By Miranda Essex
Women’s rights are consistently making the news. In recent years, NGOs, the media and even large corporates have increasingly turned their attention towards promoting the position of women in society. This stems from concerns over gender imbalance and calls for greater ‘equality,’ demonstrated by initiatives such as ‘International Women’s Day’, but also from the growing recognition of the fundamental role of women in minimising poverty.
Despite some progress, for many women living in poverty, motifs of optimism and hope rarely translate into improvements on the ground. Though the Third Millenium Development Goal aims to secure gender equality, 70% of the world’s poor are women. Women are more likely to die young, face violence and discrimination, fail to receive the education they deserve, and to be forced into an early marriage. Impoverished women are often marginalised as a direct result of their gender, catalysed by a complex and seemingly uncompromising range of cultural, religious, ethnic, and traditional factors.
The World Bank argues that ‘putting resources into poor women’s hands while promoting gender equality… results in large development payoffs.’ Whilst many would agree and seek to cultivate a new generation of empowered women, I would argue that many of these movements are falling short. All too often, social movements attract the interest of merely those they seek to empower.
Equality for women must not exclude men. Where poverty exists, women often live in a patriarchal society still dominated by male decision-makers. Although many projects are making headway with educating women, training them and giving them skills, they still function in a social structure where their every move is limited and dictated by men. Regardless of the skills they may have, if their husbands or male family members will not allow them to work or share their talents, their capabilities are extinguished. A complex range of economic and cultural factors interact to create a glass ceiling before girls even reach womanhood.
NGOs and social movements need to work to change the persistent dismissal of women’s rights at a grassroots level. Where boys’ education is prioritised, there needs to be sensitisation campaigns, not only encouraging girls to go to school, but also educating men and boys on the value of women’s education, be it moral or economic. Where early marriages are prevalent, men need to become aware of the gross slight against women’s rights, and also convinced of the value of female empowerment.
Practical, effective training directed at men in communities suffering from poverty may have greater legacy and payoffs than huge global campaigns designed to draw our attention to the miscarriages of justice faced by women. Men should be enrolled in classes and courses designed to raise their awareness and generate understanding. This should then be combined with powerful global movements, such as the ‘Nobel Women’s Initiative’ and ‘Gender Concern’, which must enlist the support of men to disperse their message of gender equality to the greatest possible extent.
Existing as a female-only cause will never work. It is imperative that an all-encompassing, coherent, effective social movement wins the support of men and boys. A mention should be given here to the ‘Men Against Rape and Discrimination’ (MARD) movement in India, which is doing powerful work to enlist the support of men in the struggle against gender-based discrimination. It is becoming increasingly clear that there needs to be diversity and breadth within groups seeking to end social exclusion, strengthening the campaign to promote women’s rights and education as the key to development.
Miranda Essex– currently interning at the Africa Educational Trust (AET), which aims to support girls’ education and empowerment in conflict-affected regions of East Africa.