The following op-ed was published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on March 8, 2012.
Let me tell you a story — a real-life story — about what empowerment looks like.
It’s the story of a woman in the Kembata region of Ethiopia who, after decades of toil, was put out of her home by her husband because he had taken on a new wife.
She had borne his children, cared for him and the cattle, done much of the work in the fields and all of the work in the home. She had eaten last and least in times of scarcity. She had been faithful and obedient — indeed, subservient — but she was now older and worn and replaceable.
So after years of sacrifice, she was unceremoniously evicted from her home and her lands, with nothing more than the clothes on her back. Destitute, she turned to a women’s self-help group supported by KMG, an Oxfam partner. There she found solace, solidarity and support. But most importantly, she found herself.
It came to her in a flash of recognition as she was getting some legal advice: She was a human being. Hard to believe this should be a revelation to her. It boggles the imagination. But it was so far from her experience that it came as a startling realization.
Her experience had been that after her husband came her sons and after her sons the cattle, and below the cattle her daughters and beneath her daughters — herself.
The women in her circle encouraged her to take legal action to regain access to her lands or compensation for her loss. Her initial response was no. She may have lost everything for which she had worked — but she had found dignity. She could die content in the knowledge that she was a human being.
That’s when the story gets interesting.
After reflection, she was struck by yet another realization. She asked: “Did the village elders know all along that I was a human being and no one ever mentioned it?”
She wondered: “The church leaders, did they know I was a human being and never said anything to me?”
And then: “Does my husband know? Does he know I’m a human being and still treated me this way?”
In failing to recognize her humanity, the community had colluded in denying her rights. They had sat idly by. And in doing nothing, they had lost her respect — and their power over her. She now had the clarity — the consciousness — to challenge how power was being used and abused. She would never again be the same woman.
Oxfam sees similar stories every day — women coming together to recognize, share and grow their power. They are courageous, creative women who, often at great risk, overcome adversity and demonstrate leadership, women who are change agents, creators of wisdom, wealth and well-being.
The foundation of their power is human rights: both the recognition that women and girls have rights equal to men and boys, and the recognition that governments and other duty-bearers have an obligation to create the conditions that allow us to exercise those rights.
The United Nations has identified “Empower Rural Women — End Poverty and Hunger” as the theme for International Women’s Day 2012.
In a world where violence, climate change and increasing competition for land, water and energy are increasing threats to women’s lives and livelihoods, so many women are valiantly overcoming barriers to equity.
Daily victories, large and small, are inspiring. Like the woman from Kembata, they remind us the demand for gender justice should compel us to act.
- Robert Fox, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada.