1. Women today stand on the progress of women before us.
My personal journey with gender equality starts with my own family. My beloved grandmother (Ahmah in Hokkien) would tell me her story of life as Chinese-Malaysian Nonya (Peranekan) women in Malaysia in the early 20th century. Born in 1915, as the second of twelve children, there was no girls school in our hometown of Ipoh. Lucky for her, my great-grand father wanted the family’s first-born son to have a chaperon at school. So, her hair was cut, she donned boys’ clothes and she attended primary school. Until that is, authorities decided to let girls go to school and she turned up the next day with a straw hat covering her shaved head in a nice dress (“Everyone laughed! But my hair grew out eventually”).
But the story doesn’t end here. A love letter from a schoolmate was given to my Ahmah who proudly took it home to show her parents, and school was soon deemed an ‘improper’ place for a young girl. But my great-grand mother really wanted one of her daughters to have an education, and after a year, persuaded her husband to send her to an all-girls boarding convent school in the next town. She missed her family but loved to learn and soon had aspirations to be a nurse – she liked the idea of helping people. But this was not a ‘proper’ occupation for a woman from a good family and her father hid her acceptance letter. She was placed in an arranged marriage with my grandfather – an educated Hakka man whose family thought that he should marry a woman who had an education – a rare thing at the time.
When I was a young girl, and later teenager, making our family’s annual trips to visit Ahmah in Ipoh, she would tell me these stories and many more of her life. About her time hiding from the Japanese troops in World War II for fear of gender based violence in the jungle, her short stint as a teacher, and her taking over my grandfather’s male dominated tin mining business when he passed away. She would say, “You and your sister study hard, you are very lucky”. Today, in my professional work in international development, I take her stories with me.
2.Word up, Beyonce. Women make lemonade out of lemons.
Beyonce had some wise words in her album. My grandmother would not want you to feel sorry for her and neither would I. Life was a not a fairytale and a few lemons did swing her way, but she shaped it into something special for herself and her family.
When I used to work on issues of human trafficking in China with my last employer, the women we would assist to return back to their countries had been through so much suffering and exploitation. When I started, my colleagues made sure to tell me the importance of language: they were not ‘victims’ but ‘survivors’ of trafficking. After over four years working on these issues in Beijing, the distinction truly resonated.
In my work now with World Vision Australia working on women’s economic empowerment (WEE) programs, participatory strength-based approaches to economic development are key. Women need to be empowered to be change-agents in their own lives, with our projects making important contributions to their journeys. For example, this woman Farmer Business Advisor (FBA) in Cambodia is leading a group of farmers to grow vegetables to gain income to improve life for herself, her family and community. Our Micro-franchised Services Extension (MASE) project is helping her with new agricultural market and technical skills and knowledge, which she can take with her in the future. She is one of the few women leaders in her community and one of the fewer female FBAs, but she is overcoming odds. She has big plans for herself, her farmer group and her community. She tells me on my field monitoring trip to Takeo, “…wait until you visit again next year”.
3. Women’s empowerment should be our end goal.
When I think about women’s rights, there is a strong solidarity with women around the world. Because the barriers that different women face have similarities. Barriers relate to harmful gender norms, unequal power relationships and structural equalities, whether we are talking about women in boardrooms in Australia, women in Hollywood, women 100 years ago in Malaysia or women in Bangladesh, who are facing significant discrimination in food allocation.
The decisions that women have to make about managing ‘work’ and ‘home’ lives are more similar than different. So, when designing WEE programs, it is important that empowerment is the end goal – it is not income alone that would be an indicator of a successful program. It’s women’s and men’s ability to make decisions about their economic lives. Just as in Australia, we wouldn’t want to make judgements about women when making these tough choices, we need to ensure that women we work with through our programs can make choices that are right for them and their families.
4. Gender equality is not possible without engaging men and boys.
Women and girls do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of family and community structures, which include men and boys. Our programming needs to get both sexes in discussions around gender equality, including decision making around income generation and household spending. Many men and boys are allies for women’s economic empowerment already, and this is something that we would want to see grow. Harmful cultural attitudes and practices, which may benefit men and boys, are best addressed through a lens of joint positive outcomes like family well-being, rather than blame. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, World Vision Australia is piloting the Mencare Model, which seeks to do this very thing. This recognises that income generation skills and knowledge alone cannot address the structural imbalances to achieve transformative development.
5. Gender inclusion needs to be integrated across the programming cycle and into the technical approaches we implement:
When we look at designing a project, the first step is jointly understanding the problems that it will address and the corresponding vision for change. These steps must look at the core problems for men and women AND the specific challenges faced by women. It is better to look at this gender analysis together with the core problems rather than something separate. In economic development projects, key challenges for women often include time, mobility, decision-making ability related to resources, and cultural norms about what a woman ‘should’ be doing. We need to understand these barriers and respond in our planned activities. For example, in agricultural value chain projects, the potential opportunities for women to benefit need to inform which agricultural value chains are selected. When monitoring and evaluating the success of programs, it is critical to adopt a gender lens to understand if our programs are creating changes that benefit both men and women or if there are lessons learnt that can help us do better.
The inspiring thing is that progress on gender equality is possible and happening. If she were still here with us, Ah mah would think so too.
This International Women’s Day, #pressforchange.