Women hold up half the sky.

Chinese Proverb


20 January 2011 

Dear Readers, 


This page will be about the struggle for equality for women and their daughters around the world.  It has been inspired by a book called Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn (2010).  For the moment it must suffice to say that:

  • In the nineteenth century the central moral challenge we faced was slavery.
  • In the twentieth century it was the battle against totalitarianism.
  • In the twenty-first century it is the struggle for equality for women and their daughters around the world.

How do we tackle poverty, disease and conflict?  Half the Sky shows that women are the solution.  I'll be back soon with more, and leave you with much to think about, including this quotation about the importance of girls' education in the developing world, 

'Investment in girls' education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world'.  AN ECONOMIST

I know that I will not have to look far for stories of courage and determination about amazing women who have overcome unimaginable hurdles in order to change the world.  A friend of mine, activist and teacher Marion Aslan, will be my first port of call for I see her as a champion of women's rights in Kenya. 

Sincerely Yours



20 January 2011

Dear Readers


While I wait for my friend Marion Aslan to update me on her work in Kenya, I thought you might be interested in knowing a little more about what I get up to when I am not creating new pages on this website.  I begin by saying that I am a wife, mother and grandmother who enjoys frequent visits from a wonderful granddaughter after school!  We share a cup of coffee and a custard cream (or two) and swap yarns - usually about what she (and I) have learned that day.

This visit lasts only for a few minutes, but you would be surprised at the inter-generational exchange of news and views that transpires.  Today, my granddaughter had (amongst other things) been practising her orienteering skills in the school playing field as part of the PE curriculum.  From listening to my grandchild, I learn a lot about the way education has changed in the last twenty years, that is, since I was a teacher. 

Then, when my visitor has had her say, I have mine.  Today, I spoke of the book, Half the Sky, and the mission of ordinary women living in the developing countries to change the world for their daughters and granddaughters.  The young woman sitting at my kitchen table already knows a fair bit about racism and we discussed (albeit briefly) what is meant by sexism.  

One is never too young to learn and, conversely, one is never too old to learn.  This reminds me that this very week I spoke to a gathering of 50 women.  My subject was 'women, mental health and ageing'.  My audience was absolutely amazing. Yet again, I was struck by an eagerness to learn by sharing hard-won knowledge and the experiences of life.  

I hope that my granddaughter and I will continue to engage with the issues of the world together and what better time than after school over coffee and biscuits?  I hope, too, that I will have another opportunity to speak to members of the Women's Institute on matters that concern us all. 

I end this short letter (one of a series) with this beautiful quotation about 'half the sky',

"What would men be without women?  Scarce, sir, mighty scarce." 


Sincerely Yours



20 January 2011

Dear Friends


I have heard (and indeed often used) the phrase 'educate a girl and you educate a family', but here it is slightly changed to become 'educate a girl and you educate a community'. 

Consider this:

Women and girls cloistered in huts, uneducated, unemployed, and unable to contribute significantly to the world represent a vast seam of human gold that is never mined. 

Note also:

Psychologists have long noted that intelligence as measured by IQ tests has risen sharply over the years, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect.       

In brief, the cause of the Flynn Effect isn't fully understood, but affects primarily those with lower IQ scores, those who may not have received adequate nutrition, education, or stimulation.  What is clear is that as people become better nourished and better educated, they perform better on intelligence tests. 

It comes as no surprise to learn that a particularly large Flynn Effect has been detected in developing countries such as Brazil and Kenya.  The IQ of rural Kenyan children rose eleven points in just fourteen years, a pace greater than any Flynn Effect reported in the West.

Girls in poor countries are particularly undernourished, physically and intellectually.  It seems commonsense to suppose that if we educate and feed those girls and give them employment opportunities, then the world as a whole will gain a new infusion of human intelligence - and poor countries will garner citizens and leaders who are better equipped to address those countries' challenges.

Now consider this,

The strongest argument we can make to leaders of poor countries is not a moral one but a pragmatic one: If they wish to enliven their economies, they had better not leave those seams of human gold buried and unexploited.

In finishing this open letter, I would draw your attention to just one of the many groups that has increasingly focused on women for the pragmatic reasons mentioned above.  This is Heifer International, an aid organisation based in Arkansas that gives cows, goats, chickens, or other animals to farmers in poor countries. 

Nicolas Kristof's book Half the Sky, is about about people like a woman called Tererai Trent, a woman from a poor Zimbabwe village who, to cut a long story short, is now working on her PhD at Western Michigan University.  Soon, she will become a productive economic asset for Africa, all because of a little push and helping hand from Heifer International.

Watch out for more about the education of girls.  As Kristof points out, 

The time is ripe for a new emanicipation movement to empower women and girls around the world.

Sincerely Yours


KRISTOF, N. D. & WUDUNN, S., (2010), Half the Sky: How to Change the World, pub. London, Virago Press.

  Half the Sky will continue through a link to Half the Sky 2.

Keep checking for more news about Kenya.

Marian @ Krysan




Please, take the time to read this article from The Times on 7 January 2011

Karen Bartlett from The Times went to The Hunger Project, India to meet Sangita Naika, Leader of her village council (Panchayat) in Borda, one of the million women across India at the forefront of a ”barefoot revolution”.


What would it be like if women ran the world? In some parts of India, it’s already happening.

If all revolutions begin in unlikely locations, few could be as unpromising as Borda. It’s a poor village in the poorest district of one of the poorest states in India. Only the blasting from a nearby quarry disturbs the feudal scene of ploughing with bullocks and washing in the river.

But something in Borda is different. Unlike other villages in the Western part of Odisha, the town is clean and well kept. There are water pumps and toilets. Shops are busy and there is a new college offering degree-level education. Borda has become the almost unimaginable in India: a functioning village providing basic public services, including sanitation, healthcare and education. How come? Because Borda is a town run by women.

Sangita Naika (above) is painting a welcome to the gods on the step outside her home. She takes drops from a bowl of rice-batter paste and finger paints an intricate pattern designed to entice prosperity inside. This is the festival of Su-dasha Vrat, when women welcome the goddess Lakshmi into their homes and pray for good fortune for their husbands. But Naika no longer relies only on her husband’s good fortune.
As leader of her village council, the panchayat, she is one of the million women across India at the forefront of a “barefoot revolution”, a movement where women are, in many cases, risking their lives to transform their villages and change their country.
Most of the women are beneficiaries of a process that began in 1992, when the Indian Constitution formally recognised local self-governance through village councils (Panchayati Rajs), and reserved at least a third of those elected seats for women. It has been gradual, but women once forbidden from leaving their homes by their husbands or banned from sitting on a chair because of their caste now realise that they can stand for election and change the way that their villages are run. Their success in tackling a system of corruption that siphons off resources and controls the lists of those eligible for financial assistance has brought them many supporters — but also many enemies.

Last month, Rahul Gandhi, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi, told a meeting of the Indian National Congress Party that the legislation introduced by his father had brought more Indian women into elected office than everywhere else in the world combined. Now the quota for women members of the panchayat has risen to at least 50 per cent, with the Congress Party supporting a Bill to reserve a similar proportion of seats for women at national level. Women in panchayats have been threatened with intimidation and violence. A report on elections in the state of Bihar in 2006 revealed that 12 women seeking office had been murdered. Another candidate refused to give way to coercion, only to see her three children killed.
“When the Bill for reserved seats for women came to the upper house, people jumped on their chairs and tore it up,” says Rita Sarin, an architect of the barefoot revolution and perhaps the person most responsible for its success. 

She does not underestimate the dangers that women face in challenging a system of corruption so entrenched that Congress President Sonia Gandhi recently described it as a “poison” that threatened the survival of the nation.
India was newly independent when Sarin was born, but the country remained bound by a rigid caste system, and women were silent and worthless. Her family, from the Kshatriya caste, were traditionally warriors, but latterly employed as civil servants. As a member of a group second only in the hierarchy to Brahmins, Sarin was supposed to stand far enough away from a person of a lower caste that even their shadows could not touch. She remembers, aged 7, tackling her grandmother about why she was fed only the small scraps of food left over from the boys and men. Inequality still angers her: “We kill our girls, we still offer sex selection. There are abortions. Look at the male-to-female sex ratio.”
Sarin entered and exited a three- month marriage in her youth — “My husband was horrified to discover my views” — before setting out on a career that took her from working with women in prison to a long stint with the Swedish International Development and Co-operation Agency. Against the advice of many of her colleagues, she gave up her job to take over the Hunger Project in India, a global charity that works to empower starving people. A hunger-free India could only be brought about, Sarin believed, through the participation of its women.

At the Hunger Project, Sarin set about writing a “road map” for turning shy and uncertain women into political operators. Transforming women dismissed as inconsequential tokens into advocates for their communities was not easy. Most are from the poorest backgrounds, now called marginalised, but formerly known as untouchables. In the beginning, they couldn’t read. One woman chaired a meeting and said only two words: “Thank you.”
But Sarin persisted. When the women’s individual decisions were disregarded by men on the panchayats, Sarin set about organising women’s federations. When the media ignored the very existence of elected women, she founded a prize for best reporting of women in government. The women of the panchayats used to be laughed off as “rubber stamps”, proxies who were told how to vote by their husbands. No one calls them that any more.
When the chief medical officer for the Borda district failed to appoint a local doctor to the village, Sangita Naika organised a 5,000-strong mass demonstration: “We were desperate for gynaecology and child specialists. We didn’t even have a GP.” One morning, Naika marched the women of Borda along the dusty road into town and they sat down. For hours the women sat there, blocking traffic. It was a shocking spectacle in an area where women rarely leave their homes. Eventually, the chief medical officer arrived to listen. Now Borda has a doctor.

Naika has served on her panchayat since 2002, and in that time she has organised demonstrations, mass mobilisations and petitions. Under her watchful eye those eligible for financial assistance are added to the official lists, and receive payments. (Previously, payments disappeared into the hands of the families who controlled the lists.) “Men used to dismiss me and tell people not to vote for me, saying ‘What can a woman do?’” Naika says. “In the beginning I was apprehensive about going out and meeting people, especially men working for the local administration. But those fears have fallen away. Women take up the work of the villages, men take up drinking. That is the difference between men’s leadership and women’s leadership.”
The women of the panchayats agree that, in the 60 years since India’s independence, men’s leadership has been lamentable and their interest in securing basic services for their communities virtually non-existent.

India is a country where, according to UN figures, only a quarter of girls are in school. Naika says: “I’d be happy if the Government reserved all seats for women. Women are much better at governance, and men could get on with earning their livelihoods.” Recently, she flew to Delhi to meet other elected women and petition Sonia Gandhi.
“It was a very big day for me,” Naika says, “To get on a plane for the first time. The women I met had a big effect on me. One said her husband made her sleep in the cowshed because of her work. I’ll never forget that.”

The barefoot revolution’s success will not be whether it changes women’s lives, though that might be remarkable in itself. Achievement will be measured in how far those women can change India. “The burn-out rate is high,” says Sarin. “We’re constantly tested.”

On the day that the Indian Upper House passed the Bill for the women’s quota, Sarin’s office was flooded with messages from the women of the panchayats. One read: “Prepare a new training module for women MPs. You are soon going to see us in Parliament.”

Rita Sarin spoke at World Hunger Day in London on January 9.
World Hunger Day is organised by the Hunger Project and featured a concert with Dionne Warwick, Elaine Paige and Natalie Cole.

Details at worldhungerday.org.uk

Marian @ Krysan

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