I recently had the opportunity to network with 2,000 powerful, inspiring and philanthropic women based in the Chicago metro area who, like me, attended a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Foundation for Women. The mission of the Foundation is simple: invest in women and girls. Before our keynote, Soledad O’Brien, spoke, we heard story after story of women who recognized their own ability to improve their lives, and did not allow outside noise to deter them from that goal.
The event recognized these intrepid women for changing laws pertaining to rape violence kits, improving prenatal care in underserved communities and more. One cannot do justice to the number of ways women have contributed to society, and will continue to do so, when empowered. That’s the problem however: empowerment.
In order for women to truly embrace empowerment, they need to partake in the ‘experience’ wholeheartedly: particularly, economics and politics. In the Western world, this is a non-issue, it’s already happening, while the degree of its effectiveness is debatable. However, in the developing countries, the future of the society will depend upon the empowerment and employment of its women.
This may sound redundant, but I’ve arrived at this conclusion having spent some time in Pakistan, where the majority of women languish on the sidelines of both the political and economic fabric of society. While men are in control of the household finances, the community and ultimately the country, women are given free reign only in the domestic sphere. Unfortunately, this is not enough power to effect change.
For years, the feminization of poverty is a topic that is discussed as an abstract, and politely escorted to the corner of the room. Until we re-think poverty, empowerment and suffering as human issue, rather than solely a female issue, we will continue to have disjointed communities where women stay at home to raise children, men are sent off to earn wages, and children attend schools to memorize lesson plans.
Empowering women and girls is also a male issue. Men need to partake equally in order to offer their wives, sisters, or daughters the support they deserve to do something better with their lives. Micro-lending, pioneered by the visionary Mohammad Younus, is one such example. Organizations such as Kiva.org have made participation in micro-lending possible by setting up online portals with complete information about a woman, her source of income, and her loan requirements.
While we are empowering our women with better job opportunities, better pay and better political power, there is a price to pay for this ‘renewed status’. Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her book Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, empowerment of one woman can lead to the disenfranchisement of another with devastating effects. Women often hire domestic help from other countries which can create a negative financial domino effect. These women leave behind their homes and children, who are cared for by extended family members. The work they do brings them money to help support their family, yet not a dime is earned in their home country.
If we expect our women to help balance society, we need to create for them a framework within which to exert that power. Consider a Filipino woman who isworking hard as a nanny to offer her employer a happy, balanced home for the children while the mother works, meanwhile back in her home country, the Filipina’s own children are cared for by an extended family member. This example of ‘breaking’ one family to assist another occurs so often that we consider it normal. The disconnect is often due in part to the men, and their unemployment status. Men need to get involved to make sure these women stay in their communities, earn a decent living and set positive examples of change which help improve the lives of girls of generations to come.
(Photo: Rouzeh Eghtessadi)
Ayesha Akhtar is Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls Project. HEART empowers women through: Health Education (increasing access to accurate information and resources about one’s body and health issues), Advocacy (advocating for culturally-sensitive health care services & education for faith based communities), Research (conducting research to generate data and information about the status of women and girls from faith based communities), and Training (training women and girls to become leaders of wellness in their communities).