By Melissa von Mayrhauser
From Central Africa to Central Asia, women are helping other women to continue attending school and to begin their own businesses, sometimes in conflict with local customs. Yet what does it really mean to break down cultural barriers to work toward these types of gender equality?
Diana Sierra, a graduate student in sustainability management at Columbia, has been working with the Millennium Villages Project in Ruhiira, Uganda, to teach women skills to be self-sufficient. While Sierra has faced obstacles due to her status as a foreigner and worries about local crime, she has also built strong relationships with local women and now understands her roles as a woman and as a designer in more nuanced ways.
Nadira Artyk, who grew up in Uzbekistan, founded Bilqa, a Central Asian organization, in 2010 and is an Uzbek professor at Columbia. She has found that while Tajikistani girls may wish to pursue wide-reaching academic goals, they find it difficult to imagine a career other than becoming young brides. She is working to empower high potential young Muslim women in Tajikistan from families without the resources to send them to school.
Greater access to education among women in places ranging from Uganda to Tajikistan often translates into lower birth rates, healthier children and a more economically prosperous society. Educated women are more likely to join the political sphere and to enroll their children in schools.
‘Women for Women’ in Uganda
Sierra has worked in Uganda as a part of fulfilling Millennium Development Goal 3, set by the United Nations in 2000: to promote gender equality and empower women. In a program called “Women for Women,” she has taught women to weave glass beads to become economically independent. She also is designing sustainable sanitary napkins that will help girls stay in school during menstruation.
“As a woman and designer, I felt a great responsibility to find a viable solution to the problem, a design and product appropriate to fit the environment and local resources that could be produced locally,” Sierra said.
Sierra identifies with women in Ruhiira, as she grew up in the small town of Santuario in Colombia, which she describes as sharing the same sort of “gender equality issues.” Still, her lack of fluency in the local language of Runyankole and the light color of her skin signified to locals—at least at the beginning—that she was an outsider.
“Everyone here at the urban and rural level thinks ‘mzungu’ or whites are all loaded with money,” said Sierra. “This makes things very difficult because…prices will be 5-10 times what a local will pay.”
Sierra also noted gender disadvantages among local women, such as the high number of girls who leave school during menstruation because of a lack of access to sanitary products. This is not a top priority for the government because of more sweeping concerns, such as a dearth of school fees and shoes, according to Sierra.
At the same time, rural women perform the majority of agricultural labor while they do not often earn profits.
“Rural woman in Uganda are responsible for 90 percent of the planting and harvesting work,” said Sierra. “However 70 percent of the marketing of the produce is done by men, consequently the woman’s effort is unpaid, as their work is considered largely for subsistence.”
In response, Sierra has trained women to create glass bead products, and how to gain access to markets. She hopes this will make them economically independent while sustainably supporting their families.
While local women have generally been receptive to these ideas, there are still external challenges. Sierra must make sure that their earnings remain safe from theft, for example. Also, women need to leave work well before sundown in order to reach their homes without worrying about rape, a common occurrence.
There were some positive results, though: She noticed a few months ago that she was “not called ‘mzungu’ anymore,” and “when addressing me for questions, they said my name.” Furthermore, other villages in East Africa have sent invitations to Sierra’s program to replicate its framework due to its success.
“I love the women and feel a great deal of responsibility to not letting them down,” Sierra said. “My challenge now is to make sure I can keep helping them even though I am no longer physically there.”
Plans for Success in Tajikistan
Nadira Artyk is working to inspire young women in Central Asia to pursue higher education so that they may choose their career path. At present, only 54 percent of girls enroll in secondary school in Central Asia, while 45 percent of women currently between the ages of 20-24 had married by their 18th birthday, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
While her organization, Bilqa, has started to provide support in the form of mentorship and funding, Artyk has found that young women still find it difficult to imagine pursuing careers in addition to marriage. Artyk described why she started the organization at the recent panel discussion, “Women in Central Asia,” on Nov. 9 at Columbia.
“Girl after girl, they would lower their eyes, and they would look down in a modest, quiet, accepting voice,” said Artyk, describing her conversations with young women. “A seamstress, a seamstress, another seamstress…I just couldn’t understand. How could these girls who loved various subjects, who were passionate about studying literature, history and science, that the answer would be, ‘I would become a seamstress’?”
Several conditions limit women’s educational opportunities in Central Asia. Widespread poverty means that families do not have the money to pay the $400 university tuition fee. There is not enough funding for school supplies and coal for heating classrooms. High unemployment rates lead many families to send their sons to Russia in search of jobs rather than investing in their daughters. It is a cultural norm for women to marry at young ages.
Even though Artyk comes from this region and identifies with its cultural history, she finds the practice of teenage marriage among women to be a troubling hindrance to their academic success.
“They said, ‘I want to be a bride,’” said Artyk, describing her nieces’ descriptions of their ideal future. “I was really shocked. To me this was the return to my grandma’s era and values. When a woman’s happiness and her ambition was limited to home and the house.”
Artyk says her generation of Central Asian women is probably the first to have professional ambitions, partially due to Soviet-era reforms. Her nieces have fewer educational opportunities now. When Artyk asked the girls what they would pursue if money were not an issue, she saw an immediate change in their responses.
“Their faces brightened up, there was a sparkle in their eyes, smile, and they would say: ‘Oh then I would love to become a doctor. I would love to become a history teacher. I would want to open a hospital in the village. I want to be a surgeon.’ ”
Melissa von Mayrhauser is an intern at the Earth Institute and an undergraduate student at Columbia College.