Teach a Woman to Fish ...

The people of Murinduko, in eastern Kenya, had a problem. Water had to be hand carried about two miles, over steep terrain, from the closest source - a river contaminated with laundry runoff and other pollution. Water-borne diseases, including potentially life-threatening diarrhea, were common, and people, who were mostly subsistence farmers, weren’t able to grow or buy enough vegetables to feed their families a healthy diet. In the late 1980s, Murinduko’s men had formed an organization to get water piped in from a clean source on the Kiye River, about 10 miles away, but without success.

So in 1990, 120 women joined together to form the Kugeria Women’s Group, named after a word in the local language meaning "to make an effort." Each woman scraped together 100 shillings ($1.30) to help pay for the cost of surveying a pipeline route, with technical aid from the government. Then the women got a grant from the Africa 2000 Network, a project of the U.N. Development Programme - to which they added their own savings and sweat equity, digging nearly seven miles of trenches.

Now 300 households have access to clean, healthy water - enough not just for household use, but also to irrigate small plots of land. The average household not only grows plenty of vegetables to eat, but also makes about $1,800 a year selling tomatoes and other crops to people in the nearby city of Embu. Parents are better able to afford fees to send their children to high school; they have also given young people land to farm, sharply cutting back on juvenile delinquency and drinking. Payments for water, which is metered, are used to keep up and expand the system. Now the women of Kugeria are branching out, obtaining a microcredit loan to purchase several heifers. They plan to pass them around until each woman in the group owns a cow.

Why did the women’s group succeed, while their male peers hadn’t, at solving the water problem - and making a dent in the associated problems of poverty and poor health? For one thing, the women were the ones who spent hours each day carrying water. This was one reason, says Charity Kabutha of the Africa 2000 Network, why the men were not able to organize. "Groups need to get committed and be consistent in the work, because it’s hard work." The men of Murinduko are not eligible to vote or hold office in the Kugeria Women’s Group, but they are "very, very supportive," according to Kabutha.

Multiply this success story - a combination of local hard work and initiative, well-targeted aid, and appropriate government assistance - by the thousands of similar examples around the world and you get a clear picture of why it’s crucial for women to be involved in efforts to fight global poverty and the interrelated problems of hunger, disease, and illiteracy.

On the most basic level, about 70 percent of the world’s poorest people (those living on less than a dollar a day) are women or girls. About two-thirds of children who aren’t able to go to primary school are girls. Although women are participating in paid labor at higher rates than in the past, their wages still lag far behind men’s, and they have starkly uneven family responsibilities, often made worse by lack of access to family planning and child care. Although they work twice as many working hours as men, women receive only one-tenth of the world’s income, and own less than a hundredth of the world’s property. In some parts of the world, when a husband dies the household’s land and possessions may be legally swallowed up by his extended family, leaving his widow and children destitute.

Women aren’t just at ground zero of the problem of poverty - they’re also central to the solutions. In addition to being primary stakeholders in getting clean water (a task that takes about 40 billion hours per year worldwide, according to the United Nations), women are usually responsible for caring for sick family members. They also take primary responsibility for raising children and for household nutrition. Studies have repeatedly shown that when women receive extra income, they spend it on family food and education at higher rates than men do. As Ritu Sharma of the Women’s Edge Coalition, an advocacy group, puts it, "Teach a man to fish, he eats. Teach a woman to fish, everybody eats."

Yet, despite their status as vital stakeholders, women are often overlooked when rich countries plan development aid. For example, even though concern for women was often cited as a justification for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, less than 5 percent of the $4.2 billion in U.S. aid appropriated since the war has been overtly targeted towards women. The most straightforward way to get women’s needs considered is to invite women to the table when donors sit down with a nation’s representatives to map out an aid strategy - and yet this simple step is all too often overlooked. In the case of U.S. aid to Afghanistan, according to Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development, "Afghan women in general are not included at the table," although a few high-profile women, such as Dr. Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, are offered some funding. "Still, it’s a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the overall budget."

What would a well-conceived aid policy - one that recognized the vital role women have to play - look like? In part, it would be aware of the potential of thinking small. In the past decade, microcredit, the practice of giving modest loans to help individuals start small businesses, has finally begun to receive well-deserved attention (in fact, the U.N. proclaimed 2005 to be the International Year of Microcredit). By the end of 2003, different microcredit groups reported making loans to over 54 million people living in poverty, more than four-fifths of them women; the U.S. Agency for International Development is devoting $200 million to microcredit this fiscal year.

But large aid agencies, including USAID, often skew towards large programs because they are easier to oversee and because large contractors are better able to keep up with the paperwork. (Last September, at the behest of microcredit advocates, Congress passed a bill prodding USAID to devote more of its microcredit budget to loans for very poor people, and less to expensive for-profit contractors.) Wali, of Refugee Women in Development, points out that only recently, due to pressure from activists, USAID put out its first-ever request for proposals from civil society in the Muslim world, with a $5 million funding pool.

It’s also vital that aid be culturally appropriate and involve local stakeholders rather than imposing priorities on them from outside. For example, ActionAid Afghanistan (which receives no funding from the U.S. government) runs several dozen women’s groups in Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, and Kabul - using a model inspired by Brazilian educator Paolo Freire that focuses on literacy, basic math skills, and catalyzing participants’ own priority-setting. "They are able to learn from each one’s ability and experience," according to ActionAid Afghanistan policy director Marina Nawabi. "For example, one of them knows tailoring, so she is teaching others how to sew their clothes. Another knows how to read and write, so she’s sharing." In addition to exchanging vocational skills (in weaving, embroidery, and poultry raising), the women also identify problems to solve in their communities, such as water provision and maternal mortality. "There is no doctor to go to," according to Nawabi, "so they are...focusing on [the] training of dayas [midwives]."

WHILE SMALL-SCALE projects are essential - and microcredit in particular garners feel-good bipartisan support - it’s also vital that policy makers see the big picture of structural injustice. So it’s a good thing that among the Millennium Development Goals (which the world’s nations have committed to achieve by 2015) is the goal to "promote gender equality and empower women." However, while many of the MDGs have multiple measurable targets, the gender equality goal is boiled down to a single target, gender equality in school enrollment. Decision-makers also need to aim at equal economic opportunities, legal rights, family planning access, and security from violence against women. For example, USAID plans to establish 17 women’s resource centers in Afghan provinces - but without security from violence, women won’t be able to use those centers.

If aid plans need to better address gender issues, there is even more room for improvement in trade agreements, whose proponents and negotiators are almost always willfully obtuse about how women will be affected. For example, the smallest farms, often disproportionately run by women, are often lost when trade agreements drop tariffs on cheap imports and spur governments to support larger, export-oriented farms. Some who lose their farms are able to find work in maquilas or factories, which disproportionately hire women because they are believed to be cheaper and more docile workers. Although even often-meager maquila wages can make a big difference in women’s lives, women workers frequently endure poor health conditions, harassment for labor organizing, invasive pregnancy testing, and no job security whenever the corporate owner discovers slightly cheaper workers elsewhere. Many jobless women and men migrate to wealthier countries such as the United States - a particularly perilous journey for women - and are able to send home remittances to their families, but at the cost of prolonged separation from their children or spouses. Finally, trade agreements or World Bank requirements can lead governments to put essential services, such as water and health care, in the hands of for-profit corporations whose prices are out of reach for the poor. When that happens, it is often women who pick up the slack and carry water from distant or unsafe sources - Kugeria Women’s Group in reverse.

As governments are falling down on the job of gender analysis of trade agreements, some nonprofits are stepping into the breach. For example, the advocacy group Women’s Edge partnered with a Caribbean group to consider the effects of trade liberalization on Jamaica. They focused in particular on the big changes of the middle and late 1990s, when the country slashed taxes on imports, opening Jamaica’s market to subsidized dairy, meat, and crops from the United States.

"For us in the Caribbean, a lot of jobs for women, which were mainly in agriculture, have been lost, and therefore there is this increase in the feminization of poverty," according to Nelcia Robinson of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action (CAFRA). "Small farms that were mainly managed by women are now being absorbed into larger corporations, and the women’s jobs are being lost." Rural dwellers, mostly farmers, make up half of Jamaica’s population; 72 percent of them are poor and 62 percent of them are female.

The analysis by Women’s Edge and CAFRA also showed that lower food prices had benefited poor families who weren’t farmers, and that "free trade zones" created in the 1980s and ’90s to attract foreign-owned factories had provided jobs, 90 percent of which went to young women. But what free trade gave with one hand, it took away with another: While free trade zones employed 36,000 women in 1995, when NAFTA came into force Jamaica lost 16,000 jobs in just two years to Mexican free trade zones. Overall, trade liberalization from 1993 to 2001 produced 45,500 jobs for men and cost the country 12,400 jobs for women.

The study was basic research, carried out on a shoestring budget, and it is being listened to in Jamaica: It "really provided a tool that we could offer to the government" in advocating for women, according to Robinson. There is no reason why a rich country like the United States, which spends millions each year on trade negotiations, can’t take the time to do the math on trade agreements and gender.

The feminization of poverty is still a vast blind spot for too many of the world’s decision-makers. But no one is invisible to the eyes of God, who has much to say in the Bible about justice for disempowered women. "The Lord your God...executes justice for the orphan and the widow" (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). "Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor" (Zechariah 7:10). "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27).

And the Bible also has a model for how women, if free from oppression, can run businesses and provide for their families: The entrepreneurial woman of Proverbs 31 invests in farming - "she considers a field and buys it" - and small-scale textile production, benefiting all around her. Like her, the Kenyan community of Murinduko shows what can happen if the world takes women seriously: families well-fed, and mothers, daughters, and sisters clothed in strength and dignity. As Charity Kabutha puts it, "It can take quite a while. But the women have seen success, and they know how to succeed."

Elizabeth Palmberg is assistant editor of Sojourners.

Women and Development: Resources for further reading

Want to learn more about women's role in overcoming poverty? Point and click your way towards more informed global citizenship:



  • The U.S. Interfaith Trade Justice Campaign offers reflections about how moral and spiritual values should affect our views of the world economy. The site also offers trade news and excellent, practical suggestions for getting involved in current issues such as CAFTA.


  • The International Gender and Trade Network, in which Nelcia Robinson is a participant, has several helpful, introductory articles that give short overviews of gender and trade in relation to development, health, and water.


  • The Center of Concern, a Catholic nonprofit which analyzes trade and other global issues, houses the IGTN and offers in-depth analyses of trade agreements, international debt, and more, often from a gender perspective.


  • The Center of Concern also offers Education for Justice, a subscription-based service that provides accessible popular education materials, including prayers and liturgies, about current social justice issues from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.


  • The Women's Edge Coalition offers information and action suggestions on a wide variety of issues affecting women, including global trade, aid, health, and more.


  • Oxfam publishes detailed yet accessible reports on trade, aid, debt, and health issues; a number of these reports consider the impact of these issues on women. For example, one recent report, "Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains," considers the plight of women sweatshop workers around the world.

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