There are a few questions that are posed to me often when I’m invited to speak about the women’s cooperatives that I work with. One of these concerns the fact that we trade exclusively with women’s cooperatives. It is asked in a myriad of ways; but its core is the same. Why would I choose to focus on women when men are also living in poverty? Are girl children really of more value and worth investing in more than young boys? Why does Mama insist that at least 80% of the cooperative members are women; don’t men need work too?
First of all, I’d like to say that there is certain compassion and a sense of equality implied in the question that is both honorable and to be applauded. But, I think that it is incredibly important to put this into its proper perspective. Here is a quote that states the real situation for many African (and other) women on the ground:
“Six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are women who must, as the primary family caretakers and producers of food, shoulder the burden of tilling land, grinding grain, carrying water and cooking. This is no easy burden. In Kenya, women can burn up to 85 percent of their daily calorie intake just fetching water.
Yet some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. This is one reason why women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population but own only one percent of the world’s wealth,” (UN Development Program).
You see, it isn’t about competition between the sexes or putting men under women in status or importance. For me, it is about two things in essence: leveling the playing field and giving families and communities a better chance by investing where we’ve seen that it pays off the best. I won’t enter a discussion accusing men of this or that; frankly I don’t see the point of it. I could begin listing statistics which talk about the rates of spousal abuse, etc.; but I don’t see what is gained in it. After all, I am an African woman who has a son, a brother, uncles and cousins who are all wonderful, generous African men. I don’t see that there is much benefit in painting a negative image of African men in a world where Black men in general already have certain stereotypes that I’d love to see changed.
On the other hand, anyone who knows me will tell you that I am the kind of person who believes in saying things as they are: directly and honestly (sometimes to a fault). For ten years now, I have been working with African women’s cooperatives and other organizations (run and managed by women) which are working to improve the lives of women most in need. I also know the fabric of African society is woven by women. It is their ability to network, share and focus on others that makes them the group that I reach out to first.
For years now, I’ve seen African women do what they do best: cooperate for the collective good. When people ask me why Mama doesn’t give donations to large organizations which already have programs in the countries we work in, I tell them that I prefer to work with small-women run organizations which know how to “turn a dollar into five”. Somehow, like Jesus multiplying the loaves; African women seem able to produce miracles.
I’ve seen it with the hundreds of women in Rwanda who took in 5 or 10 orphans at a time after themselves losing their entire families in the genocide. I’ve heard it from women like Elizabeth in South Africa who talked to me years ago about how she only has chicken bones to boil and make broth; but still shares it with the children in the village whose mothers have even less. I know it because of the countless women who walk hours each day to collect water for their children, work in the hot African sun to grow their food, weave baskets during the dry season in Ghana to supplement their income and work hard despite the fact that they have AIDS or malaria so that their children can get an education.
Women, I’d argue are hard-wired to care for their children above themselves. Of course there are exceptions; but as the expression goes “the exception doesn’t cancel the rule”.
I know some feel that men are marginalized in the process; but here is what I say to them: Men were once boys… and boys are raised by mothers. Invest in women and you invest in the family.
The numbers are all there if you seek them out. Investment in women does in fact yield greater results for the whole family than investment in their male counterparts. But, as an African woman, I don’t need the UN’s statistics to tell me what I’ve seen and known my whole life. I have been called to work with Africa’s most impoverished in a way that helps women and children; and I cannot in good conscience do anything else.
God willing, I’ll still be here in ten years telling you that we’ve been able to make an even greater impact on thousands more women. And with your help and support, one cup of coffee at a time, one glass of tea at a time and one basket at a time… we’ll get there.
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to salute all of the beautiful, inspirational and hard-working women I’ve been blessed to know and work for over the years. To you Janet Akii-Bua of Uganda who always has a smile, rain or shine. To you Beatrice Mukansinga who decided to do one small thing for your fellow Rwandan women only to see it grow into a tree that provides shade to so many. To you women who weave such beautiful baskets in the warm African sun so that your children can eat today. To you girls and women in Lesotho who inspire me to work through adversity as you face HIV and AIDS with such courage and integrity.
To women everywhere and to the men who understand that International Women’s Day isn’t about competition with men; but about encouraging and supporting women to be better so that they can help both their daughters and sons be better in turn.
Happy International Women’s Day everyone!