Violence against women, girls’ education, child marriage and food security are all topics covered by Ritu Sharma, a leading voice on international women’s issues and U.S. foreign policy, in her recently released book “Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty around the Globe.”
They are also, of course, issues that inform the larger conversation that efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve economic prosperity cannot succeed when women and adolescents — especially girls — are denied full rights and participation in society. And with the next set of global development objectives starting to take shape, women’s rights advocates and the international community at large are looking to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.
Devex caught up with Sharma, co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, to shed light on what is and isn’t working in the future development framework, and what’s on her mind when it comes to the women and girls’ agenda right now, as well as where the International Violence Against Women Act stands.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
In the book you highlight the locally-based grassroots women’s organizations that received support from the U.S. government following the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, and you say that supporting these organizations is key. Who is doing that well, and where is there room for improvement?
One of the successful models out there already is through the regional foundations that the U.S. government funds, such as The Asia Foundation or the African Development Fund. What they can do is provide assistance to grassroots organizations in small amounts of money — the State Department and USAID don’t have to administer that. They can also provide small amounts over a long period of time, which is often what grassroots groups need. They don’t need $10,000 a year, that’s going to be really problematic. But they do need $10,000 over 10 years; they can really do something with that. The Asia Foundation, for example, provides a lot of capacity building for the organization at the same time, in management, finance, program evaluation … that’s the kind of thing that gets organizations to the point where they could take money directly from the U.S. government and work with it well. We need to find a way to provide that assistance where it can get to the people who need it with the minimal amount of middlemen.
While net enrollment rates have increased as a result of the MDG goal of universal primary education, there is a need for a shift from the focus on getting children, especially girls, enrolled in school to actually measuring their learning. Is anyone making that shift? How do you ensure that the SDGs put priority not in number of enrollments, but quality of education?
There’s a huge effort around this. In fact, the Brookings Institution, Women Thrive Worldwide and Save the Children are working together on it to make sure that learning is addressed in the next set of global development goals. There’s a whole task force focused on measurement questions, and there are lots of ideas on how to do it. I’m hopeful that learning will get embraced by the U.N., although the latest draft that came out was disappointing on learning.
There’s a fear that sexual and reproductive health will get left out of the SDGs. What’s to be done about it?
I, too, hear that sexual and reproductive health are going to get left off the 2030 agenda. Or that if it gets put in, it’s going to get traded away in the intense negotiating process. It’s so frustrating and it’s so vexing. It’s a small group of countries bent on keeping reproductive health out that sets us all back. That’s the way the United Nations works. We also need to think about: What other venues can we use to push that agenda forward? I think the U.S. movement around international family planning could do more to engage women’s rights movements in each country. In other countries it’s critical that reproductive health fit into and support the entire local women’s agenda on issues like violence and economic opportunity, not just sexual and reproductive health. I think it’s a matter of understanding that the agenda local groups have is more varied and holistic; there needs to be a willingness to support their full agenda.
You mentioned that local groups in many other countries do a much better job of including men in women’s rights movements. What can international groups learn from this?
We need to think about gender and not women, which means all our projects need to engage both women and men. Even women’s projects need to be gendered. If that doesn’t make sense, then you don’t understand the difference between women and gender. Especially when projects target women, they need to engage men, or else the women who participate aren’t going to be supported at home. Look to local groups embedded in the community that actually work with the whole community —with husbands and wives, boys and girls. These groups understand the need to work with everyone and the local cultural context.
You warned of donors being so enamored with microcredit that they forget the bigger picture: 1.5 billion jobs need to be created by 2030. What’s the danger in microcredit infatuation, and what appears to be next?
It’s not that we shouldn’t focus on microcredit. But if we focus on it to the exclusion of really thinking about peoples’ livelihoods and the bigger policies that affect those livelihoods. A lot of countries need to have pro-employment economic growth, yet their economic policies are the opposite. You can throw as much microcredit out there as you want, but you’re scratching the surface until you work on bigger structures in the country. That’s what we should be pushing at the same time. But often donors don’t want to fund that; they want to fund the micro entrepreneur. Funding policy change is often more abstract, but it can be a thousand times more powerful.
Is anything else going on behind the scenes with U.S. legislation or the post-MDG agenda — especially in terms of women and girls?
IVAWA is heating up and getting a lot of bipartisan support, and it seems to be a place where all sides can come together. The question is: Are they going to move it? I hope so. I think [the act] is uncontroversial and can help all those that need to attract unmarried women voters. It’s a win-win situation.
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