Over this past week, I’ve read a number of articles that have focused on the role of women in development particularly in marginalized and underdeveloped countries and communities. An article by Kalima Rose entitled SEWA: Women in Movement spoke about the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a union of poor and self-employed women workers that focuses exclusively on the needs of all women. Rose stated that “SEWA organizes women who work in their homes, in the streets of cities, in the fields and villages of rural India, with no fixed employer, carving their small niches in the economy, day by day, with only their wits to guide them against incredible odds of vulnerability, invisibility and poverty.” Together, these women are working to fight issues of financial exploitation, physical abuse and social harassment.
In an article by Sheela Patel and Diana Mitlin entitled Gender Issues and Shack/Slum Dweller Federations, I learned about federations that are being formed by the urban poor, people who live in slums and shacks. These federations are being formed by savings groups that have been initiated and managed by women. Not only are these savings groups creating and managing savings and credits for these federations, they are also taking it upon themselves to ameliorate different aspect of local infrastructure such as the upgrading of homes and community toilets. I also learned about the very first women-led slum federation in India, the Mahila Milan (Women Together). This intrepid group not only sought a change in their own lives but in the lives of their families and communities as well. They began exploring ways of addressing their needs by asking tough questions, such as who provided what services to where and why these services weren’t being offered to their communities. They also worked the system to obtain fuel, food and healthcare for their communities. Gaining support from the leaders of the National Slum Dwellers Association, within time, spaces for leadership for women grew.
What I found most interesting in these pieces, particularly in the Patel & Mitlin article, was how much women were able to thrive in an environment where the men were somewhat “absent”, that is to say, they were not engaged in the affairs that these women were tackling for whatever reasons. Patel & Mitlin stated: “Most of the most powerful women leaders came from among the lower-income and most socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, in part because in these areas the man had given up.” It was amazing to see the role that these women were playing in their communities. Without them, who knows how much worse things would be for their families.
We spoke about this as a group and the question was posed by our professor, Dr. Faranak: Why are women generally more involved than men in progressive politics, as opposed to formal politics, especially in poor countries? It is because in a patriarchal society, the awareness of a lack of services is first noticed by women who’s responsibility it is to translate these services to their families and their communities. For example, if there are some deficiencies in educational services or the quality of water, the women will be the first to notice and, thus, the first to take action.
This topic, and I could go on, brought me to another critical point in my thoughts. I hear much talk that wants to question and/or challenge the notion of gender roles. What can men/women do? What can’t men/women do? What should men/women do? What shouldn’t men/women do? I wonder if in this discourse, that I feel we too often get caught up, in we miss out on what I feel to be the bigger questions: Does it matter? Does it matter who does what?
Imagine a clogged toilet that has begun to overflow. Now imagine that, instead of immediately addressing this situation, I turn to my comrade and begin arguing with about who clogged the toilet and who’s job it should be to see to it’s end. Mind you, this hasn’t stopped the toilet from overflowing in the least bit and the more we argue, the messier the situation gets and the bigger the cleanup. I wonder if we’re doing the same thing in planning and in our societies. I wonder how many things are left undone and unaddressed because we’re too busy addressing roles. I wonder how much bigger a mess we create by subjecting ourselves to frivolous chatter. Perhaps what we need is not a clear demarcation of what each respective gender should be capable of doing but rather the unhindered opportunity for anyone to be able to address a need. This needs to be an approach accepted by both men and women. In a symbiotic relationship, each member does what is necessary because all will benefit from it. No one stands on ceremony and debates or dictates roles. It just gets done.
Maybe I’m being naively idealistic. Maybe I’m totally wrong. Maybe my head is in the clouds.
I can’t help but wonder, though…
This photo is from the SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre website.
- Focus on Poverty: An aid solution for slum dwellers (scidev.net)
- Day 11 & 12 – SEWA and Akshardham (ldabramo.wordpress.com)
- Poverty and conservative role patterns (steppingtoes.wordpress.com)