International Women’s Day is one of the more successful annual commemorations. This week the great and the good will be queuing up to quote shocking statistics about the marginalisation of women around the world – no doubt including Westminster politicians who might look rather sheepishly around at the lack of women on their own Commons benches (currently women account for 22% of MPs). But this is International Women’s Day, a chance for us to look beyond our own shores and hear stories from parts of the world that fall through the cracks on the other 364 days of the year.
One such story reveals an often overlooked force which is transforming the lives of women in one of the poorest places on earth: the power of profit. The Borena region of Ethiopia looks a lot like many might imagine when they think of rural Africa: circular mud huts, red earth, acacia trees. But what is more surprising is that this pastoralist community is a hotbed of female entrepreneurship which is liberating the cultural oppression of women.
Adi Abduba, 46, struggled to feed her family after her husband became ill and died. Out of desperation she turned to prostitution in return for food and clothing and took on labouring jobs, earning 10 birr (30p), which on a good day was just enough to buy maize to give her children a small meal. “As a mother, you need to have great determination,” she says.
But her fortunes changed when she was given a cow by Christian Aid. That simple investment has kick started a small business boom in the dust of poverty stricken Ethiopia. The butter she makes from the cow’s milk earns her 40-60 birr (£1.18 – £1.80) every fortnight. With this she can buy food for her children and save. “I am building a shop,” she says proudly. “I want to sell biscuits and soap, tea and sugar, tobacco and incense and sweets. For me to own my own shop would be a great thing. I go to bed at night thinking about all I have learned. I see my environment differently, I see more opportunities, I think about what will be profitable. I hope that one day I will be able to have a bank account in Yabello.” [the nearby town].
NGOs are sometimes seen to be ignorant of the transforming power of enterprise and trade, yet here is seed-capital provided by the red envelopes of Christian Aid Week donations in Britain, breathing life into a burgeoning cottage industry half way round the world.
And it’s not merely economic fruit that is being borne. With profit comes status, something which was unheard of for Borena women. In this patriarchal society child brides were bought and sold, women did nearly all the work and had almost no say over their lives. But by harnessing the savvy determination of a desperate mother with the means to create wealth, Adi is now admired, respected, listened to and has some control over her life. “In the beginning I was identified as the poorest of the poor. And now it’s the same people who are asking to borrow money from me. Imagine how I have come up the ladder.”
Women around the world have benefitted from more than just micro-enterprise. In Malawi, rice farmer Witness Ngwira has seen her rice cooperative becoming more profitable. The extra cash earned by the group has allowed her to buy poultry, diversify her income and make her livelihood more resilient. In Bangladesh 50 women from the marginalised dalit community went all Dragon’s Den and secured finance from Christian Aid to set up a dairy products business to overcome the obstacles of their lowly social caste. And in Nicaragua, the Soppexcca coffee cooperative, which radically in a sector known for exploiting women workers has championed women’s rights and has a 40 per cent female membership, now generates a turnover of more than a million dollars.
There are millions of women around the world that are business owners-in-waiting. By breaking down the cultural barriers and being equipped with start-up resources they have the potential to take back power over their own lives and transform their community.
As Adi said, she doesn’t want to live off handouts: “Begging is not good. You might say, please give me some food, please give me some money, please give me some clothes for my children, somebody can give you all this for today. But this can’t help you for tomorrow. So she has to be determined to save, and tomorrow to start using that money to make some more.”
Sometimes all it takes is a cow and a bit of capitalism.