Posts from April, 2015

Real Change at the Roots

By Shannon Morrall

Last month, I attended the 59th Commission on the Status of Women. I buzzed excitedly from event to event, trying to attend as many as I could in one day, hoping to learn as much as I could from this fantastic opportunity.

As I attended diverse meetings, recording the most telling statistics and quotes regarding improvements and challenges in the fight for international gender equality, I began to notice a pattern. My favorite meetings - and the ones I found most effective in sharing information - were the meetings hosted by smaller organizations. These organizations, whose speakers had experience working in local communities around the world, gave hard evidence and results of what does and does not work when helping women empower themselves.

While official UN meetings featured high ranking guest speakers and ambassadors, I found that often the speeches given there, inspiring as they were, seemed less solution-focused. I thought to myself, “The people in this room already know why gender equality is important. Now what are we going to do about it?”

This experience has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of organizations like VGIF and the grassroots, women-led organizations that VGIF funds. It was organizations like those that focused on sharing how, specifically, we can make change. Below are some of the ideas they shared regarding strategies that they have come to through research, as well as trial and error.

On improving opportunities for women in the formal economy:

A database, locally or nationally, that provides employers access to women’s resumes in particular fields can be a powerful tool for women looking for work and for employers who are hiring. Employers in fields that have been traditionally male-dominated have been known to cite the “absence of qualified women” as rationale for hiring only men, when there are in fact many women who are not only qualified, but looking for such positions. A database makes the “absence of qualified women” argument moot.  
Suggesting a quota for women on company boards is a way to improve the balance of women and men in power and decision-making roles.

On community outreach:

On the local level, approaching religious leaders has been a very effective tool for women’s organizations and efforts to engage communities in projects focused on women’s rights, because religious or “thought” leaders tend to be very influential, and have quite a bit of power among community members.

On how to engage men and boys:

There can be pushback to programs focusing exclusively on women and girls. This happens for a number of reasons, one of which is the perception that the women/girls are receiving “special” treatment. Programs that include men and boys, like fatherhood programs, for example, can decrease this perception and has been shown to decrease violence against women in some cases.

One of the most important things I learned about women’s rights activism and organizing at the grassroots level is that rural women often face incredible challenges related to infrastructure. Organizations whose mission is to engage rural women must deal with poor or impassable roadways, lack of public transportation options, difficulties accessing water and electricity, and more. These issues can be especially difficult for individual women and women’s groups whose economic activities are tied to a market that is not close to where they live. If they cannot transport goods, they cannot earn an income.

When I asked my mentors at VGIF about this problem they were very familiar with it, as many of VGIF’s grantees face these challenges every day and have found that poor infrastructure can be very damaging to women’s opportunities. Local organizations understand these contexts and can develop strategies to help women cope with these challenges. Without the grassroots organizations that understand the local context, the change we are trying so hard to make would surely be much less effective.

I am so proud and thankful to be contributing to an organization as tuned in to these problems and effective in its work as VGIF, and I am glad the UN is learning to understand the importance of work at the grassroots. Judith Karl, Executive Secretary of UNCDF, put it perfectly at one meeting, saying, “We need to act locally, not just internationally, because it is locally that real empowerment happens.”

CSW59 – Global Progress through Education & Leadership

By Nishat Tabassum

The 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) takes place all around the United Nations and includes not only official meetings but also side events and parallel events organized by non-governmental organizations from around the world. I immersed myself in CSW not knowing fully what I was going to gain besides the knowledge of what has been done in regards to women’s rights outside of the United States. I ended CSW feeling humbled and understanding that although there has been progress globally there is still much to do in respect to women’s empowerment and the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights.

Many of the meetings I attended shared a common theme: empowering women and girls through education and equipping young women with the skills and resources they will need to be the leaders of tomorrow, in their local communities and internationally. At every meeting I would find myself in a crowded room with people rushing to network with each other. With each meeting I gained new information about challenges women and girls are facing around the world, and realized that many of these issues are not well known in the United States.

I attended several different meetings at CSW, but one I found particularly interesting was a meeting called “Women Rising in Bangladesh.” The purpose of this meeting was to discuss how women’s rights in Bangladesh have slowly been improving, but also to acknowledge that there is still much work left to be done. The issues discussed included nutrition, child mortality, the girl child and early marriage. The panelists each represented different geographic contexts and areas of expertise, and relayed important statistics and perspectives to the audience. One of the panelists, Tazima Majumdar, a volunteer activist at The Hunger Project, explained, “According to UNICEF, by the age of eighteen, 65% of the girls are married in Bangladesh” and added that females have almost 50% chance of being married with one baby before the age of twenty.  I found this really alarming; it made me reflect on my parents, who grew up in Bangladesh, and also on my own experience growing up in the United States. The gender inequality in Bangladesh is pervasive; however, to learn about all of the progress that is being made started my week off with hope and fed my ever growing curiosity about the consequences of gender inequality.

Even with this progress, women like the panelists at CSW have a responsibility to encourage new leaders to continue to overcome critical obstacles to gender equality. In other words, first ensure education opportunities for women and girls so that they have knowledge and skills, then empower them to be leaders to create lasting change.