WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Like many aid workers and activists trying to improve the lives of women in developing countries, Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika has long viewed education as the key to solving many of her countrywomen's problems.
Mbikusita-Lewanika, a former member of Zambia's parliament and now the country's ambassador to the United States, says the benefits of educating girls are so numerous--from raising marrying ages and lowering birth rates to stemming health and economic problems--that she would like to install a plaquereading "Send the Girls to School" in every village.
But 30 years after the U.S. government and other aid-givers began to promote gender equality in their programs, they, like Mbikusita-Lewanika, have learned that relieving the burdens of poor women is more complex than once thought. Foreign aid officials from the United States, United Kingdom, United Nations and various nongovernmental organizations say that it is not enough to open the school door to girls if their families are besieged by unemployment, unclean water, labor-intensive household chores and, increasingly, debilitating health problems such as HIV/AIDS. Nor is it enough to get a few women elected to the parliament or congress while women in the countryside still suffer age-old discriminations.
To succeed, say aid experts, gender-equality programs must be integrally incorporated into the aid process from top to bottom, beginning with constant attention to gender issues at the policy level and ending with a wide distribution of burden-relieving aid in the rural areas where discrimination is often most ingrained.
In Africa, for instance, women perform about 75 percent of agricultural work, according to Mark Blackden, the lead economist in the World Bank's Poverty Reduction and Management of Gender Equity Division. He estimates the continent's per-capita income would have doubled over the last 30 years if women had been given more aid and education to help with crop production. But aid givers have only recently realized that "one does indeed need to talk about the African farmer and her husband," Blackden said.
Instead, because of cultural misunderstandings, they have often directed agricultural education and technology to men. As a result, Mbikusita-Lewanika said, it is not uncommon to see men sitting on tractors as women and girls continue to cultivate with a hand hoe nearby.
Clearing a small plot of land in this manner can involve 18-hour days, leaving women little time to raise their children, gather fire wood, walk long distances to find potable water and, increasingly, care for the sick. With such intensive household labor needs, Mbikusita-Lewanika said girls often have little time for school.
"The average woman takes care of everyone else but herself," Mbikusita-Lewanika said at a recent Capitol Hill briefing for legislative staff.
In countries where economies have been destroyed by conflict or AIDS, another factor diminishes the rationale for education: The lack of jobs when a girl graduates. As a result, Mbikusita-Lewanika said that, while education "may be the most important investment, it may not necessarily be the first investment" that donors should undertake. For instance, providing drinking water would save women in many Zambian villages 1 1/2 hours a day, she said.
In 1973, the U.S. Congress passed the Percy Amendment requiring that the nation's foreign aid help integrate women into the mainstream of developing countries' societies. Since then, the U.S. Agency for International Development--the main administrator of U.S. development aid--and other organizations have progressed from conducting a few gender equality projects a year to considering gender issues as a part of nearly every decision. While women's issues once were often segregated in a separate office or set of discussions, all programs are now expected to address their impact on women.
"The progress can be summed up in one sentence: It is no longer a separate thing," USAID administrator Andrew S. Natsios told a Washington foreign aid conference earlier this month.
More Work to Be Done
Still, aid officials and activists say there is much more to do. According to the World Bank, more than 20 percent of the world's population still lives on about $1 per day. The majority are women. And women's burdens, especially in AIDS-stricken Africa, are growing as they bear bigger social and financial burdens.
One way donors can begin to lift that burden, Mbikusita-Lewanika told legislative staff, is to bypass governments and distribute aid money to local faith-based organizations and other groups that work at the local level and already know the intricate problems the women in their community face. Many central governments have not established effective ways to distribute help in the countryside, she said.
Other officials suggest increasing funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. The $2 billion the Bush administration is prepared to spend in 2004 "is not enough," said Kathryn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, based in Baltimore.
Wolford also suggests an increased focus on debt relief for poor countries, which would free funds for social programs and infrastructure that could relieve women's burdens.
Other activists say aid organizations need to collect and process more data showing the positive link between women's participation and economic development. While many activists suggest that there is already too much talk about women's problems and not enough action to solve them, economists say that more convincing evidence of the link between women's progress and economic progress could be found.
At the foreign aid conference, Phil Evans, the senior social development adviser for the United Kingdom's U.N. mission, said that statistical gender analyses are often riddled with "methodological problems," in large part because researchers have focused on studying women instead of placing them in a societal context.
Some say the United States should signal its commitment to gender equality by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty that aims to outlaw discrimination against women and requires signatory countries to periodically report on their progress. President Carter signed the treaty in 1980 but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it as 174 nations have done.
Ratifying the treaty would send a powerful signal that the United States will join the world to "use the instruments available to us to hold countries accountable" for improving women's lives, Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women, told legislative staff.
New Solutions in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, USAID is attempting to deal with these challenges and its methods are not always very subtle. To encourage families to educate their daughters, USAID gives extra rations of vegetable oil to girls who attend school every day for a month, Natsios said. The number of girls attending school has increased overall from 6 percent to 35 percent, Natsios said, and is reaching 50 percent in some towns.
Not all of USAID's work in Afghanistan is so targeted at women and girls but Natsios said he has found that nearly every project is having an impact on women's status. For instance, the U.S. program that is building a 300-mile road from Kandahar to Kabul is unexpectedly improving women's health in southern Afghanistan. Now mothers in childbirth and women in other forms of medical distress can be driven to medical facilities in Kabul in a matter of five to six hours. Before the road was built, the trip could take two days, Natsios said.
In addition, USAID has installed day-care centers in all Afghan government ministry buildings. Natsios said women who work for the ministries--many now widows with young children--said they would not return to their jobs unless their children had a safe place to go.
While many activists and government officials say gender issues are no longer seen as women's alone, they hope the next 30 years will bring a greater resolution to age-old problems.
"It has taken a very long time to get as far as we are and (we) have a very long road to go," said Julia Taft, assistant administrator and director of the United Nation's Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.
Lori Nitschke is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. She was recently a Knight-Bagehot fellow at Columbia University in New York, where she received master's degrees in journalism and business administration. Previously, she covered economic issues for Congressional Quarterly.
For more information:
U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women:
USAID--Afghanistan: Empowering Women:
InterAction: Gender Equality and Diversity: