From the Ground Up
Community Initiatives Can Help Improve Women's Lives and Entire Countries
I.M.O.W. Global Council member Joyce Mungherera, former vice president of the World YWCA and Freedom from Hunger laureate, argues that supporting women by focusing on the grassroots can be the best way to advance a community. Mungherera has seen grassroots organizing work firsthand; she served as the executive director of the YWCA in Uganda for 30 years, working from the ground up to improve women's literacy, access to family planning and overall quality of life. Under her direction, what began as a small, grassroots operation is now a 1.5 million member organization, and one of the largest non-governmental operations in Uganda.
In developing nations, such as my home country of Uganda, local and national economies depend principally on agriculture and animal husbandry, and women provide most of the labor. Yet at the same time, the economic development and education of women in most third world countries remains low. This disparity requires urgent attention, particularly in light of the current global economic crisis, and a long-term, holistic solution should start at the grassroots.
Most of the people in developing countries live in rural areas, so noticeable advancement at the national level depends on how much effort is placed in activating communities at the grassroots level, and particularly on what efforts are invested in women and children, who together form a community's majority. Governments must realize that the successful development of a nation will depend on engaging their citizens, one community--and one woman--at a time.
At the grassroots, several areas can be targeted that will accelerate a community's development, particularly if the women of the community are engaged. The first such example is education. Because women comprise such a substantial portion of the population, and because they are responsible for looking after the community's children, women must be educated about modern methods of farming and home management.
Women also need machinery to be able to increase the quantity and quality of farm production. Governments should give women access to grants and subsidies from financial institutions in order to help them manage large farms. Giving women the funds for new, better machinery will improve the quality and quantity of their crops and increase revenues, thus boosting the economy.
Local organizations can help by forming group farms that will attract funding and loans from governments and private donors. In Africa, group farming helps women share seeds, trade livestock and make loans within the group that will allow them to buy necessary supplies to maintain their farms.
Once farming systems have improved and production has increased, reliable transport and access to larger markets becomes critical. My experience in developing countries has taught me that women's groups or cooperative societies help ensure firm and reliable systems of marketing. When a reliable marketing system exists, group members will be encouraged to try their hardest to continue producing their goods regularly.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, legislation should be in place to protect women's rights, and women should be informed and educated about any such legislation. Women should be represented at the highest policy making bodies in the country, and at the grassroots level, the women who work so hard to produce food should know their rights and receive appropriate compensation for their efforts. Women should be taught how to make wills and how to access affordable legal services to avert property grabbing, which is a common cultural practice.
Ultimately, much can be done from the ground up to improve women's lives and thus help entire communities in developing nations. And because women are such an integral part of the agricultural industry in developing countries, involving them in the discussion is critical. In my 30 years heading the YWCA in Uganda and as vice president of the World YWCA, it is through working with women at the grassroots level that I have seen the biggest, most inspiring advancements.