International Women’s Day, March 8, is a harbinger of lists. Those lists are usually awesome and inspiring – hundreds of women who shake the world, deliver for girls and women, or are simply deemed “top in the world.” (Why these lists don’t come out more than once or twice a year is beyond me). But this year, sifting through International Women’s Day emails, events, and announcements, I was pleasantly surprised to see a different kind of list.
Women Deliver, the maternal health advocacy group, today named its “Women Deliver 50,” a list not of individuals, but of solutions. It’s not quite as sexy, true, but it’s refreshingly pragmatic. Recognizing individual change makers is important, but it is almost always the case that change happens thanks to many, many people. Why not focus on how that change happened (or is happening), so others can be inspired to think bigger and crazier, and do better work?
The list spans the globe, including ideas and programs from every sector and almost every continent, submitted by individuals in more than 100 countries. There are successes on queer rights, menstruation, sex trafficking, safe abortion, birth control, and business development. The Women Deliver 50 depicts a fascinating cross -section of success, from nascent bright ideas to well-worn programs, proving that the girl effect is alive and well, but it comes in many shapes and forms, while women’s empowerment may be found in unlikely corners.
Half of this year’s award-winning ideas hail from Sub-Sahara Africa, a continent that might at times be short on resources like clean water, but never ingenuity. One solution which caught my eye, in the “Leadership and Empowerment” category, is Backpack Farm. It’s a sustainable farming organization that works in Kenya and South Sudan with smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women. “Africans Feeding Africa,” is their tagline and they literally give farmers backpacks filled with a bevy of supplies (from seeds to safety equipment, and still portable) designed to improve the quality and quantity of crops according to semi-commercial rates of production. A five-phase training program also helps farmers master the ins and outs of production and marketing, and begin work with other small farmers.The group’s vision is that training, equipping, and organizing small-share farmers into cooperatives offers a workable solution to food insecurity continent-wide.
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The potential for scale is huge: 75 percent of the 250 million tons of crops grown in Sub-Saharan Africa are grown by smallholder farmers and there are more than 100 million small farmers in East Africa alone. This is helping women and other small farmers to do what they already do, but more productively and collaboratively. Food security – and land rights issues – remain major stumbling blocks to reducing poverty in Africa broadly and to improving the lives of girls and women. Women grow 80-90% of the food on the continent, but have little security for the land on which they grow. There has been an upswell of recent attention to the issue of women and agriculture and land. This year’s Commission on the Status Women, which concludes today, focused on rural women and empowerment, while the upcoming the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, “Rio+20,” will draw development experts from around the world to Brazil in June. Helen Clark, head of UNDP, recently wrote:
“the entrepreneurial spirit of rural women will help overcome global food security challenges and end the vicious cycles of poverty which hurt so many of the world’s people.” It’s a lofty vision, but could very well be true – if women have access to the right solutions.
“We have made great strides toward substantially bettering the lives of girls and women through the types of innovative programming and advocacy we find among these winners. But we can – and we must – do more,” said Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and member of The Elders, a group of global leaders whose initiative “Girls Not Brides” was honored for its efforts to eradicate child marriage. She’s right: we can – and must – do more. It doesn’t take a shrewd development economist to know that there are a lot of ineffective programs and wasteful or misguided charity efforts out there. More importantly, there are too many efforts to “save” girls and women that don’t take stock of personal dignity, agency, and rights of individuals.
These are anti-solutions, which miss the mark entirely, and should be rooted out. This list, which was elected from among 125 finalists by 6,000 voters, is a panoply of solutions done right – or at least getting there. Whether the girls and women who benefit from these solutions were, themselves, able to vote is unclear…but likely not. Access to the internet, time, interest, and resources to create such lofty lists is a privilege in itself. So let’s own and enjoy it while we have it, and use it to make ourselves work a hell of a lot harder for girls and women (ourselves and each other) moving forward.