Saturday, May 08, 2010

On keeping busy

The month of April has come and gone, bringing us sun and flowers, then taking them away with freak snow and wind storms. Life goes on, no matter how busy you are, and I have been so busy that I haven't had time to Facebook, tweet or blog properly, though I've been trying really hard to keep everyone up to date.

My World Partnership Walk fundraising campaign has been going well, thanks to some very generous donations from some people who are very dear to me. Their kind words have helped boost my efforts, both on the personal front and on the not-for-profit professional front. I'm very excited about the involvement of local media in the 2010 Walk in Montreal and as soon as I officially can, I'll share some of their plans with you.

Meanwhile, two articles I have written in the past few months were finally published! The first one is available online, at The It touches on the Bridges That Unite exhibition that was held at Concordia University in March, and in 5 other cities before then, showcasing Canada's development work and 25-year partnership with Aga Khan Foundation Canada. You can read it here.

The other article I wrote appeared in The Ismaili Canada Magazine, which is distributed mainly to the Ismaili community in Canada periodically. It touches on women's role in development and how empowering the women in the developing world can help break the cycle of poverty. I've posted it below for your enjoyment.

Apart from writing, working on the Walk, and translating, I've been doing a fair amount of TV work! HBO Boxing, Versus Hockey broadcasts, CBCSports' coverage of the 2010 Canada Cup... It's been pretty much non-stop work in one field or another for me since my birthday. But hey, I'm not complaining! I am, however, very much looking forward to my mini-escape to Toronto from June 22 to 28. If you want to meet up while I'm in town, you know where to reach me! :)

And now, please excuse me as I go back to translating. Stay tuned...

Empowering women to break the cycle of poverty
By Naila Jinnah

How much do you make in a year? A typical Canadian family with two earning adults made approximately $100,000 before taxes in 2007. Imagine if that amount was cut in half. Could you offer your family the same quality of life on just one income?

In many developing countries, families have to rely on the inadequate salary of only one earner. These families work hard, but often do not see financial returns. In many rural regions, crops are consumed for subsistence rather than sold to the market. This reduces the revenues a family has available to ensure a higher quality of life.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) estimates that women represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. Statistically, women are more likely than men to be poor due to the discrimination they face in areas of education and employment.

So how can women be empowered to break out of the cycle of poverty?

There are short-term and long term approaches to this challenge. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), strives to provide economically viable solutions to poverty in the developing world by investing in entrepreneurship and offering financial services to those who are not usually eligible to receive them. These programs go beyond micro-lending into the area of private and for-profit enterprise. One example of AKFED’s investment ventures is Kenya’s
Frigoken Ltd.

Frigoken works with small-scale farmers to stimulate regional economies by providing business development services like price guarantees, quality control, training and seeds. This venture works on two levels. First, it enables entire farming villages in the coastal rural region of Mombasa to confidently invest in their crops, providing a higher and more stable source of income, and allowing families to educate their children. Second, it stimulates the national economy by providing factory jobs for trained workers who process and package the vegetables
for export.

Approximately 2,700 people work in the Frigoken factory. Most of them are women who are providing a valuable secondary income for their families. There is also an on location daycare service for the younger children. But often where agencies like AKDN are not active, employment opportunities for women remain limited.

Unskilled women with limited education are dispensable in the economic chain. In the city, these women are confined to low-paying and low-status jobs like domestic and cleaning services. Even in Canada, many immigrant families are stuck in low income lifestyles with no apparent way out. Single mothers here resort to night jobs in factories or mid-day shifts in the hospitality industry in order to accommodate their dual role as parents and earners.

The root of the poverty problem lies deeper. According to UNIFEM, women make up approximately 60 to 80 percent of the manufacturing workforce, a struggling industry in the
ongoing global economic crisis. How can they save their families from the desperation of poverty?

The solution is education. Offering proper educational services that are tailored to girls’ needs from early childhood through to adulthood is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Fortunately, children in Canada are provided with free, quality education until the age of 16
regardless of their backgrounds, providing hope for a better life for future generations.

But in developing countries, it’s not that simple.

Children living in cities are well serviced by primary and secondary schools. But in rural areas, educational facilities are less accessible. One common form of early childhood education is the madrasa, a religiously focussed pre-school. AKDN partners with villages in East Africa to build madrasas, allowing the community to unite and effectively run the schools. Along with providing financial support, the AKDN trains village women to be teachers, ensuring that a secular curriculum is taught for at least part of the day. This allows children from all backgrounds to attend and accommodates responsibilities at home.

Girls benefit the most from this arrangement; they can still tend to sick family members or help in the kitchen or farm before and after school. Since the teachers are local women who are paid by the village, the madrasa project also empowers women on a secondary level.

Most parents understand the value of education in providing a better future for their children but they cannot afford to lose their workforce for extended periods of time. Many girls drop out of school in their teens, while boys often finish high school. The issue lies in the sensitivity to girls’ physiological and practical needs, rather than cultural considerations. Many girls stop going to school when they reach puberty because schools do not have proper latrines tailored to women’s needs. Even when they do, the poverty is so extreme that girls cannot afford feminine hygiene products. Worse, many girls do not have spare undergarments and uniforms and must go home to wash and dry them, which disrupts the school day.

The Aga Khan School Improvement Programme (SIP) is one AKDN initiative that directly addresses this challenge by providing a forum for girls to discuss issues that are relevant only to them in a secure, private setting and make suggestions to the school on their educational experience. Programs like SIP invest in girls by providing them with the tools they need to escape poverty on a practical and educational level. It empowers girls to change their lives and livelihoods and opens up a wide array of possibilities for their future. Many
dream of being doctors and teachers.

In his speech at the commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the madrasa programme in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2007, [The Aga Khan] noted that, ”… we sometimes give too little attention to the schools which prepare young children for life itself—in all of its holistic dimensions. And yet the evidence accumulates steadily showing that an investment made in the earliest, pre-school years can bring enormous dividends as a child proceeds from one level of education to another.”

Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn only 10 percent of the income and own a meagre one percent of the property. With services that are sensitive to their issues, women have the opportunity to provide a higher quality of life for their families. With some support, these girls could one day lead the developing world out of the devastating cycle of poverty.

(First appeared in The Ismaili Canada Magazine, Issue 1, March 2010)