Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Women hold up half the sky

A really good New York Times article about how targeting women for international aid may be the best solution to poverty and many human welfare and human rights issues.

Includes tales of women who have gone through some really horrible shit, whose lives (and whose family's lives) have drastically improved, from things like microloans and educational opportunities and other aid organizations.

The most inspiring to me was about this one woman in Zimbabwe, Tererai. As a kid, she begged her father to be allowed to go to school, but he wouldn't let her, because she was a girl. Her brother was sent to school though, even though he was pretty indifferent about it, and she would read all his books and end up doing his homework. The teacher found out, told her parents she was a prodigy. So she was allowed to go to school for a few months, until she was married off at the age of 11.

Then an activist from Heifer International came. I'm just gonna quote the whole rest of the story about her:

Tererai’s husband barred her from attending school, resented her literacy and beat her whenever she tried to practice her reading by looking at a scrap of old newspaper. Indeed, he beat her for plenty more as well. She hated her marriage but had no way out. “If you’re a woman and you are not educated, what else?” she asks.

Yet when Jo Luck came and talked to Tererai and other young women in her village, Luck kept insisting that things did not have to be this way. She kept saying that they could achieve their goals, repeatedly using the word “achievable.” The women caught the repetition and asked the interpreter to explain in detail what “achievable” meant. That gave Luck a chance to push forward. “What are your hopes?” she asked the women, through the interpreter. Tererai and the others were puzzled by the question, because they didn’t really have any hopes. But Luck pushed them to think about their dreams, and reluctantly, they began to think about what they wanted.

Tererai timidly voiced hope of getting an education. Luck pounced and told her that she could do it, that she should write down her goals and methodically pursue them. After Luck and her entourage disappeared, Tererai began to study on her own, in hiding from her husband, while raising her five children. Painstakingly, with the help of friends, she wrote down her goals on a piece of paper: “One day I will go to the United States of America,” she began, for Goal 1. She added that she would earn a college degree, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. — all exquisitely absurd dreams for a married cattle herder in Zimbabwe who had less than one year’s formal education. But Tererai took the piece of paper and folded it inside three layers of plastic to protect it, and then placed it in an old can. She buried the can under a rock where she herded cattle.

Then Tererai took correspondence classes and began saving money. Her self-confidence grew as she did brilliantly in her studies, and she became a community organizer for Heifer. She stunned everyone with superb schoolwork, and the Heifer aid workers encouraged her to think that she could study in America. One day in 1998, she received notice that she had been admitted to Oklahoma State University.

Some of the neighbors thought that a woman should focus on educating her children, not herself. “I can’t talk about my children’s education when I’m not educated myself,” Tererai responded. “If I educate myself, then I can educate my children.” So she climbed into an airplane and flew to America.

At Oklahoma State, Tererai took every credit she could and worked nights to make money. She earned her undergraduate degree, brought her five children to America and started her master’s, then returned to her village. She dug up the tin can under the rock and took out the paper on which she had scribbled her goals. She put check marks beside the goals she had fulfilled and buried the tin can again.

In Arkansas, she took a job working for Heifer — while simultaneously earning a master’s degree part time. When she had her M.A., Tererai again returned to her village. After embracing her mother and sister, she dug up her tin can and checked off her next goal. Now she is working on her Ph.D. at Western Michigan University.

Tererai has completed her course work and is completing a dissertation about AIDS programs among the poor in Africa. She will become a productive economic asset for Africa and a significant figure in the battle against AIDS. And when she has her doctorate, Tererai will go back to her village and, after hugging her loved ones, go out to the field and dig up her can again.

She's amazing. Such a contrast, between situations like that where women have to struggle and work so hard for the opportunity to be educated, and, well, people like me, who have had it handed to them. People who are just expected to go on to higher education. People who don't give a shit about what they're learning and are just in it because that's the expectation, the step you go thru before being shunted off into your career. (This last one, not me so much, but the others, yeah.)

Providing these opportunities is not only a way to drastically improve the lives of countless people, but it is actually the most effective way, studies are showing. It's even the most effective in terms of the bottom line: far less costly than many other aid programs which have ended up having little effect, and in some cases investors have more than recouped their losses.

I have been thinking lately of joining the Peace Corps at some point, makes me kind of wish I, uh, had some kind of experience in things like small-scale economic development. I don't. I guess I'd end up in some sort of educational capacity, such as teaching English or environmental or sustainability or public health stuff. I don't know-- I just want to do what's needed most desperately, even if the other things are helping. Like rescuing women like one who was mentioned in the article, who was enslaved in a brothel. Or helping to provide basic needs, where people are starving and don't have water. The world is so fucked up and it's so heartening when people can do something effective about it.

Speaking of which, the Glacier mining company, which wanted to turn much of Maury Island into a gravel pit, despite the sensitive habitats and the aquifer like, right there, had their lease rescinded. Or something like that. I was very happy about it, still am, until I went to the comments page of one Seattle Times article, and it was filled with douchebags saying stuff that I was attempting to summarize and articulate, but I won't bother, I'll just say that I'm not sure which was greater, the ignorance or the smugness. AAAAAARGH. Well, fuck them, got ours. And if right and reason prevail, we'll keep it.


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