Reflecting on the broader import of International Women’s Day and why, during the course of our journey, we became interested in women’s issues and involved in projects that aim to invest in them.
Women: Observations Through Our Travels
When we set off on our journey around the world almost 10 years ago, we did so with the idea that to understand a place, we needed to experience it on the ground, at eye level. To walk its streets, eat its food, and talk to and interact with its people. As we spoke to both men and women everywhere we went, the importance of story to understand various sub-narratives that course throughout our lives and the world’s communities became clear to us.
Early in our journey in the Caucasus and Central Asia, we observed women and their evolving role in society. It feels strange saying this as a man — and forgive me for the sweeping generalization — but in so many places (certainly not all), as men played backgammon, dominoes, and cards and drank tea or coffee all day, the women were caring for what needed to be cared for. Whether it was the home, the market stall, the community center or the school, more often than not the women, it seemed, were the ones doing.
In the Republic of Georgia, our friend Lena captured our sense in historical context when she said, “When the Soviet Union collapsed, our economy and way of life changed drastically. Men held their heads in their hands, saying ‘What are we going to do?’ Meanwhile, the women were out doing it. We didn’t have a choice: there were children to feed, things to take care of that no one else would do.”
As the excitement of discovery of our travels took hold and we lengthened our journey, we focused on the issue of women in development, particularly through the lens of social enterprise and microfinance programs. In one of our first photo projects in Northern West Bengal, India, we met a group of women in a kind of self-help micro-lending group whose ties to each other were not only economic but also deeply personal. The women, through their work and cooperation, lifted each other up and helped one another to grow small businesses. They used the opportunity to develop bonds and friendships across castes — something almost unthinkable in traditional Indian society — in ways that even began to surprise them.
We observed these connections and societal changes again and again, whether we happened to be profiling microfinance projects in Latin America or visiting social enterprise projects connected to Planeterra Foundation/G Adventures for Good in Tanzania.
But there was something more going on, another trend we observed.
The Importance of “Investment”
There is a reason we continue to use the word “investment” in the context of these projects. While visiting a Kiva microfinance partner outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, we spoke to a Servanda who was a borrower and part of the program.
She gave us a hint of the importance of this concept and approach: “Never before did anyone invest in us, believe in us. Even we didn’t believe we were worthy of investment, that we could build something. Now we know, that we are able to create our own businesses.” She emphasized that she and her counterparts were not looking for handouts, but access.
Access. To education, to credit, and to opportunities to participate equally in society.
What happens when we invest? Where will that money go when placed in the hands of women who care?
As we asked women involved in these projects, from India to Guatemala to Tanzania, what they would do with the fruits of their business efforts and their newly earned income, the responses echoed a similar theme.
“I want to send my children to a better school.”
“I want to be able to buy better food and take them to the doctor when they need it.”
“I want my daughter to finish school, unlike me.”
The G Adventures for Good Moshi Mamas project near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania provides business training and market access to sell crafts and services through a locally run social enterprise. Shoshe, one of its participants, summed up her aspirations and hope in the program: “I want to break the cycle for my daughter. I want to prove women can work and earn money.”
To put this into numbers, according to Kiva, a microfinance organization that lends money via the internet to low-income entrepreneurs around the world, women reinvest 80% of the income they earn into the education and wellbeing of children.
TL;DR: Investing in women is an investment in our future generations.
Women: The Future
It’s no wonder that the great verbal constructs of stewardship and care — “Mother Earth”, “Pachamama”, “Mother Nature” — all position the force that underlies humanity and brings us together is that of a woman.
As we consider the world’s most pressing issues, including social and economic justice and environmental stability, maybe we ought to look more closely at this force and give it the resources it needs to innovate and craft sustainable solutions.
And when we honor women and their untapped potential, I suspect will better serve the needs of everyone on the planet.