in extremely vulnerable contexts.

In Liberia recently, I met with Mami, a young abandoned woman struggling to survive and to feed her two children, living in a one-room semi-permanent structure selling dried fish as her only source of income. In a highly competitive market, she often has to resort to selling her body in order to be permitted to buy small amounts of fish to dry. This puts her in an extremely vulnerable situation, at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and unwanted pregnancy.

Rising fuel prices prevent her from travelling to the local city to sell her fish for a higher price, so she has to resort to selling for low prices locally or to traders coming to the village who, in turn, sell her stocks on for higher prices elsewhere and profit from her circumstances. With the smoke from the fish-drying ovens blowing into the eyes of her two children, Mami told me they had not eaten any food that day and were not going to. A life with no education, filled with domestic violence and abuse, her life is bleak.

Mami is, despite all that adversity, motivated to create a future for her two young boys and is attending a women’s empowerment course to develop her literacy skills and her understanding of options to source income from alternative livelihoods. Despite the daily struggle to survive, her experiences of violence and abuse, her hope is still for a good life for her children, of an education, a decent house and good health! It’s the strength and determination shown by women such as Mami that inspire agencies like Concern to focus their programmes on women and girls.

“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”

It would be myopic, however, not to recognise that men have a firm hold of the other half of the sky. While we work to empower women, we also ensure that our programmes include men and boys in addressing the deeper causes that maintain gender inequality in society in order to effectively improve the position of women and girls and ultimately to end global poverty.

Realising that women and girls are the solution to global poverty is a powerful insight to which the wider world is yet to awaken. In the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” Gender equality is good for everyone, both male and female and it starts at a young age through ensuring that girls get an education. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. For each additional year in school she will earn 20 per cent more annually throughout her life and about 90 per cent of that income goes directly to the household, compared to only 30 to 40 per cent of a man’s.

The World Bank’s recent World Development Report 2012 endorses the sentiment that gender equality matters in its own right but is also smart economics, stating that “Countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve outcomes for children, make institutions more representative and advance development projects for all”.

Yet, despite heightened international awareness of gender issues, it is a disturbing reality that no country has yet managed to eliminate the gender gap.

Only last week, a research report commissioned by the European Commission highlighted the prevailing gender gap in Ireland at a staggering 17 per cent, a real indictment of the lack of commitment to gender equality in a country that had the resources to address the problem. The study highlights the issues of discrimination against women, undervaluing of women’s skills and the low number of women in senior and leadership roles as reasons for the gap.

Achieving gender equality is a really slow process since it challenges one of the most deeply entrenched of all human attitudes. Despite intensive efforts by agencies and organisations like Concern and its numerous inspiring stories of success, the picture is still disheartening. So much still needs to be done to ensure that women have access to and control over resources, and access to services, that women and girls can live without fear of violence and abuse; and that they can reach a level of equal participation with men in economic decision making.

Gender inequality is a human rights violation but change is possible: we need to ensure internationally that continued resources, interventions and lobbying are exerted for this change to materialise.

Concern is hosting a number of events in Ireland to mark International Women’s Day, including the first annual International Women’s Day Film Festival at Dublin’s Light House cinema, and an International Women’s Day lecture in Trinity College. See more here.

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Bernadette Crawford
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