Women's needs must be put at heart of drive to end poverty

Wed, Mar 7, 2012, 00:00

POVERTY HAS a female face. You are more likely to be poor, to go hungry, to be kept out of school, if you are female. You are less likely to own land or to have a voice in decisions affecting your life.

Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half its food, yet earn only one-tenth of its income, and own less than 1 per cent of property.

In many households, tradition dictates that men eat first, followed by sons, while women and girls eat last. Money from meagre family budgets is diverted from female education or health needs to meet rising food bills.

When all else fails, food insecurity forces some women to sell the last remaining asset they own: their bodies.

A recent report, Overcoming the Barriers, by Oxfam, a member of the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender-Based Violence, which brings together non-governmental organisations, Irish Aid and the Defence Forces, found that as climate change damaged land and crops, small-scale women farmers in southern Africa were finding themselves eating less or nothing at all, saving the little food they did have for their families.

Through the Millennium Development Goals, international donors, Ireland included, have made tackling hunger a priority. However, efforts are not targeting women sufficiently.

On International Women’s Day tomorrow, we will be calling on governments and aid and development agencies to concentrate efforts to put women’s needs at the heart of the development agenda.

As the 56th Commission on the Status of Women is meeting at the UN this month, discussions have centred on rural women’s contribution to eradicating poverty and hunger. Yet, from the high-powered economic forum in Davos to the Durban climate talks, it is men who dominate decision-making on the solutions.

Too often, women are not “seen” by those making decisions and allocating money. But women are often those who can best respond to poverty and hunger through resilience and initiative.

The scale of violence against women globally and its impact on poverty must also be considered. Some one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her life. Abuse is a chronic problem in less-developed countries, exacerbated by conflict, crisis and poverty. It violates their human rights but also means they are less able to earn a living.

The issue of gender justice cannot remain a “minority interest” if things are to change – it must be at the heart of the development agenda.

We know communities where men and women are more equal have made faster progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals. We know when investment is directed into the hands of women, the whole community prospers. We know that when women smallholders have the same access to land, tools, seeds, credit and training as men, yields increase by up to 30 per cent, feeding more people. We know targeting the needs of women in crisis means better outcomes for everyone.

Anna Oloshuro, from Morogoro, Tanzania, is proof. When she won a solar panel after being named one of Tanzania’s female food heroes in a contest run by Oxfam and partners, she dedicated the prize to the women in her community. The generator will be used to open an information centre for women and girls so they can meet, share knowledge and improve their farms and livelihoods.

On International Women’s Day, we should celebrate people like Anna. Ending poverty starts with her, and women like her.

Oxfam Ireland chief executive Jim Clarken chairs the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender-Based Violence, which tomorrow hosts a forum, The Health and Social Consequences of Violence Against Women and Girls, at 2pm at Chester Beattie Library, Dublin