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Women's Rights Issues in TuvaluSituated in the vast Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest, most remote island nations, made up of slightly more than 11,000 people, all living on a mere 26 square kilometers of land. Women in Tuvalu encounter challenges across various aspects of daily life, including representation in government, participation in the economy and the risk of violence in the household. Here are three big women’s rights issues in Tuvalu:

Underrepresentation in Parliament

Tuvalu gained independence from Britain in 1978 and since then, only three women have been elected as members of the Tuvalu Parliament. Most recently, in the general election of 2019, only 5.4% of candidates were women and only one was successfully elected. Tradition and cultural norms are factors as to why women are not represented in the government as much as men. Traditionally, it is the belief that women should take care of domestic labor while men dominate the workforce. While this belief is not a hard and fast rule, it does bleed into governance as women are excluded and limited from decision-making in local governmental participation.

In addition, family ties and connections play a big role in who gets elected, as there are no formal campaigns or parties. Although progress toward improving equal representation in the government has been made, tangible improvements toward this goal in terms of a permanent legislature have yet to be made. Exclusion from decision-making marginalizes women’s influence on the legislature that addresses issues that directly affect them, such as poverty, poor education and underemployment. By including women in government, these pressing issues like poverty could be directly confronted.

Economic Disparity

In Tuvalu, women’s participation in the workforce remains unequal to that of men. According to the World Bank, in 2023, young women from the ages of 15 to 24 made up only 43% of the workforce, while young men made up 53%. Additionally, the unemployment rate for women was 16.2% and 4.6% for men in 2022. In terms of education, 37.4% of women were not in training, employment or education. The lack of women in the labor force keeps Tuvaluan women in a cycle of economic inequality and poverty. Addressing these issues could lead to a more productive workforce and economic development that not only helps improve the lives of low-income women but also of the community.

Gender-Based Violence

In Tuvaluan society, nearly 36% of women between 15 and 49 reported experiencing physical violence from a partner within their lifetimes, with 24.3% of women stating that they experienced violence within the 12 months before the report. Violence, including physical, sexual and emotional forms, significantly impacts the lives of Tuvalu women. These women might have a harder time accessing money or making any financial decisions, which can contribute to their financial dependency and their exposure to poverty.

Looking into the Future

While these major areas of society need women to be included to improve, one organization is working on building a better future for the island and women’s rights issues in Tuvalu. The Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP) focuses on building infrastructure to protect and raise the island away from rising sea levels due to climate change. A huge component of this project is advocating for women to speak up in the government and community spaces.

The project focuses on supporting women through education, offering scholarships and helping them obtain governing positions. Two female recipients have already been placed into universities abroad thanks to this program. Additionally, TCAP has created 100 new jobs that not only fight against island erosion but also prioritize female applicants to maintain a 50-50 gender balance. TCAP trains women in the relevant skills to boost their careers and also gives them a platform for their existing streams of income, which typically come from selling handicrafts.

– Rachel Venable

Rachel is based in Berkeley, CA, USA and focuses on Global Health for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr

Gender Wage Gap in LaosIn Laos, a Southeast Asian country, an ongoing challenge affects its socio-economic landscape: the gender wage gap. Women in Laos face significant wage disparities compared to their male counterparts. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), women in Laos only earn around 77% of what men earn. The Lao government has been making steady strides towards narrowing the gender wage gap in Laos in recent years.

Understanding Laos’ Gender Wage Gap

Several factors contribute to the gender wage gap in Laos. One significant factor is the concentration of women in low-skill sectors such as informal employment, where wages are typically lower and job security is precarious, according to UNFPA. Women also often face barriers to career advancement and leadership positions due to the unequal nature of family care and responsibilities placed on them. In Laos, women make up only 21.9% of Parliament. The disparity is more present in rural areas, with entrenched traditional gender roles and limited access to education and employment opportunities. This in turn exacerbates poverty among women.

Closing the Gap

Recognizing the importance of addressing the gender wage gap and women’s poverty, the Lao government has implemented various initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women in the workforce. One such initiative is the Fourth National Plan of Action on Gender Equality, which the government renewed in 2021 to mainstream gender perspectives into national policies and programs.

Under this strategy, the government has introduced measures to improve access to education and vocational training for women, enhance women’s participation in decision-making processes, and eliminate discriminatory practices in the labor market. The government also has taken further steps to enact legislation to promote equal pay for equal work and strengthen enforcement mechanisms to address wage discrimination.

Before the renewal of the Fourth National Plan of Action on Gender Equality, The Third National Plan of Action on Gender Equality achieved several significant milestones in advancing gender equality and women’s rights from 2016 to 2020. For instance, the government allocated education funding for 1,200 students, with approximately 78% of the recipients being girls. Additionally, the government provided training to 563 underprivileged students in rural areas, with approximately 69% of the participants being girls. As a result, the number of students enrolled in vocational institutions increased by 5,420 between 2015 and 2016, with female students making up approximately 41% of the total enrollment. The Fourth National Plan of Action on Gender Equality aims to build upon these achievements and further advance gender equality in Laos.

The Role of Empowerment

In addition to governmental efforts, non-governmental organizations play a crucial role in addressing the gender wage gap and reducing women’s poverty in Laos. One notable example is the Lao Women’s Union, a grassroots organization that works to empower women and promote gender equality across various sectors.

The Lao Women’s Union significantly contributed to the increase in female elected officials in the 2016 8th National Assembly Election. The Union actively promoted the importance of gender balance in political roles to the Lao citizens. Consequently, there was a notable 2.9% rise in the number of women elected compared to the previous 7th National Assembly Election, according to the Fourth National Plan of Action.

Another key organization that has contributed significantly is The Asia Foundation. The Asia Foundation is an international non-profit organization that has been collaborating with Laos since 1958. In 2011, The Asia Foundation announced a scholarship for women undergoing education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, to promote equal gender representation in these traditionally male-dominated fields. The scholarship aided 84 women in completing their education at the National University of Laos, and the subsequent introduction of 42 new candidates between 2020 and 2021.

Addressing Poverty Among Women

Poverty among women in Laos remains an issue. The gender wage gap worsens economic inequalities, making it harder for women to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. By addressing the gender wage gap, Laos can significantly reduce poverty. This has been demonstrated by the Poverty Reduction Fund’s Road Maintenance Groups program implemented in 2017. The program aimed to encourage women to partake in quality jobs to increase female representation in the labor force. Women from all across Laos, especially those from some of Laos’ poorest villages, were provided with the skills and training needed to repair roads in rural Laos. Evaluations following the program found that women were 77% more likely to become consistent income earners, and the monthly wages of women who participated in the program increased by an average of $19.

Ensuring equal pay for equal work and improving women’s access to higher-paying jobs and educational opportunities will not only empower women but also contribute to the overall economic development of the country. As women gain financial independence and stability, they can better support their families and communities, leading to a more prosperous and equitable society.

Continued efforts by both governmental and non-governmental actors are essential to dismantle systemic barriers, challenge gender norms, and create an inclusive and equitable labour market where women have equal opportunities to thrive and succeed. By prioritizing gender equality and investing in women’s empowerment, Laos can unlock the full potential of its workforce and foster sustainable development for all its citizens.

– Jennifer Lee

Jennifer is based in Toronto, Canada and focuses on Good News for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr

Gender Equality in LeadershipTongan women are severely underrepresented in political leadership positions, both at local and national levels. This is a reminder of the gender disparities that persist in society and a reflection of deep-seated social norms that perpetuate the idea that women are less suited for leadership than men. However, through initiatives like the Balance of Power and Tonga Youth Leaders, Tonga is empowering gender equality in leadership, breaking down barriers, challenging traditional views and promoting women’s participation in political decision-making.

Barriers to Tonga’s Women in Political Leadership

While women’s leadership within the public sector and family and community life has had successive progress, political leadership progress is still limited. No more than two women have been elected to the national Parliament in a general election, which was in 2017. In the most recent election, in 2021, no women were elected. Women’s underrepresentation in political leadership is a result of barriers that are often rooted in cultural, social and institutional factors that perpetuate gender inequality and limit women’s opportunities to participate actively in political decision-making processes.

Some key barriers to Tonga’s women in political leadership include:

  • Cultural and social norms are deeply ingrained. These norms perpetuate the view that men are inherently better in leadership positions than women and that women don’t have the “right” skills and experience for political leadership roles that men do. Such norms can deter women from pursuing careers in leadership positions, as they may face societal pressures to conform to traditional gender roles.
  • Gender stereotypes can undermine women’s credibility as political leaders. Women who pursue careers in politics face scrutiny, discrimination and bias based on gender, with their qualifications, capabilities and decisions questioned or dismissed due to stereotypes about women’s competence in leadership roles.
  • A lack of media representation of women’s voices. Media plays a crucial role in shaping public perceptions, influencing opinions and circulating information about political candidates and issues. Underrepresentation in the media can reinforce gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles.
  • Institutional and legal frameworks can limit women’s political participation. Women do not have the same financial resources as men. The practice of voters expecting reciprocal gifts from candidates creates challenges for women, as they may have limited resources or face societal pressures that prevent them from meeting these demands. While bribery is illegal under Tongan electoral law, voters do not classify it as bribery and this makes it harder for women to compete effectively in elections.

The importance of gender equality in leadership is crucial as men and women often have differing needs and viewpoints, highlighting the significance of ensuring women are represented. With women constituting half of the population, it is pivotal that their interests are effectively addressed. A balanced participation of both men and women in decision-making is essential.

Balance of Power

Balance of Power is an Australian Government funded, locally-led approach to supporting women in political leadership. It is an initiative aimed at addressing gender disparities in political representation by shifting social norms and attitudes that impede women from being recognized as credible leaders. It focuses on promoting gender equality in leadership by empowering women to participate actively in political leadership roles.

The Balance of Power initiative employs adaptive management and politically informed approaches to drive change. Through training, mentorship and advocacy, the Balance of Power seeks to challenge social norms, traditional views and barriers that hinder women’s engagement in politics. The initiative executes this with media collaboration to increase women’s leadership visibility, strengthening the Women in Leadership Coalition, research and advocacy to address negative perceptions and regional engagement to change social norms.

Tonga Youth Leaders

Tonga Youth Leaders is a “youth-led organization that empowers and develops Tongan youth to become catalysts for positive change in their own communities.” The organization was set up in 2017 by Elizabeth Kite to give a voice to the Tongan youth and encourage their participation in community development through small projects and fostering leadership skills.

The Tonga Youth Leaders organized an initiative called Girls Takeover Parliament, which offers 26 young women and girls the chance to participate in a parliamentary setting, enabling them to express and share views on national issues. The Girls Takeover Parliament initiative helps young women and girls realise their potential, develop leadership skills and allow them the opportunity to pursue a career in politics.

About 90% of participants expressed their interest in pursuing a career in politics after they attended the Girls Takeover Parliament initiative. The initiative has had a significant impact on empowering young women and girls and raising awareness about youth engagement and gender equality in leadership.

Tonga’s commitment to empowering gender equality in leadership is evident through innovative initiatives like the Balance of Power and Tonga Youth Leaders. These initiatives not only challenge social norms and traditional views and break down barriers but also foster inclusivity and encourage youth engagement, as well as women’s active participation in decision-making roles. Through targeted programs, media collaborations and community engagement, Tonga is paving the way for a more equitable and representative political landscape.

– Isabella Green

Isabella is based in Aylesbury, UK and focuses on Good News for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr

Combating Poverty in IndiaPoverty remains a pressing issue in India, with more than 12.92% living below the national poverty line of $2.15 a day as of 2021 – a number that, with global support, is steadily declining year by year. Here are five strategies aimed at combating poverty and fostering inclusive development in India.

Education and Skill Development

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), if all students in low-income countries could be provided basic reading skills, an estimated 171 million people would be able to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. If all adults in low-income countries completed secondary school education, it would be possible to cut the global poverty rate by at least half. Hence, access to education and skill development is crucial in combating poverty in India.

Out of all the G20 nations, India has the highest percentage of adults who have not completed primary education. About 46% of 25-64-year-olds have not completed primary education and 71% have not completed secondary education. The average for all G20 countries is 36%. However, several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are dedicated to improving the quality of education in India, one of which is Pratham. Pratham focuses on “high-quality, low-cost and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system” and its programs reach millions every year.

Pratham offers a number of initiatives, from Early Childhood Education to Second Chances, for those who have previously left school without completing their education and is committed to its mission of “every child in school and learning well.”

Health Care Access and Infrastructure

According to a study conducted in 2011, India has an average of 20 health workers per 10,000 people, with most of them opting to work in areas that have better infrastructure and facilities for family life and growth. This leaves poorer areas with a lower density of health workers. As a result of this, only 37% were able to reach in-patient facilities within a 5km distance. There is an understanding that the further one lives from towns, the greater the risk of disease, malnourishment, weakness and premature death.

Furthermore, a 2012 study of six states in India revealed that many of the primary health centers lacked basic infrastructure such as beds, wards, toilets, drinking water, clean labor rooms for delivery and regular electricity. In response to these statistics, the Reliance Foundation, an organization with the motto “Health for All,” is working toward providing access to quality and affordable health care in India. The organization is doing this through community health initiatives, health outreach to vulnerable communities and the provision of quality health care to all.

The Reliance Foundation’s Health Outreach Programme has provided more than 8.1 million consultations to vulnerable patients. Health camps offer specialist care for various non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, as well as communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and TB. Through these health camps, as well as hospitals in Lodhivali, Jamnagar and Hazira, the Reliance Foundation has been able to support more than 8,000 people with HIV, including children.

Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality

Gender discrimination fuels women’s poverty in the workplace with limited access to resources and financial assets and deep-rooted stereotypes that limit women’s ability to participate in education and employment. Consequently, 10% of women globally are trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty – something that is clear in India, with 45 million women in poverty compared to 38 million men.

Furthermore, there are risks and vulnerabilities directly linked to political, social and cultural disadvantages for Indian women. These risks expose girls to the possibility of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, poor education and health, sexual abuse, exploitation and violence. By empowering women and increasing the value of women in India, the cycle of extreme poverty can be broken and women can be enabled to fully develop and contribute to India’s growth, as well as combat poverty in India.

Access To Clean Water and Sanitation

Out of a 1.4 billion population, 35 million people lack access to safe water and 678 million lack access to a safe toilet. There are a number of factors contributing to these statistics, such as extreme water stress, lack of access to piped water supplies and changing weather patterns that result in droughts.

While the Indian government’s goal of providing tap water connections to every household by 2024 is positive, this has created an unprecedented urgency to increase access to safe water and sanitation services. However, since 2004, the organization Water.org has played a significant part in improving water and sanitation in India.

The nonprofit is providing access to safe water to more than 25.7 million people through its WaterCredit Initiative, microfinancing disadvantaged regions and providing affordable loans as well as the connections and resources to put a tap or toilet in homes.

Advocacy and Policy Reforms

Regarding policy reforms to combat poverty in India, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) has been one of India’s leading public policy think tanks since 1973. CPR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent institution. It aims to conduct research that can be used to create better policies and high-quality scholarship while also contributing greatly to the public discourse about combating poverty in India.

Similarly, PRS Legislative Research is an organization seeking to provide information on the work of Members of Parliament (MPs) and Parliament to citizens in accessible formats. Furthermore, it partners with the media and civil society groups to help them engage more with various governmental issues.

This is crucial as the Indian government itself does not provide its legislators with research personnel. Therefore, PRS Legislative Research helps legislators understand various problems and use data and evidence to aid decisions in multiple policies. This results in more researched and educated legislation and policies being passed.

Final Remark

In conclusion, combating poverty in India requires a multifaceted approach encompassing education, health care and policy advocacy. By implementing and maintaining these strategies and fostering collaboration with stakeholders, it is possible to combat poverty in India and create a more equitable and prosperous future for its population in the journey toward inclusive development.

– Emily Weir

Emily is based in Bath, UK and focuses on Global Health and Celebs for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr

Gender Wage Gap in BarbadosWhen picturing Barbados many people imagine golden beaches and sunny skies, yet this is not always the reality. Barbados, located in the Caribbean Sea, is one of the many places in the world that still experiences gender inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, in Barbados, “women earn about 86.8% of their male counterparts.” This means that even in today’s modern age, women are still experiencing a huge pay difference from men. Due to experiencing a larger pay difference than men, women in Barbados are more likely to experience poverty. As well as this, according to the U.N., “more women than men tend to fall below the poverty line.”

The Issue

The gender pay gap seems to be something of the past, but the evidence in places such as Barbados shows that this is not the case at all and that the gender wage gap remains. Women are continually experiencing negative stigma and inconsistencies in working conditions such as wages and this statistic only serves to highlight this problem. Women who are experiencing a gender wage gap are experiencing this due to, “a population’s cultural beliefs and attitudes toward women.” This means that many countries are still harboring negative and sexist attitudes towards women, which needs to change for the gender wage gap in Barbados and around the world to fully close.

Tackling the gender pay gap in places like Barbados could create better living conditions as well as more opportunities for jobs around the world. The gender wage gap in Barbados highlights the inequalities that are still prevalent between men and women, and studies show that “countries with more gender equality tend to be happier.” Improving gender equality and the gender pay gap benefits both men and women.

The Future

Mother’s Union is fighting for gender equality across the globe and support women who are in these places striving for equality as well as providing a safe space for women to talk. Since 1913, the Mother’s Union has more than 2,000 members who help reach out to women and support them in Barbados. The Mother’s Union has many different outreach programs in Barbados such as counseling services and skills training. In 2023 it also celebrated its 110th year anniversary.

– Kiera Egars

Kiera is based in Leeds, UK and focuses on Politics and World News for The Borgen Project.

Photo: Flickr

Child MarriageChild marriage (CM) violates human rights and has detrimental effects on the lives and welfare of girls. Although there are legal prohibitions against the marriage of underage girls, cultural and social norms often take precedence over these enforced laws. However, nonprofit foundations and organizations are working toward eradicating the practice worldwide.

Among them is CARE, a nongovernmental organization that started in 1945 after Arthur Ringland and Dr. Lincoln Clark advocated for the establishment of a nonprofit entity designed to transfer food packages from America to Europe during World War II (WWII). Throughout the years, CARE developed other aid initiatives serving crises in response to changing global political dynamics, including the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War.

In 1982, programs for women’s advancement were established in Bangladesh. Similarly, in 1993, CARE targeted its efforts into prioritizing the empowerment of girls and women to tackle poverty. Today, the nonprofit works in up to 109 countries worldwide and has become a global organization working toward gender justice, among other causes.

CARE’s Approach

CARE has approached the fight against child marriage through a primary program called “Tipping Point.” The initiative was implemented from 2013 to 2023, in Bangladesh and Nepal in South Asia and adapted in West Africa, Mali, Niger and Northern Syria in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The program consisted of three phases.

The first phase, which lasted for four years, prioritized innovations and learnings by engaging adolescents and parents in sessions in which open dialogue was encouraged. A central effort in this phase was to challenge deep rooted harmful social norms related to CM. During weekly sessions with separate groups of girls and boys, the kids were encouraged to self-reflect and think about love, their strengths and their dreams, as well as unequal social norms such as girls’ mobility, division of labor, restrictions on girls and risks of Child marriage.

Additionally, boys worked on reflecting on their masculinity. The sessions with the mothers were focused on reproductive health, family planning and also their own agency. Part of these sessions included discussions about their relationships with the children and generally building soft skills within connections at the family level.

Second Phase

The second phase, which lasted three years, invested in creating spaces for all community members to reflect on the unequal social norms. Suniti Neogy, CARE’s Senior Technical Advisor, says that work at the community level was also a crucial part of the program, working toward changing norms around issues that girls grappled with, such as mobility and access to education.

Sessions were also held with religious leaders, school teachers and government officials on reflections on issues of equality, workload, sexual health, virginity and honor, including the risks and benefits of CM. CARE’s fight against CM begins with opening the dialogue among and between the families and the girls. “If you work on girls’ or women’s empowerment, but you don’t work with the families or you don’t work with the community around them, it’s not easy to change that,” says Neogy.

The third and final phase of “Tipping Point,” also lasting three years, used experience from the previous two phases to advocate for policies addressing core factors propelling the practice of CM. The final phase also connected girls with women’s rights organizations so they could find support beyond the program.

Challenges

Neogy says a primary challenge when fighting CM is how “everybody thinks that we are there to stop Child Marriage.” According to her, the question “How many child marriages did you stop?” is frequently asked in government forums. “If her confidence is not built, if she’s not even able to speak for herself, if she continues to have no agency, it will not make a difference in her life if she’s married today or tomorrow,” stated Neogy.

According to Neogy, prevention is the only way to combat Child Marriage. She says the work has to be done with different sectors and different stakeholders so that “from all sides, it’s the same language that is spoken.”

CARE’s Director of “Tipping Point,” Serkadis Amassu, says that combating CM with law reforms has not worked. She states that the practice is highly intrinsic to social and gender norms, with some communities in South Asia believing that marrying girls will bring respect to the family and save them from potential disgrace if the girl becomes pregnant before marriage.

Girls in Action

Girls in Action is also a part of CARE’s gender transformative program. The model brought together girls from different communities in Bangladesh and encouraged them to identify an issue in their community that hindered them from achieving their dreams and aspirations.

Through surveys, the girls collected data regarding that issue within their communities and they then presented it to the parents and other community members. Neogy says activities like this encouraged the girls to speak out, negotiate with their parents and build a relationship between the girls.

Success Story

CARE’s “Tipping Point” program concluded in December of 2023. However, its accomplishments toward bettering the lives of girls and adolescents still linger in the communities. Data published by the organization shows a reduction of CM by 63% in girls who attended 36 to 40 “Tipping Point” sessions in Bangladesh, the country with the fourth most cases of CM worldwide.

Overall, CARE’s published results show a favorable shift in social norms concerning girls’ freedom and agency, as well as a betterment of collective community efforts to uphold girls’ rights over time across various sectors.

– Paula Pujol-Gibson
Photo: Flickr

Women's Rights in Burkina FasoBurkina Faso is a country in West Africa that is part of the Sahel region. The nation is among the poorest in the world, ranked by the Human Development Index (HDI) at 184 out of 194 in the 2021-2022 HDI report. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line and due to a lack of women’s rights in Burkina Faso, women in particular struggle to escape.

Women in Society

There are different communities and ethnic groups across the country that vary in the way that they treat women. However, generally, there is a deep-rooted acceptance that women are beneath men in terms of social standing. The strict gender roles mean that women do not have assets of their own. They have no right to inheritance and cannot own land or have credit. Women are, therefore, forced to obtain permission from their husbands for many activities, especially to make payments.

Sexual Health

This lack of autonomy impacts their everyday activity and health. Due to transportation and medication fees, they cannot take themselves or their children to the hospital without prior permission. As well as this, they have no power to insist that their husband uses contraceptives. With a culture of polygamy and levirate, there is a high risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraceptives are incredibly important.

In general, there is limited access to sexual, reproductive and maternal services throughout the country. A lack of facilities combined with a lack of independence means that it is tough for women to get the help that they need, leading to high maternal mortality rates, high birth rates and illegal abortions.

Women in Education

For change to occur, it is vital to have women in positions of power. However, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Women, in 2021, Burkina Faso’s women took up only 6.3% of the seats in parliament. There are a multitude of social factors that dissuade girls from pursuing their education. This in turn affects the number of those who can fight for women’s rights in Burkina Faso.

Once a woman is married, their time is taken up by unpaid domestic labor. Education becomes less of a priority. Child marriage is a significant concern in Burkina Faso, with approximately 52% of women in 2018 between the ages of 20 and 24 married before the age of 18. It is believed that investing in a young girl’s education is futile as she will marry into a family very soon.

The fear of physical and sexual abuse in schools also influences a girl’s decision to continue her education. This abuse can be from both students and teachers, creating an association that school can result in unwanted pregnancies. As a result, 50% of the young female population in Burkina Faso are not in education or employment.

SWEDD

It has become clear to the government and the World Bank that investing in women is important for economic growth and social welfare. The World Bank’s Vice President for Western and Central Africa, Ousmane Diagana, says that “by investing in women and girls, countries will build resilient communities that can bounce back from crises and adapt to rising threats, such as climate change and fragility.”

The Sub-Saharan Africa Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) initiative was launched by the World Bank in 2015. The project addresses issues of child marriage, education and gender-based violence in Burkina Faso and across the Sahel region. Across the region, 3420 safe spaces have been established, providing vital support. Additionally, more than 7000 midwives have been deployed to rural areas, contributing to improved maternal and child health. SWEDD also works toward changing the mindset of both men and women to uproot internalized ideals about women’s rights in Burkina Faso.

SWEDD works with people from across the Sahel region who have an audience. More than 9000 religious leaders, 35 musicians and 17 footballers used its platforms to raise awareness and stimulate dialogue. Increasing resources and facilities is insufficient if women can’t use them. This is why social and behavioral change is necessary for women in Burkina Faso to gain independence and take control of their future.

– Liz Johnson
Photo: Flickr

StrongMinds' mental health initiativesOften overlooked in the broader landscape of global health initiatives, mental health plays a pivotal role in shaping communities and individuals. With competing health and development priorities, mental health often takes the backseat, with more visible health ailments taking the stage. As of 2021, 66 million women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders in Africa, while 85% of women do not have access to treatment. With a firm grip on the complexities of mental health, StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives have fostered an inclusive environment where communities can address mental health in a culturally relevant way.

Specifically dedicated to addressing the frequently overlooked issue of depression, particularly impacting women in the region, StrongMinds sets itself apart as a singular organization scaling a cost-effective solution to the prevailing mental health challenges. Established in 2013, the organization operates strategically in Uganda and Zambia. What distinguishes StrongMinds is its dedication to the cause and its unique position as the sole organization implementing a scalable and cost-effective solution to the depression epidemic in Africa. Through partnerships and collaboration with NGOs and government entities, StrongMinds efficiently scales access to depression treatment, reaching communities utilizing a priceless resource — the community. 

The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with StrongMinds’ Acting Uganda Country Director, Vincent Mujune, who is actively involved in the organization’s mission. In the interview, Mujune delves into the inspiration behind StrongMinds’ exclusive focus on women, the vital role of community health volunteers, the importance of mental health in development, destigmatization strategies, the success of group therapy and the organization’s unique approach.

Impact of Depression on Women’s Lives

The foundation of StrongMinds is rooted in recognition of the staggering impact of depression on women’s lives – about twice as many women as men experience depression. “When a woman is depressed, she works less, she may experience physical ailments, and she will even disengage from her family and community. And when a woman is depressed, the negative outcomes can extend to her children, who are more likely to miss school or have poor physical and mental health themselves,” Mujune says.

Tailored Therapy and Women Empowerment

Mujune discussed how the benefit of tailored therapy for women stems much further than just the women themselves in the community, “Conversely, when a woman recovers from depression, our data show that she is able to work more, provide her children with more regular meals and schooling, and she will generally feel more connected to others in her community.” Women from StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives further reduce the stigmatization in the community by speaking out on their personal experiences with mental health and opening a space in which others can reach out to receive help. “We like to say that when a woman recovers from depression, she changes the world around her.”

The Role of Community Health Workers

StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives not only utilize health professionals to treat depression but also the community as a whole. The involvement of community members, mainly community health volunteers, is integral to the success of StrongMinds’ therapy model. “Through psychoeducation and awareness-raising, community members help create a safe space that reduces stigma and encourages women with depression to seek help. Social support is a crucial element to helping women overcome isolation and enhancing the overall effectiveness of group therapy,” Mujune explains. 

The Interconnectedness of Mental and Physical Health 

While infectious diseases are often pressing matters to address, StrongMinds brings awareness to the interconnectedness of both mental and physical health. Depression is linked bidirectionally with infectious diseases, impacting behaviors and adherence to health care. Addressing mental health contributes to overall development by breaking the cycle of poverty perpetuated by depression-induced limitations in education, job opportunities and economic participation. 

Overcoming the Stigmatization of Mental Health 

One of the most significant barriers to mental health is stigmatization in low-income countries where the same notion of mental health isn’t recognized as it is in the West. StrongMinds implements various strategies to relay the impact of mental health and the importance of speaking on the issue. Psychoeducation provided through mobilization and therapy efforts aims to educate individuals and communities about mental health disorders, fostering understanding and empathy. The organization extends psychoeducation to parents and teachers, creating a support network that aids recovery and reduces stigma at school and home.

Success and Impact 

Measuring the effectiveness of mental health can vary; in the context of StrongMinds’ group therapy programs, a successful outcome is defined by a clinically significant reduction in the “depression score” measured by the PHQ-9 depression screening tool. Approximately 75-85% of clients achieve a depression-free status by the end of therapy, as indicated by a minimal depression score. 

The success of group therapy is illustrated through countless impactful stories. Years after their treatment, women express gratitude for life-changing experiences. Some become volunteer peer therapy facilitators, leveraging their experiences to help others. The collaborative nature of group therapy empowers women to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers, leading to transformative outcomes such as starting businesses and turning their lives around.

Organizations like StrongMinds contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty perpetuated by untreated depression. The initiative creates a transformative domino effect that reaches families, communities and societies by changing individual lives. As Mujune emphasizes, “mental health is foundational to overall health and is a fundamental human right.” Mental health may display itself differently among communities; nevertheless, StrongMinds’ mental health initiatives have proven that finding solutions is possible, and its effects ripple into the community. The organization’s commitment to this principle promises even more significant positive change. The trajectory of StrongMinds invites anticipation and excitement as it continues to lead the way in mental health treatments, undoubtedly leaving a mark and inspiring other organizations on the global landscape.

– Bella Oliver-Steinberg
Photo: Flickr

Mayan Women in GuatemalaIn a country battling substantial rates of gender inequity and considerable ethnic divides, Mayan girls and women in Guatemala face twofold marginalization. MAIA Impact School’s focus is educating Mayan women. They have forged a space for indigenous girls to learn and empower themselves. 

Ethnic Divides: A History of Discrimination in Guatemala

Historically, Guatemala has seen some of the lowest educational attainment rates in Latin America and the highest levels of disparity in wealth and opportunity between indigenous and nonindigenous communities. To bridge ethnic divides at a supranational level, the U.N. General Assembly promulgated the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in December 1994. Despite its aims, findings ten years later reported no significant improvement in poverty or education rates across Latin America. This lack was especially prevalent in countries with the highest concentration of indigenous peoples, including Guatemala.

Political underrepresentation and limited social participation of Mayan communities have continued to problematize social equity in Guatemala. Some experts point to a lack of Spanish literacy among rural indigenous communities as a contributing factor. Yet until recently, international aid groups have tended to focus only on addressing broader inequalities nationwide. As a result, indigenous-centric projects have gone remiss by a large portion of overseas funding.

Mayan Women Continue To Face Marginalization

As such, more attention is needed to address specific challenges around educating Mayan women in Guatemala. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, less than 20% of Mayan girls have finished high school, with 57% becoming mothers by age 20. 

Prevailing cultural norms have neglected the importance of female education, which has had implications on current poverty rates in indigenous communities. Sololá, where 98% of the population is Mayan, has around 75% of civilians living on less than $2 a day.

By Women, for Women: The MAIA Impact School 

In 2017, MAIA Impact School was founded in Sololá as a project explicitly targeted at educating Mayan women in Guatemala. MAIA enrolls young girls in intensive programs that aim to provide two years of academic growth in just a single year. These programs are combined with socioemotional development initiatives, including classes on reproductive health, community engagement and leadership development. 

In light of stagnant school attendance rates after the COVID-19 pandemic, MAIA established “Project Impulso,” a leveling program to reinforce student performance in core academic areas, such as mathematics, literacy and languages. As of 2022, the school has maintained a 98% retention rate. 

Vital Support From Outside 

This year, MAIA’s staff team is now 100% indigenous and female-led, proving monumental in providing students with role models. The project has been endorsed by the British Embassy in Guatemala, with the ambassador having met with MAIA leaders and voicing his support for the initiative. 

The impact school has been partnered with the global education community group Mona since 2022. Mona has donated over $17 million to the cause. This year, the project aims to accumulate $40,000 in funding to train at least 30 more teachers, provide internet access in buildings and implement “assessment tools” to track student progress and identify areas for improvement.

In 2021, the nonprofit group Team4Tech, which works to minimize digital gaps in “under-resourced” learning facilities worldwide, partnered with MAIA. The team has been helping to integrate technology into classrooms and provide stable and reliable internet access. They have also outsourced eight Barracuda volunteers specializing in digital safety to educate Mayan women about online safety and digital security, including preventative measures against bullying and identity fraud. 

Beyond School: Education and Empowerment in Mayan Society

Community-based efforts show promising signs that Mayan women are gaining agency and self-empowerment outside of academia. The Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano (Association of Highland Women or AMA) has hosted “Women’s Circles” since 1995. The AMA designed these events to encourage autonomy and entrepreneurship within the community, resulting in projects that have seen the construction of community centers, classrooms and sanitation systems. AMA works on these projects with the Highland Support Project, its sister group in the U.S. 

While groups like MAIA have made strides in educating Mayan women in Guatemala, change is needed from a grassroots level to shift normative cultural behaviors that exclude women from the wider world. However, with efforts made by community-based initiatives, such orthodoxies in indigenous society have become less rigid. 

– Cara Jenkins
Photo: Flickr

Child Marriage in IranChild marriage is illegal in 153 countries. However, it is not in the past and still occurs legally quite frequently in 45 sovereign states. Despite the immense decline in matrimonies among minors, the numbers still remain disturbing in the eastern part of the world. One of the countries with a high prevalence rate of child marriage is Iran. 

Economy in Iran 

Iran is a Middle Eastern country known for its fossil fuel sources. The United States Department of Energy proclaimed Iran the world’s third-largest oil and second-largest natural gas reserves holder. Despite its abundance of lucrative resources, Iran’s Parliament Research Center reported that 30.8% of the population faces financial hardship

Legal and Illegal Child Marriages

The pervasiveness of underaged marriages is one of the reasons that detriments the economy of Iran. UNICEF shortlisted Iran in the top five countries with a high rate of child espousal in 2020 in the Middle East and North Africa. According to Iran Open Data, one out of five marriages is among minor people. The Islamic government established the legal age of marriage to be 13 for girls and 15 for boys. However, the Islamic Republic civil code permits people to get married below the set age with a legal guardian’s consent. 

Despite scientific research recording the physical, mental and moral harm caused by early marriages, Iranian law still allows it. Moreover, numerous cases of illegal marriages occur on a religious basis that forces girls to wait for their majority to get married legally. Therefore, an underaged wife is not eligible for endowment or financial support in case of the loss of her husband. In addition, society always demands young women to quit academic institutions in order to take care of the household. 

Economic, Mental and Moral Harm of Early Matrimony

The law’s acceptance of child marriage in Iran results in early pregnancy, illiteracy and social barriers for young women. All these factors are detrimental to the flourishing economy and society of the country because they lead to the gender gap in the community and workplace. 

Early marriage not only harms the economy of Iran, but it also motivates pedophilia and child mistreatment because Islamic Republic laws on marriage permit alternative forms of sexual pleasure besides penetration until the age of 9 for spouses. Hence, child marriage traumatizes girls and ruins their lives from an early age. 

The Effect of COVID-19

COVID-19 raised the number of early marriages. Iran Open Data announced a sharp increase in child nuptials. COVID-19 provoked this type of marriage after a gradual reduction previously. The Civil Registration Organization reported 118,000 registered underaged marriages, which is 9000 extra from the past years. 

Hope for Iranian Girls From the Government 

Regardless of a rapid spike in underaged marriages, the situation remains hopeful. Currently, the Iranian government is undertaking measures to prevent child marriage by increasing the age of the legal espousal for both men and women to 18 years old. The Iranian government has accepted for consideration an adjustment of the Civil Code to enlarge the legal age for matrimony. The law’s implementation will result in positive outcomes for the communal and financial future of the country. 

Furthermore, Iran aims to banish early and involuntary marriage by 2030. Apart from the legislation, Plan International has presented five solutions to thwart underaged matrimonies. It emphasized education and empowerment of young ladies to help the community be more supportive and accepting of women’s rights. Plan International offers to petition the Iranian government about the importance of girls’ development which they are not able to get because of forced and child marriages.

Positive Outcomes 

Augmentation of marriage age will result in a higher prevalence of education for both men and women. Since society will not force girls to abandon school in order to take care of their husbands and offspring. Thus, this change will affect the economic condition of Iran because more women will be able to work

It is important not only from an economic point of view but also from a social perspective, considering that girls will receive an opportunity to fulfill their potential in society. 

– Stephanie Len
Photo: Flickr