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Brave beginnings

By Sybilla Green Dorros
Gearing humanitarian assistance to the specific needs of women is no easy matter. Even tougher is tailoring systems to promote self-empowerment and opportunity creation. These are, however, the stars that the Federation is reaching for as it begins concretely to recognise women as agents of change — knowing full well the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

Long before women’s issues became fashionable in the West, Chinese leader Mao Zedong proclaimed in the mid-1960s that “Women hold up half the sky”. He understood that economic development in China would not be possible without the resources of half of the adult population. Almost 30 years later, this axiom was repeated in an International Fund for Agricultural Development report on rural women living in poverty: “Development without the active participation of women is a contradiction in terms.”

Humanitarian organisations began to warm to this concept in the 1970s but only belatedly have committed themselves to what came to be known as “Women and Development” projects. The Federation now has a unit devoted to women and development. The United Nations, for its part, launched a Decade for Women (1975-1985).

During the early part of this decade, most organisations believed that general economic development would automatically benefit women. However, experience revealed that women did not necessarily reap the rewards from general programmes aiming to assist wide segments of a given population. The focus thus shifted from important, but narrow, concerns such as “equal pay for equal work”, to more global ones. Development became central. By the early 1990s, the scope of some programmes had broadened to include women, while others had tightened to target women exclusively. This
reorientation was encapsulated in the catch-phrase “gender-sensitive development”.

As a result, most organisations incorporated women and development (WAD) programmes into their strategic plans. The Federation was part of this shift. During the 1970s and 1980s, women’s issues were the subject of numerous Red Cross and Red Crescent decisions, resolutions and action plans.

Subsequently, WAD projects have gradually multiplied, especially in Africa. Some of these projects enhance the role of women in development. Others help women by promoting their status and lightening their burden: community health programmes, vocational training and labour-saving projects. Recently, gender issues have been made an integral part of health and refugee policies, psycho-social programmes and support for victims of rape and other forms of violence.

In the Federation’s Development Plan for 1995, “Targeting the Vulnerable”, funding is requested for a dozen WAD projects in Africa. Another 27 health care projects worldwide could be considered “WAD-type” since they endorse and promote safe motherhood and family planning. Other projects meet the needs of women by including them in the planning, design and implementation process.

A “typical” WAD project does not exist. They run the gamut from raising poultry to computer training and from child care to pottery cooperatives.
For instance, the Sinkat Women’s Programme, begun in 1986 in the Red Sea Hills of Sudan, provides vocational handicraft training to supplement family income and to raise funds to support women’s centres – independently run and managed by women participants. The Nepal Red Cross Society has a programme to increase literacy among women and to teach them entrepreneurial skills.

The results of these WAD projects vary as much as the projects themselves. Thirteen women’s centres were established within the Sinkat Women’s Programme in Sudan. The community development programme in Nepal is already operating in 15 locations and will be extended to five more this year. However, a comprehensive evaluation of these WAD projects, including cost-effectiveness, has yet to be done.

The Federation’s Development Plan does not necessarily reflect what is going on at the grassroots level. Therefore, the Secretariat’s Women and Development unit is carrying out a survey to determine the current status of women in National Societies, to identify the extent of women’s participation in programmes and to identify specific local programmes for women. Its outcome should provide the basis for greater improvement in a large percentage of vulnerable women’s lives.

Despite the increased interest in the feminine face of development, donor support has generally been inadequate for WAD projects. Funds sought
for such projects amount to less than five per cent of the total. Rashim Ahluwalia, the Federation’s Senior Adviser for Women and Development, gives a number of reasons for the lack of support.

Increased needs in emergency relief operations have resulted in the reduced availability of funds for development-oriented programmes. Funds are less available for international aid, especially from traditional sources. It takes time to integrate gender-awareness into specific activities, both at policy and programme levels, within the Federation.

In addition, many of the changes that result from WAD projects are very subtle, and certainly not quantifiable. Their full impact may never be known. It is difficult, for example, to calculate the impact of a gender awareness component in a Federation Basic Delegate Training Course. Certainly, the daily lives of many women have improved with access to health care, water and sanitation, and labour-saving devices. But how can one measure such intangibles as empowerment and self-esteem or, for that matter, heightened awareness of women’s needs?

The Federation recently implemented a vulnerability/capacity analysis tool, integrating the gender dimension into it for use in programme planning and evaluation. This tool is based on the work of Dr Mary Anderson, co-author of Rising from the Ashes, and its use allows the Federation to identify better whom it should assist and how to target its resources more effectively – linking “vulnerabilities” and “capacities” of target populations. However, more needs to be done in terms of monitoring and evaluating programmes if the Federation is going to be able to gauge their appropriateness and impact.

The WAD projects are a beginning: 12 widows learning to sew in Herat, Afghanistan; 100 women being trained in embroidery in Pita, Central Guinea; 200 women trained in weaving in Nepal; and 10 to 15 IUDs inserted per day in one of the health centres of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. But much, much more is needed to improve the situation of women, especially in the developing world. The international community will have failed if the following statistics are unchanged or get worse: two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women; more than 500,000 women die annually from childbirth-related causes; and 15 years after the launching of the United Nations Decade for Women, an estimated 565 million rural women are living in poverty.

The Federation is committed to closing the gap between programme goals and programme results for millions of marginalised, disadvantaged and victimised women. One way to meet this ambitious challenge is through its participation in the UN Fourth World Conference on Women and Development to be held in Beijing in September of this year. This conference is billed as an attempt to “reshape the global development agenda”. It could also provide a further impetus to strengthen support for WAD projects within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Hopefully, the current global interest in women will not go the way of other “fashions” – into the dustbin of history – but will proliferate the number of WAD projects throughout the developing world. More to the point, one hopes that the number of WAD projects will not only multiply but will improve the lot of half the world’s population — halving misery, poverty and unnecessary deaths and replacing them with success and hope.

Sybilla Green Dorros
Sybilla Green Dorros is a freelance writer and editor, temporarily on staff at the Federation.

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