Women Are The Solution, Men May Be The Problem In Developing Countries

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Famine and hunger may not the main problems in poor and developing countries, but it could also be cultural attitudes that favor men more than women, prompting the U.S. State Department to focus on putting women and girls in the “front and center” of developing work.

Secretary Hillary Clinton speaking at the Peterson Institute for International Economics on Wednesday said that her department will “invest” in the potential of women in developing countries to bring about economic and political change. Clinton:

Women and girls are one of the world’s greatest untapped resources. Investing in the potential of women to lift and lead their societies is one of the best investments we can make. You all know the studies that have shown when a woman receives even just one year of schooling, her children are less likely to die in infancy or suffer from illness or hunger, and more likely to go to school themselves.

Clinton mentioned that women are more safe and less of a risk when given credit. She drew applause from the audience when she said:

Well, you know the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”? Well, if you teach a woman to fish, she’ll feed the whole village.

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During the speech Clinton gave concrete examples of instances when aid was directed at women and how they were able to improve their lives by starting businesses that lifted their community’s economy. She mentioned Nicaragua, India, and South Africa as places where women are thriving.

MEN CONTRIBUTE TO THE PROBLEM

It’s important to note that Hillary Clinton did not at all mention that her department’s focus on women had anything to do with men being a problem. But as part of this report my research led to observations by experts that have found that men are partly to blame for the situation in their countries and, why the focus on women has become more important.

Back in October of 2006, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a piece titled, “Aid: Can It Work?” for the New York Review of Books, where he highlighted cultural attitudes in developing countries that cast a bad light on men as being part of the problem.

In rural Indonesia, you see a cultural problem that aid can’t easily address: pregnant women and babies going hungry, even having to eat bark from trees, while their husbands are doing fine. It turns out that the custom is for the men and boys to eat their fill first. In Ethiopia, you greet parents cradling hungry babies and explaining that they have no food because their land is parched and their crops are dying. And two hundred feet away is a lake, but there is no tradition of irrigating land with the lake water, and no bucket; and anyway the men explain that carrying water is women’s work.

Kristof’s concluded in that section of the article that women needed to be empowered so that investments of foreign aid in poor countries can yield sustainable communities where women take the lead.

The cultural attitudes towards the roles of men and women in Africa for example have been studied by Takyiwaa Mahnu. In a research paper for the United Nations titled, “Women in Africa’s Development,” Mahnu pointed out why women find themselves in such predicament:

Women’s power and spheres of influence largely disappeared under the impact of colonialism and external religions, which upset existing economic and social complementarity between the sexes. New “customary” laws on marriage created in response to men’s anxieties about the independence of women transformed the previously fluid and negotiable relations between them into rigid duties and obligations of wives and women.

Women came to be regarded as primarily dependent on men, making it unnecessary to plan and provide for their needs; they were to work in the fields and home to produce food and other crops to support their men, who worked in visible, documented activities. Finally, the introduction of new forms of marriage that granted enhanced property and inheritance rights to a minority, increased the dependence of the majority of African women on men.

Elevating the power of women in developing countries is nothing new. Efforts to educate women, get them the medical care they need, and the training to live sustainable lives have been taken place since the early 1990′s. According to Mahnu, many women have succeeded since — creating co-ops, managing their own businesses, and becoming community leaders. However, Mahnu points out that women still face many obstacles:

Women in Africa continue to face enormous obstacles. The growing recognition of their contributions has not translated into significantly improved access to resources or increased decision-making powers. Neither has the dynamism that women display in the economic, cultural and social lives of their communities through their associations and informal networks been channeled into creating new models of participation and leadership.

It’s perhaps due to such observations from social scientists that have led to the State Department’s new approach of putting women in the “front and center” of foreign aid.

There are already plans to measure how well foreign aid work is helping improve women’s health, income, and access to education and food. The US State Department has started to design programs with the needs of women in mind – “by hiring more women as extension workers to reach women farmers, or women health educators to improve outreach to women and girls. And we are training more women in our partner countries to carry forward the work of development themselves – for example, through scholarships to women agricultural scientists in Kenya,” Clinton said.

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