“Our struggle, our leadership”: challenging poverty through women’s rights

Blum Center, UC Berkeley, 25 October 2010

Video of Prudence http://vimeo.com/5583909

That was Prudence Mabele, of the Positive Women’s Network, South Africa and Kavita Ramdas, former President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.

I would like to begin by conducting a short, completely un-academic, totally un-scientific study: a quick survey of the audience here. Would all those of you – students and professors – who use gender as a conceptual lens please raise your hands? Will all those of you who self-identify as ‘feminist’ please raise your hands? Will all those of you who self-identify as activist scholars please raise your hands? And finally, all of the above: will the sub-set of those in the room who identify themselves as feminist activist academics, using a gendered lens in your work, please raise their hands?

All of you in the last group really don’t need to stay to listen to me – but I’d love to meet you for coffee afterwards!

As someone who has spent much of her life trying to negotiate the tricky boundaries and the even more complicated overlaps between activism and academia, I am deeply honoured to be here today, to be speaking to such a distinguished audience, to feel that I am amongst friends who challenge themselves – as I do – to understand issues of poverty, and who offer nuanced, substantive analyses of its complexities. Poverty as not only material deprivation, but as issues of access to resources, agency and participation, security and safety, capability and freedoms, empowerment. Poverty both as a state of being, and a process – sadly – of becoming.

Most significantly, I would like to challenge the intellectual poverty of those analysts who look for ‘solutions’ to world poverty without considering feminist leadership. Across the world, social justice activists have powerful and pungent slogans to describe their work. One such slogan, used by women’s rights advocates in India is: jiski ladai, uski agvai, translates to “our fight, our leadership”. In other words, when so many of the world’s troubles impact women and girls disproportionately, it is the visionary and passionate leadership of women that can change our communities, and transform our world. Talking about women’s leadership gives me the opportunity to present both the theoretical reasons why it is important, and then the practical ways in which we can, and should, use it as a central strategy for challenging poverty.

For the founders and leaders of the Global Fund for Women, and for every member of its growing community, this belief in women’s leadership has been the cornerstone of the organisation’s extraordinary work for 23 years. The Global Fund was founded 23 years ago in 1987, when three pioneering women came together to say that not enough resources were being directed to advance women’s equality worldwide. Since then, we have given nearly $84 million dollars in over 7,500 grants to 4000 women-led organisations in 171 countries. In a strange and wonderful twist of the universe, I come to the organisation as its Regional Program Director for Asia and Oceania after having been supported at different points in my own activism by the Global Fund. In other words, I am a ‘grantee’ turned ‘funder’!

Having been born into a Hindu family, I have an odd predilection for triumvirates, so I offer you today three insights that I have developed from my experiences over the past fifteen years as an activist and academic, and now working for Asia at the Global Fund. As we all know, being an ‘accessible’ scholar is not necessarily the path to tenure… So since I currently do not have the ‘publish or perish’ t-shirt to worry about, my three offerings come to you as simple, but hopefully not simplistic, hypotheses:

First, I offer that gender as a conceptual tool is critical to the analysis of poverty

Secondly, that feminism as a political and cultural framework is critical to policy advocacy and public action around poverty

and finally, drawing from the first two, that women’s leadership is therefore key to a strong, progressive and prosperous future, in which we might – finally – overcome the challenges of poverty.

Having laid out my hypotheses up front, let me lay out some stark figures that many of you may be familiar with:

  • In the crudest estimates of the world’s poor, there are nearly 3 billion people living under 2 dollars a day; 70% of them are women.
  • Somewhere in the world, a woman has just died from pregnancy and childbirth. One every minute.
  • Half a million women die giving birth each year, across the world, and many are left chronically ill or disabled. South and South-West Asia account for one third of the world’s maternal deaths.[1]
  • Over a hundred million women and girls are ‘missing’ from the world’s population through sex selective abortion, infanticide, inadequate nutrition, and murder for dowry or honour.

Stark as they are, sometimes issues of women’s health or violence are not seen as being central to the issue of poverty, even though many of us would argue that they are – as you say with the Positive Women’s Network in South Africa. For many analysts, a gender focus is not considered, for example, an intrinsic component of geopolitics. Yet this is a key factor in the feminization of poverty – not only the greater numbers of women who are poor, but the gendered dimensions of the causes and processes of deepening deprivation and inequality. As we know, the current global socio-political and economic context is hugely challenged by at least three critical and connected factors: the impact of the global economic crisis, growing militarization along with increased fundamentalisms as well as natural disasters and climate change.

Why would we use a gendered lens to analyse these issues?

  • Across the world, women bear the brunt of the global economic crisis.
  • Women continue to earn less than men across the world: even in the top industrialised countries of the world, women on an average earn 18% less than men; a woman in the US earns 75.5 cents to every dollar that a man earns
  • Women face persistent discrimination when they apply for credit for business or self-employment and are often concentrated in insecure, unsafe and low-wage work, and are often migrants. Eight out of ten women workers are considered to be in vulnerable employment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with global economic changes taking a huge toll on their livelihoods; the International Labour Organization estimates that over 22 million women lost their jobs in the economic crisis of 2009.
  • In most countries of the world, however, women do not even show up as statistics, forming the majority of the informal economy as domestics or low paid farm labour
  • Young women, in particular, are part of a “lost generation” of young people without employment, with the global unemployment rate for youth reaching its highest ever recorded level. The International Labour Organization reports that globally young women found it more difficult to find work than their male counterparts, with the 2009 female youth unemployment rate being 13.2 for women and 12.9 for men.[2]
  • Men, women and children are all affected by civil conflict, militarism and fundamentalisms, but women in particular suffer disproportionately through rape and other forms of sexual violence. In 2007, nation states spent a staggering $1,339 billion worldwide in military budgets, nearly US $4 billion a day! About half of this is by the US unsurprisingly, but developing countries like India and Pakistan, for instance, also spend 2.6% of their GDP on defence. In the midst of a global economic crisis, 65% of countries increased their military spending in real terms last year. War and conflict cause a deepening of deprivation and vulnerability, yet states and the defence industry hardly take into account that 80% of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons from war and conflict, are women and children.[3]
  • And finally, natural disasters and climate change: women are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men.[4] For instance, the Asia Pacific region is the most disaster-prone region on earth, accounting for over 60 per cent of the world’s disasters.[5] In the first few weeks of the devastating floods that hit Pakistan – leaving one third of the country under water – we set up a Crisis Fund to support our partners in the country. They told us that not only were more women reported dead than men, more women and children were reported missing, presumed kidnapped or trafficked. We also know that climate change and environmental issues are key to women’s lives and livelihoods. Yet it has been a struggle to incorporate gender sensitive language in international commitments around climate change. At the somewhat disastrous Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, the women’s caucus there concluded with the words:

“There is no participation in partition.

There is no process without people.

There is no climate justice without gender justice.

There is no gender justice without climate justice.”

Economics, politics, the environment: these are all women’s issues. In fact, a key Global Fund tenet is that all issues are women’s issues. They are all also dimensions of poverty – gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, civic and political participation, education, environmental and economic justice. Ignoring a gender analysis is to do our own scholarship and its impact, a disservice. Ignoring a holistic analysis of poverty is to completely miss the point. Poverty is not about the indicators that tell us that people are poor, understanding poverty is to understand the causes of structural deprivation that tell us why people are poor, and why they continue to be – or become – poor.

In September 2010, with much fanfare and some embarrassment, world leaders met at the United Nations to assess the Millennium Development Goals – eight goals that were set ten years ago to reduce extreme poverty by laying out a series of time-bound targets – with a deadline of 2015. In 2000, many women’s organizations had critiqued the MDGs as being “minimalist development goals”; watered-down commitments of the internationally agreed development goals of the UN conferences of the 1990’s. The goal of reducing maternal mortality and improving maternal health, for instance, has failed spectacularly. And yet, with ‘gender equality’ being seen as a separate “goal”, rather than an intrinsic structural precondition for combating poverty, the connections between poverty women’s health, the health of their children, HIV/AIDS and the environment are only made by groups on the ground, like Positive Women’s Network in South Africa and others we support.

Let me share with you the story of a $5000 grant we gave nearly a decade ago.

In 2001, the Global Fund for Women received a grant proposal from a small group of women in Yunan Province, China, who had begun to address the link between pesticide use and women’s health. Yunnan is the most southwestern province in China and is both biologically and culturally diverse. It is also one of the poorest provinces in China. Some 85 percent of the people in Yunnan live in the countryside, so agriculture plays a huge role in the economy, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the province’s GDP with women as the primary workforce. (By the way, women produce 50 to 60% the world’s food. In Sub Saharan Africa for instance, women produce and market up to 90% of locally grown food… yet how often do we think of farmers as women?) Research conducted by Pesticide Action Network found that traces of over 98 pesticides were present in women’s bodies, which they tied to the escalation of breast cancer incidence in the region.

EcoWomen, the group that applied to us, had an annual budget of $400. But its members’ vision was not limited by their means. They wanted to educate women farmers about pesticide risks and safer pesticide application, and train them in organic farming practices. They wanted to invest in the revival of heirloom crops and to promote markets for organic produce. They dreamed of running environmental educational programs for primary school students, and conducting more research on how pesticide use was impacting women’s health.

Our seed grant back in 2001 was not the kind most grantmakers would advise you to make. The $5,000 Global Fund grant was ten times the size of the group’s budget and they had no track record to speak of. But we knew that the vision of these women farmers was important, and their contribution to the betterment of their environment, critical. Today Ecowomen has an annual budget of over $90,000. We recently gave them their fifth grant, this time for $20,000 to support their work with tea farmers in Ya’an, an area still recovering from the devastating earthquake in 2008. EcoWomen is known as a leading researcher and advocate of the connections between poverty, farming, pesticide use and women’s health. The group knows that the costs of illness are amongst the highest causes of falling into poverty traps anywhere in the world, and they work with women farmers to challenge the prevailing model of farming, and to improve their health.

In other words, using a feminist political framework can make change happen. For those of you still paying attention, that’s my second hypothesis! Let me clarify what I mean by feminist and political here, since they are amongst the most misunderstood words in the world: I mean that to be feminist and political is to analyse the structures of power, privilege and patriarchy so that we change “the unequal conditions between men and women”. But it is also to recognise that gender inequality is structured by other forms of inequality as well – race, class, caste, age, ability, religion, region, language… Feminism offers a relational analysis of power that is critical to understanding how we live, what we do, and why we do it.

Most critically, a feminist lens is based on intersectionality both of identity – but also of approach. It makes connections and it creates a holistic analysis of how that connectedness impacts our lives. If you looked at me, and saw that I was a woman, or that I was brown, or that I was middle class – gender, race, class are all important to understanding who I am, but they still don’t explain my life fully. In trying to analyse poverty, merely working with sterile definitions of income – for example – will not tell us how people themselves understand and overcome poverty, in the fullness of their lives and living. Knowing that we are complex human beings, living in a complex world, means that changing our lives in any way needs – in fact, demands – a holistic, connected analysis and set of of actions. At the Global Fund for Women, we know that the litmus test for social justice is when the world’s most marginalized communities gain some measure of equality and dignity: HIV positive women in South Africa, rural women farmers in China, queer women in Lithuania.

When we think of poverty, what is the image that comes to our minds? Women in India and Sub Saharan Africa? Yet poverty is not about geography, as all of you know: as part of your global poverty minor, how many of you study Oakland? One in 6 Lithuanians is poor, and within a culture of patriarchy in the Baltic region, women are de-valued and their rights suppressed. However, we recently gave a grant to a new group of activists, the young queer women of New Generation of Women’s Initiatives (ngoWI). From ngoWI’s perspective, the more disempowered young women are, the more poverty and violence – including trafficking – women experience. “We want to change it,” ngoWI says, “to encourage people, especially women, to critically evaluate restrictive, objectifying, and oppressive constructions from the outside and speak out for themselves through their activities and initiatives.” Thanks in part to their non-traditional approaches, ngoWI has emerged as a key feminist ally in the region.

For example, every year they organize ‘Ladyfest,’ a cultural festival that also serves as an alternative, inclusive and friendly space for marginalized citizens—homosexuals, bisexuals, youth subcultures, young women, and mothers. Here young women can openly debate and discuss controversial issues such as dismantling traditional gender systems, queer women’s rights, and intergenerational feminism. Challenging all manner of stereotypes allows ngoWI to deal with issues that are often overlooked. To advocate for young mothers’ labor rights, ngoWI developed “MOMA: Mobile Mothers—Workers of a New Generation.” A“Momabile” travels to rural areas to educate young mothers about their labor rights and teach them to organize self-support clubs where women can discuss and address issues that matter to them. Reflecting on the program, ngoWI says, “We believe that the change we bring along is there to stay.”

It is probably clear to all of you by now that when we say ‘women’s leadership’ at the Global Fund for Women, we do not only mean women as political representatives, though this is important, particularly when we think about structural change to challenge poverty. However, women’s leadership for us is much more than the number of women in politics: it is about the quality and values of those women, and it about women who are at decision making tables of every kind. Most importantly, when we talk about women’s leadership for sustainable change, we mean that women are not just at the decision-making tables, they are helping craft the agenda.

One such group doing that is the City of Women in Colombia. The group is engaging the governments in Colombia, across Latin America, and elsewhere in the world, in representing the voices of displaced women in conflict.

Video of Patricia Gurrero, City of Women http://vimeo.com/5579627

So what is common to Positive Women’s Network, Ecowomen, ngoWI and the City of Women? They are all groups of courage, transgressing the stereotypes of gender, occupation, religion, conflict and finding innovative ways of making life better for women around them. What is common to Global Fund for Women’s support of these groups? As a funder, we took calculated risks and made specific investments. As a feminist funder, we made investments in women’s leadership. In creating a movement for women’s rights where groups of women with a strong and passionate vision could make change happen for themselves and their communities.

So how does the Global Fund do what it does? We make small grants with big impact. We trust in the expertise of the groups we work with, we know that they ask the right questions, and have the best solutions. We give unrestricted funding, which means that the group can use the money for whatever it feels is most critical. We are responsive, which means that if things change on the ground, as they often do, groups can change their focus. For example, when the floods hit Pakistan, we asked our grantee partners to use their existing grant money for flood relief.

Being responsive also means being aware of our disproportionate power not only as funders, but as funders based in the Global North where so much political and economic power is already concentrated. It also means knowing as much as we can about the political, economic, socio-cultural and historical context of the regions in which we work. Far from assuming we could ever be experts on women’s challenges in 171 nations, we are humble about how little we know. Instead, we rely heavily on our broad networks of over 4000 grantees, 2000 informal advisors and 150 formal advisors who are activists, scholars, and policymakers who are based on the ground in the countries we work in. They remind us that the movement for achieving women’s human rights and equality isn’t a linear process, that it takes time, patience and astounding perseverance. It also takes a community across the world – a community that includes donors and supporters, who believe in women’s human rights and who trust, as we do, in the expertise and experience of our grantees.

We cannot challenge poverty without the global women’s movement taking lead, without local women sharing their expertise globally, without local complexities being understood globally, without local solutions inspiring other local and global ideas. Poverty can only be overcome by systemic change, and that systemic structural change is only possible through the force of a movement.

However, that does not mean that we do not often get asked the ‘impact ‘ question. Can you really assess the impact of supporting the women’s rights and feminist movements on poverty alleviation? I return to the three hypotheses I laid out at the beginning of my talk, which form the basis, in a sense for my personal and GFW’s organisational theory of change: issues of poverty need rigorous gender analyses, strong public action and advocacy for gender justice, and clear and substantive support for women’s leadership. While we do our evaluations and make substantive arguments about how we do what we do and what it means, no one at the Global Fund for Women is surprised that our theory of change has yielded significant gains for women around the world, and not just for women, for all humanity. We know that when women are given access to resources, they improve their lives, their children’s and family’s lives, and the lives of their communities. We know that they can change the structures of power and shift the rules of engagement. My hypotheses are validated every day that I live and work and learn from groups like Ecowomen, ngoWI and the City of Peace.

In case you are still sceptical, let me ask you a simple question: I ask you to take a moment, to imagine life as your grandmother knew it and then, to return to your life today. What has changed and how did it happen?

In 1988, a year after GFW’s founding, 55% of girls worldwide were literate, only two countries had banned female genital mutilation, and women’s life expectancy in developing countries was 53.7 years. By 2008, twenty years later, 74% of girls around the world could read, 30 countries had banned female genital mutilation, and women in developing countries can now expect to live 63 years. None of this would have been possible without the leadership of hundreds of thousands of extraordinary women – and yes, the support of extraordinary men – who lead what might seem like ordinary lives, but are in reality, lives of courage, resilience and constant inspiration. Our lives are very different from those of our grandmothers. And yet we still have a long way to go, and many journeys ahead of us. As a 21 year old college student, I wrote a poem for my own grandmother, for all women, called Silence. It seems appropriate that I end my talk today with this poem.

Too many women in too many countries

speak the same language of silence.

My grandmother was always silent –

always aggrieved —

only her husband had the cosmic right

(or so it was said) to speak and be heard.

They say it is different now

(after all, I am always vocal

and my grandmother thinks I talk too much).

But sometimes, I wonder.

When a woman gives her love,

as most women do, generously —

it is accepted.

When a woman shares her thoughts,

as some women do, graciously —

it is allowed.

When a woman fights for power,

as all women would like to,

quietly or loudly,

it is questioned.

And yet, there must be freedom –

if we are to speak.

And yes, there must be power —

if we are to be heard.

And when we have both (freedom and power),

let us not be misunderstood.

We seek only to give words

to those who cannot speak

(too many women in too many countries).

I seek only to forget the sorrows

of my grandmother’s


15 years later, I stand before you convinced that ‘breaking the silence’ is not only about breaking the silence around gender based violence. It is also about breaking the silence around women’s leadership and a feminist future. As I began, I am convinced that global poverty can only be challenged in all its dimensions with the insights and wisdom of a movement of women, who given the opportunities and the resources, can craft a new world of peace, prosperity and justice. That world is not just possible, she is already on her way. Thank you for listening.

1UN ESCAP Report 2010

2International Labour Organization (August 2010) ILO Global Employment Trends for Youth August 2010, special issue on the impact of the global economic crisis on youth

3Patricia Hynes (2003) War and Women; http://www.zcommunications.org/war-and-women-by-patricia-hynes

4United Nations Population Fund (November 2009) The State of World Population 2009, Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate.

5International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) (November 2008) Asia Pacific Zone: Plan 2009-2010