Connecting Local and Global
Give Women the Support They Need, and Watch Them Make Big Changes
The Power of Few Versus the Power of Many
The current global economic crisis shows the danger of concentrating decision-making power in a few hands. Too often, decisions are made by experts in board rooms and on the trading floors of large cities like New York, London, or Tokyo without concern for their impact on women and families around the world.
Grassroots projects led by women are exemplifying a different kind of economic problem-solving. Local, community-based initiatives and organizations exist nearly everywhere in the world, from urban centers to rural villages. They work to identify the needs of their constituents, advocate for rights and resources, empower members and broaden dialogue about how to use a region’s resources.
Women have solved numerous community problems through grassroots measures. They have created ways for other women and themselves to earn a living, especially when traditional agriculture, mining and factory work are no longer available. Leaders of these projects recognize that income alone is not enough to alleviate poverty, so they often pair skills training with education, teach basic and financial literacy and give women information about their legal rights and social issues, including protection against violence and exploitation.
Beyond income-generating projects, women also influence local economies in other ways. In southern Mexico, women are playing leadership roles in the Zapatista revolutionary movement, a struggle by indigenous farmers for control over their resources, including land. The Zapatista movement is a home-grown experiment in equitable cooperation; participants are given a training ground for social activism and governance as they fight for economic justice. Women are redefining gender roles at the same time that they are helping to create political and economic systems that work better for both men and women in their communities.
In farming communities in India, women are at the forefront of the movement to save seeds--a form of resistance against multinational businesses that are trying to patent seeds and profit by selling them to farmers at high prices. Drawing upon their knowledge of native plants and farming techniques, women have long sorted and saved the best seeds and passed them down through generations of farmers. When large corporations threatened to monopolize seeds using intellectual property laws, women organized to protest the laws and protect the livelihoods of local farmers.
In countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Denmark and Japan, women have formed worker-owned cooperatives that run small businesses and factories alike. In these models, the workers themselves own the majority of the business, and everyone has a vote in decision-making processes. Such a model promotes sustainable jobs and creates shared wealth, improving workers’ quality of life and contributing to community and local development. These latter improvements have been particularly strong in women-led co-ops, as women have pushed for a balance of family life and work and of individual rights and community needs.
Even among more traditional corporations that are not cooperatively owned, some businesses are paving the way for women to take leadership roles and transform company culture. This includes skills building and mentoring programs, family-friendly workplace policies and practices such as "flextime" and on-site childcare, targeted leadership development opportunities and open, transparent process for women’s input in setting policies for employee guidelines, company practices, business ethics and corporate social responsibility.
A Place at the Table?
While women’s community-based solutions are effective, they need to be paired with a voice at larger policy and decision-making tables in order to create lasting change. For instance, although women in India have been fighting to save seeds and using the clout of farming communities to protest, they are limited in their basic and legal literacy, and they face enormous disadvantages in fighting corporations with massive legal resources. Their own government is also reluctant to upset its corporate partners, so it offers little or no support. Without the ability to affect decisions made at the state level or in corporate boardrooms, women’s local efforts can only do so much.
Even though women’s worker-owned collectives create positive solutions within their organizations, members still have to live within the larger reality of their countries, whose economic opportunities are often unbalanced in favor of large businesses, men, and those in power. And despite efforts towards equality in the workplace, women still receive less pay for the same work and take more responsibility for tasks at home.
Generally, grassroots solutions can address immediate needs and provide short-term answers. But grassroots efforts can only be truly transformative if they also provide a training ground for women and give them a place in larger decision making.
Sometimes, women do break through these barriers with powerful consequences. For example, Wangari Maathai has spent years organizing women against massive deforestation in Kenya. In the process, she has built a strong base of grassroots support for environmental issues. She encourages women to plant trees as a form of resistance, and in the process those women learned about how deforestation is connected to increased militarism, government corruption and limited economic opportunities. Women rallied to oust repressive leaders in Kenya, and Maathai herself was elected to Parliament and later appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Her grassroots organizing experience helped her earn a key position as an influential decision maker on the national stage.
Similarly, in recent years, women have played key roles in determining how to spend tax revenues in the state of Kerala, India. There, left-wing parties have organized a participatory budget process, in which 10 percent of the state’s 3 million people are directly involved in deciding how to allocate nearly 40% of the state’s budget. Women have organized at local levels to make sure more people have a say in the process, and after feedback from the public, the government has given money to build houses, sanitary latrines, wells and public water taps. The process has even included a Women Component Plan, which ensures that every project is evaluated for its gender impact and that 10% of the projects benefit women exclusively. It remains to be seen if these allocations are a short-lived exception or if they indicate a true sea change in decision-making structures that have excluded women and marginal groups in the past.
These efforts indicate progress: those who are closest to the world’s most pressing problems have the power to solve those problems, while earning respect, claiming resources for their community, and working in partnership with other influential members of society.
In the end, women aren’t dependent solely on gaining access to the world’s stock exchanges and board rooms to affect change. They can do so in myriad ways so long as they are given the respect and influence they deserve in the places--local, national and global--that matter most to their lives.