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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective



I am very happy to be here I must warn everyone that I am very new in the Pacific. So, I am very limited in my experience here and therefore I come to this meeting more as an observer and a listener. At the same time, experience from Asia could be useful in trying to understand what is actually happening here in the Pacific. I will use that experience to make some comments on women's projects.

The first question we can ask is why in the first place do we talk in terms of women's projects? What is the ideology behind having projects? When we talk about development we do not talk about men's projects, yet we talk about women's projects. This was acceptable for a certain time simply because a lot of women felt that they were left out the mainstream of development and that this “development”, as discussed earlier, by-passed women's interests. It was thought that by having women's projects, women could win some space in the development process. The last 10 years shown that there are many weaknesses in approaching development in this way: that is, in the use of women's projects or having a women's component in projects.

Critical Appraisal of Projects

What perhaps we should be asking for, is a women's perspective on development. If women are given equal status in the mainstream of development rather than being page 78 components of projects and/or the object of projects, then women may experience a more genuine advancement.

The type of projects women have been involved in the last 10 years, can be classified in terms of their purpose and consequences, the people involved in the organisation, and the main activities of the project. The purpose of projects has generally been to increase employment or income.

All projects that have tried to improve the welfare of women, in education, health, community development, for example, have been what are called integrated projects. The organisations involved with projects have ranged from Non-Government Organisations (NGOS) to Government and community organisations, grassroots organisations. Their main activities have been in training, education, the provision of credit and health services and family planning programmes, etc.

Perhaps now is the time to develop our own perspective or evaluation, that is, our own framework for analysing projects. What has the women's movement got to say when evaluating these types of projects? That is a question we will ask here.

Evaluation of Projects

In terms of the well-being of women, one can evaluate in simple terms how much food and water women have control of. To take the PNG example mentioned earlier, the water supply was there, but the national government's policies took away people's control over water and it was returned in a different form. In the same way, there are some small scale projects in Asia, to do with digging wells here and there, yet at the same time national policies were moving in a different direction. Similar policy contradictions also occur in relation to housing, where the type of housing provided costs too much for the village people. At the national level, therefore, some decisions and actions work against the general thrust of projects.

In terms of the environmental, health, and personal safety aspects, many projects page 79 have been criticised because they tend to over-work women. The common assumption that women have nothing to do has meant that many projects to increase women's income, have resulted in overworking women, who have already been overworked by the social conditions they lived in. The fault of these projects was that instead of looking at a woman's participation within the social and economic structures she was linked with, some projects for women have been created independently. Many such projects later fail.

Many of the income-generating activities for women also raise the question: to what extent does the income generated by the project relate to the cost of living? Often the amount of work put into a project does not generate enough money to surmount the cost of living expenses of women.

A major criticism is that many projects do not really look at the empowerment of women. By this I mean that the process involved in the project is often overlooked. Equally important for women is knowledge gained. Very seldom is a better understanding about the world in which women live gained as a result of women's involvement in projects. That world is one in which many old structures are croding, which new ones are being imposed, and women do not really know how to deal with these changing structures. Women's lack of knowledge of how to gain control over this process is not because women are not exposed. It is because women are involved in a different system where there is a lot of sharing and where group activities are important. The new structures are part of a system that emphasises individual relationships and hierarchy. Women have not been helped or empowered to deal with these new structures.

How do we make women strong enough to evolve their own structures which will assist the reality of their everyday lives? We need some empowerment for women, to maintain what we have, and to develop women's strength rather than eroding it. Later in the workshop, we can talk about what we mean by empowerment.

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We also need to look at the way women's values are under-rated and ignored, and the way the system puts down women. As women's groups, we need to build up the prestige and strength of women by not hitting women down, but by building up.

It is implicit that our definition of development is along these lines. Development has to be seen in terms of not just economic growth, or development of sectors that generate income, but more broadly, as development of the totality of a person, within the context of his/her community, and within the context of the nation as a whole. The assumption we make in evaluating the role of development in this way, is to press for a decrease in the types of inequality that exist in our social systems. This view of development looks at the relationship people have with one another and it also looks at classes of women.

Analysis of the Positive Role of Projects

I would like to briefly talk about how useful projects have been, and in what areas have they actually worked well, and areas where projects have not achieved what they set out to do. I will draw on some successful examples from Asia.

A survey of projects would show that one of the main reasons they fail is that a top-down approach is used which, in sponsored projects, encourages dependency. These projects are not controlled and managed by the women who are involved. The agency sponsoring the project sends experts who not only come from other countries but whose experience is of urban areas. This approach works on the assumption that the knowledge base of the people doing the project is not strong enough for them to independently run it. In reality the people concerned know the needs of the local area and have more knowledge than experts from outside.

Income Generating Projects

In many income-generating activities, there is an exploitative aspect resulting from projects, where women are used mainly as cheap labour to produce inexpensive items for the urban elite. The projects are supposed to generate more income for the page 81 women, but the production arrangements and urban market are such that the project creates an exploitative relationship that is not very different from poorly paid contract work. That is something we have to think about - when the earnings of women from a project is very small compared to the amount of work that they put into it.

A neglected area in projects is help for women in terms of services, and assistance in developing their projects. For example, very little is provided in terms of credit, training, markets, infrastructure and legal aid in sponsored projects and in the plans and administration of some projects. In some cases, especially in pilot projects, the activity later gets dumped.

Pilot Projects

Agencies have to show some output, and to show aid donors that things are happening. In order to make things happen, aid agencies sometimes put a lot of money into a pilot project to prove that it is working. But these pilot projects cannot be repeated elsewhere, because no one is able to put an equal amount of money into them. These are showcase projects to indicate that women's activities and development are taking place but these projects cannot take root because the ways in which they were set up make it very hard for sustainability.

Development Projects

There are development projects of different organisations. Emphasis is placed on providing technology to improve the supply of water, but very little participation of the communities is involved. Services are given, and the communities are supposed to be grateful. But the communities are not invited to discuss the kind of water supply they want.

Family Development

A lot of projects in the last 10 years have dealt with family development. Much of this is on family planning. These types of projects have been designed with the page 82 assumption that they relate to women in families. The focus is on cooking, embroidery, sewing and the aim is to set up an ideal home. There is nothing wrong with this except that these projects play up the role of women as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, without recognising that women also contribute in other areas of production. These projects have the effect of isolating certain aspects of women's roles and neglecting others. We, as women, are trying to put women's many roles together - these projects do not see a woman as a total person, but separate her economic role from her role in the family, which is over-emphasised.

Black and white print of three generations of women.

There has also been an attempt, in family development programmes, to talk about women's health. But again, this is seen in terms of a woman's role as a mother, not in terms of her other roles and activities. Women also work in the fields, and have health problems related to their economic activities. These areas of women's health have to be addressed. This is not to say that such projects should be displaced. Rather, it is an argument for recognition of the many roles and activities women are involved in.

We must examine what sort of projects could be the models for success. Some of the work and experience in India have produced examples of successful projects. One example is an organisation of people normally unorganised who became self-employed. It was successful because there was a lot of group participation and self-management. The middle class women involved who had gone to these areas to work, saw their role as that of facilitators and page 83 did not take over and dominate. They realised that leadership actually begins in not being the leader of the low income women but to identify and facilitate the development of leadership among the self-employed women themselves. Other cases fail because once a person becomes a leader, he/she cannot give up his/her power base. Many groups face this kind of problem.

Another problem area to avoid is setting up a project as a showpiece case. A project must have the ability to spread meaning, so that if other women want to pick it up, they can do so. Often pilot projects create envy among the community because they involve a lot of money that only goes to a small group of women. The project's benefits do not spread to a wider group of women.

Village Credit

This is an area where useful projects could develop. Experience in Bangladesh with village credit in the Grameen Bank project led to training, because the people were committed to the upliftment from rural poverty. The Grameen Bank made credit available to people who had no land. It did not have bank officers but trained its own officers who were seen as agents of development change. They tried to involve the people in group organisations, which had a common interest. The Bank officers gave the groups the responsibility for getting individuals to pay up their loans. The whole process adopted in this project meant that the Bank's agents had to have a very good relationship with the village. They knew the workings of the village in order to choose the right people to lend to, etc. In the past, often rural credit projects failed because money went into the wrong hands.

These are some examples of how projects can serve the community and women. A project's organisation and flexibility are important. The process involved - how a project is organised to address the real needs of people, its leadership and what people got involved - are keys to its success.

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Summary of Workshop Discussion on Projects: Experiences

Women's role as wife and mother was a recurring problem for women involved in projects. Men often expressed anger at women's involvement in projects if it affected their work for the family. In some cultures, the mother-in-law could also put pressure on the daughter-in-law on violence towards the wife sometimes resulted when women wanted to be free to participate in outside activities.

Some participants felt that if projects involved men and women, and were seen to contribute to the family, less criticism towards women would be expressed. Women still had to justify their involvement outside the home, for their work to be supported.

Project Problems

The problems that women have with projects dominated the discussion. Income generating projects were a common example, in Asia and the Pacific, of projects for women. Papua New Guinea had experience of projects set up by foreign experts who then left, resulting in the collapse of the project because the local people were not familiar with its structure. Community rather then individual benefits from projects were thought to be the preferred approach, if a project was to be a success.

Handicraft projects were mentioned, as the next common type of income generating projects developed for Pacific women. No clear analysis was given of the difficulties faced by women in these projects. In Tuvalu, one difficulty was finding an agent to market handicrafts overseas. Women also earned very little from their products - sometimes $20 a month or $5 a week. Questions were raised about the value of these projects, if they involved so much of women's time but earned women payment that did not relate to the much higher cost of living. Such cases pointed to the very marginal nature of women's projects.

Analysis of projects and how they helped women was difficult to make. One view page 85 was that questioning whether projects improved the status of women was perhaps the wrong approach. The question that needed to be asked was: in what ways did the project empower women? Projects could not be separated from development planning and the national framework promoted by governments. It was noted that women were often too busily involved in projects to analyse them in this way. Efforts needed to be made to advance the direction of projects in ways that would empower women.

It was recognised that projects alone could not change women's status. However, some of the positive benefits resulting from women's involvement in projects were improvements in their self-confidence, and women gaining experience in organising and working together.

Projects - Tokelau Islands - Mesepa Atoni The Tokelaus consist of three atolls, each of which has a women's committee. The aim of the women's association on my islands is to improve women's household management, and to help produce mats, handicrafts, etc. We also have a drinking water programme to ensure that the family drinks treated water. Twice a year, the committee inspects homes to see if families are living under proper conditions. The women expressed the need for money to help them with things like food, so a home garden project was started to plant pawpaws. The doctor's wife on the island is in charge of supervising the planting and teaching women how to look after their home gardens. When the Government changed recently, a few educated people from New Zealand took up positions with the Government as Director of Health and Director of Agriculture. The Director of Health is assisting the women's committees in trying to improve the diet of each atoll, and has given money to buy seeds and fertilisers from overseas to help with the project. He also undertook to find overseas markets for handicraft sales, so women would get improved prices for their fans, mats and other crafts. Last Christmas women were making jam out of their garden produce, and it was selling for $16 a litre.

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Projects - Kiribati - Kairabu Betaia
In Kiribati, we have some handicraft, sewing and cooking projects run by women's organisations and run by the women's centre. Some projects are run in the village, and involve vegetable gardens, and a piggery. Some funds have come from FSP. When the women make a profit, they buy things like plates, pots, etc. The handicraft project is run by the women, but the Ministry of Trade is now helping in this type of project. We have asked for training for women; a problem we have is looking for markets. We have a sewing project in the Centre and we help the island councils in the atolls, but we have run out of money in this project. Sometimes we also sew uniforms for the Police, and this helps with the running of the centre. We also have a take-away food project, and have just finished the building for it, but the take-away bar is not complete and we have run out of money.

Black and white photograph of women dancing.

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Black and white print - pacific design.

Projects - Cook Islands - Vereara Maeva Cook Islands women have progressed in promoting themselves, both individually and as groups, in certain areas. For self-employment, we have women working in agriculture, in projects they have initiated themselves. These women could not get jobs in the Government, so they grew their own vegetables and sold them in their own small shops. Women grow flowers or raise pot plants and also sell these. All this helps the family income. Some women own and manage their own hotels and lodges and provide accommodation. This is a lucrative area when there are many visitors to the island. Other women own and manage their own restaurants and take-away shops; some have their own boutiques and employ workers. There are women who have been educated and have worked in the Government but wanted to be independent and start something on their own. Women have taken up the responsibilities of looking after working mother's children; some women are working with their husbands in family businesses. Women are involved in a piggery and poultry business, where they raise their own pigs and chickens, and sell eggs. The National Council of Women initiates programmes funded by government, funding agencies from overseas, or by themselves. Through these projects, women are trained to enable them to develop their potential to organise their own fund raising activities. These activities are done in groups where we try to get the women to do things for themselves rather than depending too much on their husbands.

Black and white print - pacific design.

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We talk
as if
are new-comers
to the planet,
as if Women
are new arrivals
hanging in the wings.
are mothers
of humanity.
are teachers
of Society,
As such,
cannot lay blame
on anyone
for their nonentity
are party to
the maintenance
of an oppressive
macho status quo.
What needs
to occur
in the mind
and practice
of men and women
are these
To accept
as fellow humans
in the human society.
To accept
and recognise
the existence
of women
in the Human
and Society.
To accept
and respect
the Labour
of Women
and the product
of that Labour
as a valuable
to the Life
of Man
the Human
Human Society
and Humankind
accounting for
the product
of the Labour
of Women
as a valuable
and Integral
Input by Women
into Nation Building
National Development
National Life.

From: Colonised People
poems by Grace Mera
Molisa, Black Stone Publications, Port Vila, 1987