About 10 years ago, seated from a vantage view of Rwinkwavu Hospital in Eastern Rwanda, I was fascinated by the number of people flooding the out-patients window for free medical care. It turned out that free food rations and housing were amongst other things provided for vulnerable patients.
But something was amiss. Of the people milling in and out of the area, about 8 to 10 were women. Understandably, with a child on her back, perhaps another two or more at home and an ailing relative in hospital, it would be surprising if they hadn’t taken advantage of this support. Recently, a young lady called in desperation. Her husband had disappeared, leaving her with a malnourished four-year-old and a new born baby. Swallowing her pride, she asked for a small job. ‘You don’t have to pay me, just give me food for the children’, she cried. While she was still single, getting odd jobs was easy. But with two children and no one to leave them with, getting those jobs was near to impossible.
There are many such cases of such women struggling from cornered situations of limited resources and support, to sustain their families. Candice Stevens, in her article ‘Are Women the Key to Sustainable Development’, highlights this dilemma really well.
All over the world, women bear most of the responsibility for children and households and thus suffer from time poverty and lack of mobility.
Amongst the arguments she made was the failure to adjust the male work model to fit the needs of women, and the need to work flexible hours to accommodate the heavy demands on their time. Another point one could add to this, especially in the less developed economies, is the pressure to get married, not so much for love as it is for socio-cultural esteem, and economic support. Interestingly, many women end up being the main source of household livelihoods through small scale farming for food, and doing the odd on and off farm jobs.
I remember sitting in a meeting intended for high level business representatives in Kigali several years back. The Private Sector Federation (PSF) wanted to understand their key challenges and how best they could be supported. Clearly, gender was not the favourite topic. “You want our industries to excel”, commented one man, “but you should understand employing women is a challenge because of their issues, for example, maternity leave”. Before I could utter a word, the PSF representative, unbelievably, agreed with them. ‘You are right’, he said, ‘the current debate on the table is to see whether maternity leave can be reduced from three to one and a half months’. I couldn’t help but snap! Are you for real? Do you have wives or children? The PSF rep looked at me with a half-smile. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, a young man nearby nudged me; ‘that one there has a two-week-old baby!” My mouth dropped! A few months later, the one and a half month maternity leave law was actually tabled in Parliament. After a huge outcry, it got revoked but the insensitivity around it was inconceivable.
The role of women in development is not yet well understood, despite relentless campaigns to mainstream gender into policy formulation and implementation. But until these campaigns are consistently broken down into simplified values that help relate gender to development, it will still be considered a tool for women empowerment in itself, as opposed to development.
Diane Elson, an adviser to UN Women argues, “Yet women’s empowerment must not mean simply adding to their burdens of responsibilities or building expectations of women as ‘sustainability saviours’. “The disproportionate responsibility that women bear for carrying out unpaid work is an important constraint on their capacity to realise their rights... Both women and men need time to care for their families and communities, and time free from such care.”
The question then is, are women truly the backbone to achieving the SDGs? The current strive is to prove exactly this and rightfully so.
The UN Women research reveals “women worldwide make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. At the same time, they carry out three times as much unpaid household and care work as men- from cooking and cleaning, to fetching water and firewood, or taking care of the children and the elderly
But even at the upper levels of society, women are still bound to the fact that they are female, and have to take on these roles, whether or not they are in productive or paid work. From the abandoned unemployed wife, to the employed wife with a high level job, it doesn’t matter. The household and children are still her responsibility.
Put it this way, with or without empowerment, women’s unpaid contribution to GDP, according to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, contributes 50 per cent to GDP in some countries. Further research by FAO shows that “women produce 50 per cent of agricultural output in Asia, and represent nearly 80 per cent of the agricultural labour force in parts of Africa”.
On top of that, they are the most likely to reinvest into their households more than men. For this reason, FAO findings show that with increased access to agricultural resources, production would increase by 20 to 30 per cent, and thereby having the potential to reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 per cent.
By the very nature of them being reproductive, women have a critical role to play in curbing population explosions. This goes hand-in-hand in helping control the high demand for natural resources for sustainability, but more so, in raising a healthy population. As carers of the household, curbing disease and malnutrition lies heavily in their hands, and if appropriately supported, could save a lot of funding that goes towards controlling health hazards that often plague global population growth bursts.
In terms of environmental sustainability, we have seen that women form the largest percentage of land users through small scale farming. Because they are the most vulnerable to environmental change, they are the ones likely to understand and practice sustainable use of land without qualms.
Again as nurturers, empowered women are better able to mentor their children through school and life in general. Illiterate women struggle in this direction because they know no better and can only depend on government and other available support.
The list could go on and on but whichever SDG you may look at, the role of the woman is implicit and crucial. They are in charge in almost all areas of the SDGs at the grassroots without which the success story will still be elusive. This is the key argument for their empowerment. More so for female friendly policies which enable them to perform as equally well as men without increasing their burden; and allow their very nature to achieve those development goals that have evaded us for a while. It is the very essence of gender equity.
So is the empowerment of women crucial for the achievement of the SDGs? Without doubt.