15 March 2008

Investing in women the smart thing to do

By Marguerite Finn

Investing in Women and Girls was the theme of this year's International Women's Day, which several Norwich women's groups celebrated enthusiastically at the Friends Meeting House last Saturday.

On March 6, in New York, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, reminded the international community that "in women, the world has at its disposal the most significant and yet largely untapped potential for development and peace" and he called on governments and the private sector to "dramatically" increase investment in women and girls, stressing that it is not "only the right thing to do - it is the smart thing to do".

One famous entrepreneur, at least, was quick to answer his call. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just joined forces with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a project to empower rural West African women with diesel-driven machines to reduce their workload and boost their incomes. The machine, called a multi-functional platform (MFP), is a diesel-run engine mounted on a chassis to which a variety of processing equipment can be attached, including a cereal mill, husker, battery charger, and joinery and carpentry equipment. According to UNDP, the MFP takes domestic tasks such as milling and husking sorghum, millet, maize and other grains, normally done manually with a mortar and pestle or a grinding stone, and mechanises them.

The machines, which can also generate electricity for lighting, refrigeration and water pumps, will be distributed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal.

UNDP Administrator, Kemal Dervis, outlined the benefits for the women when he launched the project: "By investing in this simple power source for rural communities, women no longer need to spend all their time grinding grains or pumping water. They have more hours in the day to develop profitable activities that could boost their productivity, enabling them to sell better quality products and increase their income using low-cost, effective technology".

This would undoubtedly benefit the women, although my own feeling is that it should be less about boosting incomes, developing profitable activities and selling better quality products and more about improving the quality of life and providing more time for social activities, education and recreation. Phrases about 'boosting productivity' suggest to me that the women are being regarded as programmed units!

Nevertheless, this investment will be welcome in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, where the status of women is very low and where anything that takes the appalling drudgery out of their daily lives is to be applauded (indeed, where would we be without our washing machines!).

The four-year grant from the Gates Foundation, totalling $19m, will help establish 600 new sustainable, rural agro-enterprises based on these machines - at least 24 of which will be bio-fuel based.

For the Gates project to work, the women must own the machines in a co-operative way, including the training in servicing and maintenance of the machines - so that they can share them with women in the surrounding villages.

The Gender Co-ordinator of the International Service Burkina Faso Programme in Ouagadougou said recently that she thought the MFP project was a good thing and that all appropriate training would be included. She also suggested that some form of a micro-finance scheme, which would enable the women who were the co-owners of the machinery to care for it, would be both creative and useful.

There are, of course, cultural issues to be taken into account. The men of the community would need to be made aware of the potential benefits of the women's project - otherwise, they would want to take control of it themselves! Given that cultural traditions in many rural societies restrict the roles of women in various ways, such developments need to be carefully introduced, with benefits accruing to men too - as a 'win-win' proposition. This being the case, the Gates/UNDP project could provide increased income and also encourage sustainable, organic food production in those areas where it is most needed.

So, will investing in women and girls lead us into a saner world? Yes, because women will always put human security and survival first - but as the UN General Assembly president, Srgjan Kerim, said: "Women will only be truly empowered, when globally we muster the necessary political will to fully implement existing commitments and make available the appropriate human, financial and educational resources that have been promised. But more fundamentally than these efforts, it is increasingly clear that we need to change our attitudes towards the role and status of women in society"