“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. But teach a woman to fish, and everyone eats for a lifetime,” says Ritu Sharma, turning the popular adage on its head. And that’s exactly what she is doing for women living in poverty all over the globe. Sharma helps them turn the wind vane of their lives and point it in a new, more prosperous and fruitful direction.
Ritu Sharma is the President and Co-Founder of Women Thrive Worldwide (WTW); a Washington D.C. based non-profit and leading advocacy organization established in 1998, raising the treble of the myriad of issues affecting women living in poverty across the globe. From poverty to economic opportunity, hunger, education for girls, and violence against women, WTW champions these women, bringing them and their own personal voices directly to Washington, D.C. and to the attention of local and global leaders and decision makers. Having traveled to more than 30 countries in the service of human rights, democracy, and opportunities for women and girls, at the heart of the Sharma’s conviction is that empowering women is the most effective and long-term solution to world poverty.
Sharma and the team at WTW have helped advance the status of and improve the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest women, many of them subsistence farmers. Through the work of WTW and its Global Partners Network of more than 112 partners in 34 countries representing over 40,000 grassroots individuals in poverty, the organization has been at the forefront of influencing and shaping U.S. and global policy to give both women and men an equal voice and freedom from fear and violence. The goal? Transformative change. Change that will impact lives, globally.
March 2012 saw the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) launch a new Gender Integration and Female Empowerment Policy, a policy that had not been updated in 30 years. The modification of this policy, long overdue, is an acknowledgment that women are indeed the missing link in the global value chain of economic development and prosperity. You’ve heard it again and again, read it in study after study—gender equality is “smart economics.” Integrating women and girls is an essential component of effective international assistance across every sector, be it food security, health, climate change, science and technology, democracy and governance or humanitarian assistance.
The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, created by Hillary Clinton in 2009 and now headed by Ambassador-at-Large Catherine M. Russell, recognizes and addresses the contributions women all over the globe are making that often result in better outcomes for entire societies and promotes women’s full engagement in both the economic and political spheres. The World Bank launched a four year “action plan” aimed at improving women’s economic opportunity, focusing on women’s increased access to jobs, land rights, financial services, agricultural inputs and infrastructure. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) 2012, a given countries productivity could be significantly improved and development outcomes achieved if women’s skills and abilities were incorporated. You’ve even heard some version of it quite recently from U.S. President, Barack Obama when he proclaimed August 26th “Women’s Equality Day” in celebration of the 91st anniversary of the Constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote.
In developing countries, women farmers are most often not adequately equipped with the all of tools they need to be successful. Whether it is savings, physical tools such as tractors, or simply education, they can remain at a standstill. “Access to knowledge is a lot of it,” Sharma says, “it’s an important first step. They come up against all kinds of road blocks and brick walls,” she continues. “One of the important things to keep in mind is that there are barriers and challenges every step of the way. They may learn that the government is giving out free seeds and then when they get there, the guy says ‘Oh they’re all gone’ since they are competing with men for the seeds. Or there could be no way for them to get there. And if it demands yet more time from a 17-18 hour workday, they’re not going to go get the seeds. There are lots of barriers.”
As a result of these many barriers WTW stresses the importance of women taking collective action. “It is a powerful mechanism for them,” Sharma says. “When women can get together and form associations and cooperatives, they have more collective power.” In addition to forming them, however, Sharma says they need training on how to run them effectively and efficiently. Yet, even with this scenario, barriers can exist. There may be no money for transportation or childcare. “It’s the behind the scenes stuff that can hold them back,” she states, “You’re left with the question, so how is this thing going to operate?”
Women Thrive Worldwide works to help these women develop solutions to improve the condition of theirs and their family’s lives. As Sharma acknowledges in blog post account of an experience in Burkino Faso (as part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction), many of these women aren’t looking for a handout.
“A subsistence farmer named Mariam took me in and taught me that women can do AMAZING things with just a little bit of support. A small private donation I made to her community’s women’s association jumpstarted a very successful soap making business. Women like Mariam don’t want a handout. They want friendship, respect, and a little help getting started. They don’t sit passively waiting for the world to help them. Sharing the burden can make things easier. Mariam reminded me often of the important role that men play as allies, even in cultures that do not share American mores. Her husband has two wives — not uncommon in her village — but he has worked hard to help her become more powerful, more independent and more successful.”
Women Thrive doesn’t claim to have “the recipe” for women smallholder farmers but rather believes “it depends on how you ask and who you ask,” says Sharma. “You can, for example, bring together a group of women from a community who’ve never had the opportunity to sit and meet together and ask them what barriers they face. Of course, they’re not going to be able to articulate that. They’re not going to be comfortable using their voice especially if men are standing around. But if you take that same group of women and put them together with a facilitator who will take them through a process, asking them questions, employing participatory techniques, you’ll have much more success.”
Some organizations may take too simple an approach and simply sit with these women and take a survey that may not provide adequate or even very actionable information. Sharma says, “it’s not that the women don’t know, it’s that they don’t know what you want to hear.” She rather believes that it’s a process of helping the women go through their own analysis and helping them figure it out for themselves, which in her view makes for longer lasting development results.
One woman, who’s been very active with Women Thrive Worldwide, whom they also trained in advocacy (read Sharma’s training guide “Introduction to Advocacy”), and who has helped build and bond communities of female farmers and fishers is Lydia Sasu from Ghana. Lydia is the founder and Executive Director of the Development Action Association (DAA) and one of WTW’s strongest partners. DAA was established in 1977 and represents rural women farmers in Southern Ghana in more than 50 communities. Lydia has visited the U.S. on a number of occasions (most recently for the 2013 World Food Prize). Sasu has dedicated her life to improving the lives of women smallholder farmers. She’s helped build cooperatives where the women work together, share their ideas and are self-sufficient. Fifty-four groups make up her organization, roughly 2,000 members. Lydia Sasu might in fact serve as an ideal example of what can happen when you teach a woman to fish.
Ritu Sharma’s recently completed book, Teach A Woman To Fish: Overcoming Poverty Across the Globe, chronicles her travels and intimate interactions with women. She writes of her experiences in Burkina Faso, Sri Lanka, Honduras and Nicaragua. Available June 2014, Sharma offers the reader a first hand account of how women can and are overcoming the forces that keep them in poverty, be it lack of property rights, government corruption or the scarcity of basic infrastructure. As Sharma shares the details of her experiences, she also questions what broader systems might act as barriers preventing women from escaping poverty. How do issues such as a lack of property rights, government corruption or the scarcity of basic infrastructure such as roads constrain women and how can America be conducive in furthering women’s upward mobility. Teach a Woman to Fish, from a Washington insider’s perspective, looks at women in poverty, how US policy making works and suggests ways change can really happen because when women thrive, we all thrive. To learn more about Women Thrive Worldwide visit their website at http://womenthrive.org