We carry out 66% of the world’s work, rising to 70% in the informal agricultural sector, which supports so much of the developing world. We produce 50% of the food in the world as well as carry out the majority of household chores and childcare. For this, we are rewarded with earning a whopping 10% of the world’s total income, which enables us to own 1% of the world’s property. Fortunately, many charities and development organisations are aware of the female face of poverty and are trying their best to lighten the burden women are carrying, and make sure they receive more of the benefits.
Yet sometimes it is those who work the hardest to combat poverty who end up adding to the responsibilities women are already carrying. ‘The girl effect’, a term coined by a number of international development heavyweights together with the Nike Foundation, aims to halt global poverty by stopping girls in developing countries from falling pregnant at an early age. Their clever graphics and YouTube videos illustrate how a 12-year old girl who delays pregnancy will instead go to school and get a job which will pay her to support her later, smaller family. So far so good – there is at least some truth to the logic. The average 12-year old could simply add ‘not getting pregnant’ to her to-do list. But there is a very large hole in this simplified story, and it is one which is shaped as a man.
Yet, again, women (or in this case, girls) are being made the duty bearer of ending poverty. We have seen this happen many times before: for example, many old HIV/AIDS project would focus solely on women practising abstinence without mentioning the mens’ role in spreading the disease. Similarly, many charities focus on girls’ education only, without working on the (sometimes patriarchal) barriers standing between the girls and the schools.
Investing in girls and women is often described as ‘good value’ in terms of return on investment. This may be so: for various good and bad reasons it may be easier to stop a girl from getting pregnant than it is to stop a boy from having unprotected sex. But I wonder if what is saved in financial terms is not lost in terms of equality: yet again, we are asking girls and women to accept responsibility for a ‘problem’, while boys and men are excused.
At SOS Children, the youth leaders in our SOS youth homes prepare our young people for independence in many ways. We teach them to budget, we encourage them to look after their shared home, and not least do we teach both boys and girls to make responsible decisions in their relationships. By doing this, we are giving both boys and girls tools they can use in the future to benefit themselves as well as their families and communities.