If desperation is what it takes to spawn and sustain a revolution, then it’s not surprising that the women’s movement is one of the longest revolutions in human history. The face of poverty, after all, has been, and continues to be, overwhelmingly female: 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 a day are women.
Men and women actually become human in relation to each other, and if one sex is denigrated as a sex, then humanity itself is the loser.
Juliet Mitchell, Women and Equality
The global power brokers, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly male – women hold an average of only 10 per cent of legislative seats worldwide, and a mere six per cent of cabinet positions in national governments.
Needless to say, this blatant inequality doesn’t exist because women are incapable or lazy. In fact, women perform nearly two thirds of the world’s work. Yet they receive less than 10 per cent of the world’s income, and own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property.
These are stunning statistics, whose very magnitude threatens either to depress or to alienate. But they can be spurs to action. Men and women working together to uphold the human rights of women are the best defence against inequality, injustice, and poverty.
Many people ignore so-called “women’s issues”, perhaps because they think they don’t affect them. This is shortsighted. The poverty of women affects billions of human beings of both sexes. Babies born to malnourished mothers, for example, are deprived of the chance to lead healthy, productive lives.
The women’s movement has consistently proven that change is possible both socially, in people’s behaviour, and structurally, in laws and institutions. Not that long ago, Canadian women couldn’t vote because they weren’t legally considered “persons.” Since then, immense progress has been made towards equality in areas as diverse as property ownership, reproductive choice, and equal pay.
There have also been international repercussions. In 1993, Canada extended the criteria for refugee status to include “gender”. The first country to do so, we also adopted the position that a well-founded fear of being violated because of one’s gender constitutes grounds for asylum.
The oppression of women is no more inevitable than poverty itself. Poverty and inequality are political consequences, created and sustained by human decisions.
These landmark decisions were put to the test 18 months later. A Somali woman had fled to Canada with her 10-year-old daughter. Had they stayed the girl would have been genitally mutilated. In an historic ruling, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board determined that the daughter’s “right to personal security would be grossly infringed” if she were deported.
While we might be more familiar with progress made in Northern countries, the reality is that the women’s movement has had an astounding impact worldwide.
- The Self Employed Women’s Association began organizing women in India in the 1970s. The Self Employed Women’s Association has imaginatively mobilized paper pickers, street vendors, rural workers and homeworkers as a union. But it’s also worked as a cooperative, creating more democratic kinds of employment, and a women’s bank. Today, more than 200,000 women are members.
- In Zimbabwe, women who fought in the independence wars of the 1970s took their new-found power to the legislature, demanding amendments to laws that had prevented them from owning land, inheriting property and signing contracts. They won.
- Women in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh banded together in the 1980s to defend themselves against the widespread incidence of wife battering. Besides offering mutual support and a safe haven from violent spouses, the women would sometimes collectively retaliate on behalf of a victim by “slippering” her husband, publicly beating him with slippers. Recognizing the link between men’s violence and alcohol abuse, they’ve also been successful in outlawing liquor sales in several villages.
The global fight against barriers to women’s civil, economic and political rights has created new awareness. But continuing widespread poverty among women underlines just how large the gap is between today’s reality and achieving equality. This is true, not just of Southern countries, but of Canada as well.
In 1994, a national consultation on the Future of Women’s Work found that the amount of work women do, both paid and unpaid, is on the rise. It also revealed that the privatization of health and social services is diverting many tasks from institutions into the home and onto the shoulders of women.
The oppression of women is no more inevitable than poverty itself. Poverty and inequality are political consequences, created and sustained by human decisions. The ways in which women are discriminated against are both multi-faceted and systemic. The solutions, therefore, must be creative, varied, and coordinated at many different levels.
Legislative changes will only be truly effective if they’re accompanied by changes in infrastructure, the delivery of social services, and in the way we behave. And each of these must be strategically directed towards common goals.
Take the problem of female illiteracy. Among the 900 million illiterate people in the world, women outnumber men two to one. For decades, progressive governments have espoused the view that girls and boys should have equal access to education.
But worldwide, 77 million girls of primary school age aren’t attending school, compared with 52 million boys. Girls are absent or drop out more often than boys. This may be because daughters are forced to share the huge burden of rural women’s work, or parents don’t want them leaving their village to attend school.
In the early 1990s, World Bank studies of female fertility, economic status and child health convinced governments and donors that investing in the education of women had an impact. These studies showed that for every year of education a woman receives, her knowledge and use of reproductive choices as an adult, as well as her income, increases significantly. Women’s education, concluded the Bank, is one of the best investments anyone can make.
Poverty isn’t confined to families headed by women. In fact, men, as the customary “head” of the house, often decide how the family’s resources are used. And they don’t always do so wisely. Studies in Africa and Latin America found that income in the hands of mothers has an impact on child health that is almost 20 times greater than income controlled by fathers.
Such insights have helped to focus efforts on the root of the problem. In India, for example, donors now fund the establishment of local schools so that girls won’t have to leave their communities to study. With NGO assistance, social workers are working with families and communities to get, and keep, girls in schools. Curricula and teaching methods are also being revised to make them more female-friendly.
The result? Girls who live in poverty and who previously seemed doomed to remain there are now staying in school longer.
This kind of co-ordinated approach can work in other spheres of women’s lives, from agriculture to banking to health services to decision making. Money invested in roads, communications, communal laundry facilities and village electricity would give women the time and energy to commit to their communities, their schools, and themselves, with very positive effects.
Such an approach on the part of governments, NGOs and multilateral agencies would speak louder than new laws and United Nations declarations. It would provide real evidence that helping women fulfill themselves as human beings is not only essential to ending poverty, but the very foundation upon which to build a future for humanity.