The Girl Effect: Tackling Poverty is Key to Gender Equality

Poverty inflicts particular violence on women’s lives. If a family goes hungry, it is the women and girl children who starve; if there is little money for education, it is the girls who will be left out. —Tahmima Anam

So far this little blog with its big-hearted community has raised $680.00 toward spreading The Girl Effect. Thank you to everyone who has contributed and spread the word. I’ve been so moved by tall the energy, time, money, and love that has been given to this campaign. This money will change the story for girls in Bangladesh and in so doing will change our story as well. Because our story is a shared story here on this blue planet hurtling through space. The campaign has three more days to go and so before you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner to give thanks for the harvest, the abundance, the gifts of your life, give a girl a gift, unleash The Girl Effect.

The following article (first published in The Guardian in July, 2008) is written by Tahmima Anam (my new sister—see post Girl Meets Boy: A Love Story) who is a Bangladesh born writer and novelist. Her first book, A Golden Age, won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book Award. Her second novel, The Good Muslim, will be available in the United States in August, 2011.

When I decided to contribute to The Girl Effect with my own campaign to raise money for girls in Bangladesh, I was about to ask Tahmima if she had written anything that might be relevant for me to post, but before I did I  read her past editorials in The Guardian (see them all here) and was incredibly moved to find this article that so eloquently speaks to the importance of lifting girls out of poverty as critical to gender equality.

Tahmima, thanks for all your support with my campaign to raise money for girls in Bangladesh.

Tackling Poverty is Key to Gender Equality

In her groundbreaking 1905 novella Sultana’s Dream, the Bengali writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain depicted a feminist utopia called Ladyland, a place where men are sequestered in purdah and women rule the world in peace, power their homes with solar energy, and still find time to plant beautiful gardens. This image of women as intelligent, businesslike household managers persists, many decades later, and is a main feature of the women’s movement in post-independence Bangladesh.

From its very inception, the women’s movement in Bangladesh has been geared not towards suffrage, but towards development. Both movements – the campaign to tackle poverty and the campaign for women’s equality – have recognised the need for one another. Poverty inflicts particular violence on women’s lives. If a family goes hungry, it is the women and girl children who starve; if there is little money for education, it is the girls who will be left out. As adults, women perform acts of heroism both mundane and dramatic – tricks to make the food last longer, skipping meals so that their children can eat. When Cyclone Sidr hit the coast of Bangladesh last November, more women died than men: many were out looking for their children when the storm hit.

Recognising, as Hossain did, the ingenuity and mettle of poor women, is what characterises the success of development campaigns in Bangladesh.

When Muhammad Yunus began giving small loans to the poorest of Bangladesh’s poor in the 1970s, he may not have imagined the effects of his actions on women. In the four decades since Grameen Bank began its operations, the proportion of women lenders has grown, and is now somewhere between 96 and 99%. Putting cash into women’s hands is at the heart of the bank’s success, because women never spend their borrowed money on themselves – they sow it right back into the family. The collaboration between women’s activism and development is so strong in Bangladesh that when the Jamaat-e-Islami suffered a rout in the 1996 parliamentary elections, it blamed the feminists and the aid workers in equal measure.

But it is not enough to put a measure of economic power in the hands of women; there are still legal and structural challenges to equality. The Bangladesh constitution – otherwise a secular, progressive document – states that family law must be dictated by religion, so that women do not have equal rights to inheritance and child custody. There are also no legal safeguards against domestic violence; and now that women are entering the workforce, there is a need for new labor laws that guarantee better working conditions for women. These are the new battlegrounds that the women’s movement has staked out.

There is no doubt that Bangladesh is a difficult place to be a woman. But with forbearers like Hossain, who imagined a different world long before they were given the vote, and with development going into the hands of women, we may yet someday build our version of Ladyland.

Please make a donation to 2000 girls in Bangladesh, to unleash their wisdom and potential.

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