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International alert series: The BIG Issues

Women's Rights in Development

Building women's rights to achieve sustainable economies and livelihoods

Ms Ann Killen, School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia


Note: The notes below are intended for use with the PowerPoint Presentation (available here as a pdf file) on Women’s Rights in Development.

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Slide 1

There are three things I would like to do this evening. Firstly, I would like to tell you about things that women, even the poorest women, in the developing world, are doing now to help themselves. My colleagues have given you some examples as well – but there are a lot of women out there, and a great deal of sky to be held up, so there is no shortage of stories.

Secondly, from these stories I would like to talk about the powerful impact that women can have when they work together in development, and hopefully broaden your understanding of who these women are that we talk about when we talk about women in development

Thirdly I would like to talk about some of the principles which feminist development writers consider should shape women’s participation in development.

Slide 2

In case you have any preconceived ideas of what constitutes women’s work in developing countries - everything is women’s business – from child care to domestic work to trade, farming, industrial production, teaching, management, politics, building infrastructure and just about anything else you can think of.

You’ve heard of the concept of synergy – where the whole is more than the sum of its parts? Well, the Chinese were correct in claiming that women do indeed hold up half the sky, but I guarantee that if they let go, more than half the sky would fall down. In fact we live in a world of mutual dependency – we need each other to survive and the development theorists and economists are telling us what some women have always known – you can’t ignore women and still have development.

Slide 3

Why do we talk about women’s rights? Surely they are covered under Human Rights Conventions?

Well, yes they are. However, experience has shown us that women’s human rights are frequently ignored, and as our other speakers have already pointed out, women have not benefited equally from development and continue to be the poorest people on this earth.

Women experience discrimination on the basis of their sex. The Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) was designed specifically to address just that – and to bring us back to a point where we will no longer need to talk separately about women’s rights.

The CEDAW has three main emphases – the achievement of equal civil and legal rights for women; the recognition of reproductive rights – that is the right to protection of one’s reproductive capacity which is not hindered by harmful working conditions or practices, for example; and thirdly the right to protection from the impact of harmful cultural factors which run contrary to women’s human rights.

I hope you have brought your passports because I’d like to invite you now to come with me to meet some remarkable women. I should say from the outset that it is not my place to speak on behalf of these women – I don’t have a mandate for that. I can only tell you something of their story from my own perspective, and try to do justice to their experiences. If there were a way to bring them all here to talk with you themselves that would be far better.

Slide 4

Meet first of all the women of the Escravos region of Nigeria. In July 2002 the Adelaide Advertiser carried this tiny piece about 600 women who staged a sit-in at the Chevron Texaco Oil refinery for eight days, when they were fed up with the oil company’s exploitation of their communities and the natural resources which had traditionally belonged to them. Other protests staged by the men of other regions and in Escravos had ended in bloodshed, deaths and even judicial hanging of so-called ringleaders, including prominent Nigerian writer and rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. These women shamed the oil company into providing jobs, water, electricity and schools in the area. Other women have since followed suit, not always with peaceful outcomes, with other oil companies and in other regions of Nigeria.

Women’s peaceful protest is now an established tool for development in Nigeria, as well as in other parts of the world. You may have seen the stories just before Christmas of the hundreds of mothers who staged a march protesting to the Government against the number of plane crashes in Nigeria, following yet another crash which took the lives of many of their children. The police used tear gas on these peaceful mothers – an act for which the government was forced to apologise and for which the police were shamed.

Slide 5

Meet the women in Lahore in Pakistan who were fed up with the regular flooding of their houses because of the blocked sewer system – caused by constant dumping of waste directly into the sewers – because there was nowhere else to put the waste. While the British Government supported a project to clean the sewers, these women asked for some modest funding for some specially designed narrow carts which could negotiate the narrow streets of the old city, and then established a self-managed and self-sustaining waste collection system, which employed a number of collectors and street sweepers and which linked up with the municipal waste system outside the old city.

Slide 6

Now let’s go to India. The Rural Unit for Health and Social Affairs is a primary health care unit near Vellore in Tamil Nadu State in Southern India. It is an outpost of the Vellore Christian Hospital and in addition to providing hospital and clinic services also has an extensive program of community development. Social work and social science students from the University of South Australia are privileged to undertake field education placements there. One of the programs they have participated in is the Women’s Self-help program which works with groups of women to provide loans to help start small businesses. Businesses are as varied as the women’s interests and opportunities – from buying sewing machines and producing goods for sale in Europe (with the women rather than large European businesses receiving the profits), to bio-gas production, small restaurants, craft production and the women of one community working together to buy some cows and selling the milk. One of the biggest impacts, the women tell us, is that now they are able to make a small income they are able to send their daughters to school. An educated daughter is less likely to get caught up in the dowry system and more likely to be able to make her own living as an adult.

If you ask the UniSA students about their experiences at RUHSA, they will tell you that sometimes it’s difficult to tell you who is the developer and who is being developed, as my colleague Frank Tesoriero has cultivated a relationship of mutuality with the staff and communities there.

Slide 7

Come with me now to Vietnam. The Vietnam Women’s Union is a mass organisation formed alongside the Communist Party in the 1930s in what is now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It is both a grassroots organisation to which more than 11 million Vietnamese women belong and a highly structured state influenced organisation. At central, provincial and local levels the VWU is actively involved in the development of water supply and sanitation infrastructure, as well as in other aspects of development, in rural Vietnam, and is the organisation most often nominated by the government and donor organisations to be involved with development projects in order to incorporate community or civil society participation as well as women’s participation.

I have worked with members of the VWU in establishing water and sanitation facilities, in health promotion and in environmental management projects, and I haven’t seen a more effective way yet to engage women and communities directly in their own development.

As a mass organisation, the Vietnam Women’s Union does not fit neatly into the established frameworks, such as those developed by the World Bank or other multi-lateral or bi-lateral donor organisations, for civil society or women’s participation in development. It isn’t an NGO, and it isn’t government.

Whilst women in Vietnam make up the majority of the poor, and have incomes less than male incomes (68%) Vietnamese women fare reasonably well on the UNDP gendered empowerment index, with an adult literacy rate of 87% (male 94%) and holding 27.3% of seats in government (compared with only 14.8% in the United States and with 28% in Australia). (United Nations Development Program 2005)

The stated goals of the VWU include not only the achievement of equity and/or equality for women, but also for women to make a contribution to national reconstruction, development and defence, combining both traditional and modern ideas of womanhood. (Vietnam Women's Union 2005). They are currently working on Equal rights legislation for Vietnamese women.

The VWU has a very good web site – with an English version as well – and last year posted a message there to the women in the southern United States who had suffered so much as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The VWU made a significant contribution to the Red Cross to assist these victims. So we are forced to ask at times – who is the developer and who is being developed?

Slide 8

There are many more examples I could give you of women working together creatively and powerfully to achieve progress for women and for their families and communities. One worth mentioning is the women members of the media in Ghana, who a few years ago on International Women’s Day took control of the national media (with permission) for the day. Imagine what you could achieve if you had control of the media for the day!

Or the women teachers in central Uganda who challenged the prevailing view that women would not be allowed to be away from home overnight for training. When I met with them on their second day of a two week co-ed live-in course, they had already done what good groups do on the first day – they had established their group norms. The list was up on the wall – be punctual, listen when others are speaking, participate, don’t’ commit adultery! This not out of some moral proscription, but because they knew that their chance to be there was hard won and at risk – they needed to support each other to ensure that this wasn’t lost – and to make sure that the men on the training program knew this too!!

It is now well established that real and active participation in development has many positives for women – and as a flow-on – for households and communities. In even the most remote communities there has at least been discussion of women’s rights to participate, and women are having a voice. Let’s not be naïve about this – there is still a long way to go!

Many of the women we have talked about today have become more financially independent, or at least less financially dependent, have developed their skills and economic potential, and their participation has provided opportunities for increased gender equity. Improved resources and conditions have enabled girls to go to school, which will have a profound impact on future generations of women and men.

Slide 9

Feminist writers on development point out the particular failure of development for the world’s poor women and the need for new ways of partnering development practitioners and those being developed, so that Third World women are empowered in the development and expression of their own forms of knowledge and can therefore be controlling participants in their own development. (Hunt 2004; Nagar 2002; Peet & Hartwick 1999; Schech & Haggis 2000).

Some of the main principles which have emerged, and which are evident from the things we have heard today are:

For example, the microcredit schemes which started in Bangladesh and which have spread throughout the developing world have also been used by women in housing estates in the United Kingdom. And why not?

Finally, we should expect results - but be open to what they might look like. A donor (not Australian) recently closed a water subsidy program for the poor when they discovered that as a result of the connection of water supply, property prices had gone up and some families decided to sell and move to a better location. The donor considered this to be a misuse of the program. To the families concerned, I’m sure it looked like development.

What can I do? I hear you asking. Well, here’s just one example…

Slide 10

There are lots of ways you can get involved. Here’s just one example. Following a very successful international day at UniSA 18 months ago, some of our women social science students heard about and wanted to do something about the problem of arsenic contamination of the groundwater in Bangladesh. A huge health issue there, the poorest people are not able to buy bottled water and have to drink the contaminated water. Our students have worked together with a University in Bangladesh to pilot the use of wine storage bladders (rather like the bladders in wine casks, only much larger) for storing rainwater. After an initial successful pilot, the first shipment of bladders has been sent, and the students are now raising funds for the provision of training and the rollout of the project. While this will no doubt have a significant benefit for women and families in Bangladesh, our students will also tell you that they have already gained so much from their engagement with this project.

Slide 11

Australia has a lot to gain through the development of our region. And this won’t happen without significant attention to women’s development and their rights.

How much longer do you think that women will willingly hold up their half of the sky when they are consistently undervalued, undereducated, underpaid, underconsulted and underestimated?

I have previously referred to the idea of synergy. We need to recognize that we are dependent on each other, and that one person’s development is everyone’s.

If you have come to help us, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, let us work together.
(Variously attributed to Indigenous leaders)


Future events

All events will be held at the Adelaide Town Hall from 5.30pm - 7.00pm

Fighting HIV AIDS

What's required to achieve an HIV/AIDS free world
Tuesday 4 April 2006

Free and Fairer Trade

Can trade be both free and equitable in a global economy?
Tuesday 6 June 2006

Water Lessons

Defending ecosystems and resurrecting community rights
Tuesday 1 August 2006

War and Peace

Peacekeeping and peacemaking to address conflict in our region
Tuesday 3 October 2006


Previous events

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