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Women’s Rights and International Development

I wrote this speech for the Action Aid Speech Writing Competition in January, but unfortunately my entry was unsuccessful. There were three possible titles and I chose:

Why are women’s rights important within international development and ending poverty?

The rights of women are the same as the rights of men, and therefore the same as those laid out in the Declaration of Human Rights. Women, simply because they are as human as men are, have many rights such as the right to be employed. Women’s rights are thought of differently and sometimes given special priority because women are more likely to be deprived of their rights. In a situation regarding any breach of human rights, it is almost certain that women will be suffering at a more intense level than men, because even the most basic standards are often not being fulfilled. This occurs not just in developing countries, but in developed ones as well. However, the most obvious abuses, such as the Marriage Bar, have disappeared in developed countries, whereas they are still prevalent in the developing world. However, many developed countries are still guilty of not upholding women’s rights, but this is usually not so blatant and easy to see.

International development is one of those terms that trips off the tongue, but is actually quite hard to define. Development in this sense is the advance or growth of a country. It is international because it occurs all around the world and involves countries creating links and bonds that extend further than their own borders, through trade and shared projects. Development differs from change in that it is more select. It recognises the long-term costs and results of growth, and takes account of them. On the other hand, change is not always so positive, and often disregards long-term costs. Development, then, is progress and improvement for an economy, a country and the people who live in it.

To lack food, money and essentials is to live in poverty. Sadly, this is a situation in which millions of people find themselves. It is nigh on impossible to end poverty, because it is a vicious cycle which traps people and leaves them no way of escape. The old maxim, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’, is probably the neatest way to sum up how to end poverty, which is our goal here. Education, of all sorts, is vital to helping people out of this cycle. If you want to be metaphorical, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

Now that the key concepts have been made clear, we can look at how the rights of women are a part of development and the battle to end poverty. Women who do not have their rights fulfilled may not be permitted to work outside the home, travel, vote, access family planning or control their own finances. All of these barriers thrown up in front of women also hinder international development and the worthy goal of ending poverty. For a country to develop and its people to be relieved of poverty, its economy must be strong and sustainable. This is very difficult to achieve if a large part of the workforce is blocked from employment. How can a country appoint a forward thinking and stable government, if approximately half of the electorate cannot speak their minds through their votes? It is impossible to fully develop an economy, and therefore a country, without the active participation of the citizens. Women’s rights play a huge part in international development because their exclusion means that any ‘improvement’ or ‘growth’ will benefit only a part of the people, and never the whole. In this way, there will always be poverty lingering in the background and creeping around the corner, because some people, namely women, are barred from escaping it.

Paid employment has a lot to do with ending poverty. Women who have the right and the facilities to work can earn an independent income, money that is their own. This money, when spent or saved, feeds into the economy, just as a man’s income would. A country needs money and resources to develop, so an economic climate in which most of the citizens can earn and use their money is to the country’s advantage. Certain facilities are necessary for women to be able to work in the public domain, but these are no more than they are entitled to. Included here are toilets and maternity leave as well as equality of payment and holiday entitlement.

Healthcare is important both to development and a reduction in poverty levels. Clinics, general practitioners and family planning centres are all elements of infrastructure that any developed country needs. Family planning is particularly important for realising women’s rights and all of the benefits for development that come with them. Women in developing countries can often feel trapped by the family obligations that five, six or more children present. It is a barrier for women who wish to work, and a cycle in itself because more children require more money, yet more children also need even more time spent at home, and not working. Therefore, women’s rights to healthcare is essential to development and ending poverty.

There are many examples of cases in which women exercising their rights have assisted with development, as well as lifting themselves and others out of poverty. Women who have the right to work have often been involved in setting up co-operative businesses and banks, which benefit an entire community. Projects such as these can lead to improvements in infrastructure, education, disease prevention and local government. It is not difficult to see how women’s rights can be a starting point from which a broad range of people in a community may be helped.

It may seem odd, but all of my arguments have something to do with bicycles. Let’s look at the example of Amina Kasuim, a Ghanaian women who was formerly a slave working for her uncle’s family. Later in life, she learned to ride a bike and purchased her own from the Village Bicycle Project. It has been invaluable and allows her to reach markets, her farm and family occasions with greater ease and efficiency than before. The use of a bicycle as a women’s instrument of freedom goes right back to Edwardian Britain, during which the introduction of bloomers as cycling garb began a women’s clothing revolution, leading to greater emancipation. All of this has contributed and is continuing to contribute, to development, by allowing women to travel further to work, or for leisure. It plays a clear role in ending poverty as well, Kasuim’s bike maintenance skills could lead to a well-paid job, or encourage her to become an entrepreneur.

In conclusion, I think the American campaigner Susan B. Anthony summed my sentiments up well when she said of bicycling. ‘I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance’. With ‘freedom and self-reliance’, brought about by the fulfilment of their rights, women can become a driving force behind international development and the move to end poverty.

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