by Dr Kate Neely (Director of International Programs, RoundTrip Foundation)
I love travelling, and I love travelling alone! As a woman, this sometimes gets me odd looks and polite enquiries and sometimes just downright crude suggestions. Mostly though, it means that I make new friends, people whose caring nature sees a stranger alone and invites them to eat, talk and enjoy some company.
As an Australian woman of European descent, I realise that I have been fortunate to have the choices, confidence and resources to move through the world in this way. I haven’t endured the rituals of womanhood that would see my vagina sewed, cut or otherwise interfered with. I haven’t been taught how to take a beating from my husband without yelling. I haven’t been married off in my childhood, forced to marry my rapist, sold for sex slavery or forced to work long days for little money. When I am menstruating I don’t have to exclude myself from social activities, school or work. I can choose if and when I want to have babies. I have access to good health care and clean water. I haven’t internalised religious or cultural beliefs that tell me that men are naturally superior. I can inherit land and property equally with my five brothers and I have the same chances at an education and employment as they did.
You might think that poverty affects everyone the same, but globally being a woman means you are more likely to be poor than if you are a man. Girls are less likely to be educated to the same level as their brothers, and they often have to deal with additional risks of violence and hardships to gain whatever education they can. Girls in many countries struggle to access adequate menstrual hygiene products and schools rarely have good facilities for sanitation and hygiene.
Education is Key to Womens’ Empowerment
We know that education is one of the keys to improving the lives of women and girls. Educated women have more control over their bodies and finances than less educated women. They are likely to have less babies and those babies are more likely to survive past childhood. Educated women are more likely to understand and lobby for their rights. They are also less likely to be poor.
Encouraging and supporting the education and empowerment of women in our community development programs is one of the most important aspects of RoundTrip Foundation’s work. The Bakery School program
that we support in Sri Lanka is specifically aimed at helping women to increase their educational attainment while gaining skills that ensure that they can get a job. In Zambia the support that we provide to Tikondane community centre creates a broader set of opportunities. Tiko supports families in paying school fees for both boys and girls. The community centre provides some young women with a chance to work and earn enough money to buy menstrual hygiene products – meaning they can get to school. Tiko also employs educated women in its offices, shops and the lodgings.
Women are important at Tiko and they are leading the way in changing the gender norms of the society around them. Young women are no longer taught to ‘take a beating’ from their husbands during their ‘coming of age’ rituals. Women in situations of domestic violence are supported to leave, and when possible, female headed households are helped to acquire land and housing. A visit to Tiko involves meeting lots of amazing, confident women and seeing them sharing the responsibilities for the work and leadership of the community.
Empowering women is important in every society. Empowerment is about making sure that women and girls have the resources and the capability to make choices about their lives. Women everywhere deserve the right to control their bodies, their reproduction, their finances, their health and to have an equal say in their communities and the decisions that affect themselves and their families. The more women are seen as equals, the more we can contribute to business, community leadership and family life, and it turns out that everyone is happier when women are empowered!