Help women and you help the world. It’s a philosophy gaining traction among international development gurus who say women in the global south are the best providers for their families and communities. According to a New York Times Magazine article by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published last August, women in the developing world are often more responsible than men when it comes to managing money in the home, making them prime beneficiaries for microfinance loans.
“In general, aid appears to work best when it is focused on health, education and microfinance (although microfinance has been somewhat less successful in Africa than in Asia),” write Kristof and WuDunn. “And in each case, crucially, aid has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return. Only a small proportion of aid specifically targets women or girls, but increasingly donors are recognizing that that is where they often get the most bang for the buck.”
In their book Half the Sky, named for a Chinese saying that “Women hold up half the sky,” Kristof and WuDunn argue for an increased focus on women and girls when it comes to international aid, maintaining that countries with pitiful track records on women’s rights are also the countries most mired in poverty and extremism. Fix the former and you fix the latter, they say.
Kristof and WuDunn provide a compelling argument. But their philosophy should go one further: in addition to reducing poverty, helping women also helps the environment. According to a recent article in The Jakarta Post, the Indonesian Environmental Ministry has begun offering classes to women in Yogyakarta and Central Java about water conservation. Since women provide food for their families, they’re also the ones who acquire water each day. “In almost every village, it is a woman’s responsibility to provide water, whether as a mother or daughter,” says Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar, the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister. Public works agencies that build water projects ignore the needs of women at their own peril. “Planners should be aware of the different conditions: women on foot and men on motorcycles. In housework, water is closely-related to domestic work. Distances between water sources and settlements should be calculated carefully.”
Since women transport water, and then use it to cook and clean for their families, they make natural gatekeepers for water sources, the first-line-of-defense conservationists who can teach their peers how to make their daily water portion go further. Though the true impact of the Environmental Ministry water protection classes in Indonesia has yet to be realized, focusing on the environment by focusing on women is smart policy. Women hold up half the sky – it’s true. And if we let them, it’ll be a cleaner sky at that.
Image: ESP Indonesia