A 10 year Milestone: Helen Loftin’s Experiences Working with Women Empowerment Projects at MEDA
It’s approaching the 10 year mark. That is, in February 2016, I will have been with MEDA and in the international development industry for 10 years. I began with the management of our small but mighty value chain development project in Pakistan, “Behind the Veil”. Its design and impact is held as an industry standard for effective pro-poor programming and for women’s economic empowerment and I shamelessly brag about it because I had nothing to do with its design. And as a newcomer to international development, to a Muslim country, and to Mennonites (MEDA), I imprinted in several ways on that project.
We’re much more alike than we are different. We say that often at MEDA when talking about the world around us, our work in it, and the motives and incentives that guide human behaviour.
My first observations from “Behind the Veil” included the many ways (both good and not-so-good) in which rural Mennonite and rural Pakistani cultures are similar. Some examples: Clothing – both insist upon modesty and covering up. Head coverings of one type or another are part of their garb. Education – in more conservative circles, Mennonites pull their daughters out of school once they reach the age of 14, the limit that they are legally obliged to reach. In Pakistan, more than 50% of girls never attend school. (1) Integration of faith into daily activities – I marvel at how faith is at the very core of every waking breath and action of most of the people I’ve met in both cultures. Gender perceptions – certainly the subjugated role women take is more pronounced in Pakistan, but it’s there in many a rural setting in communities in Canada… and elsewhere.
(Women embellishing a dress in Punjab, Pakistan)
I’ve gone on to develop a passion for programming that reaches to women entrepreneurs in developing countries, and we’ve now done women-focused projects in Haiti, Libya, Jordan, Ghana, and soon in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Our team designs, publishes, tweets, blogs, and speaks on the merits of women’s economic empowerment programs. I’ve witnessed first-hand the impact entrepreneurship has on the lives of thousands of women in varying industries as they grow stronger in production skills, marketing acumen and financial independence. Their confidence grows. Power dynamics in the household and the community shift. Food security is improved. Their children go to school – their daughters go to school. They learn the power of their potential. It’s rare but when I am able to do so, I want to meet and speak with these women. It gives me an immense reward and deep satisfaction for playing my part in MEDA’s work. I am humbled by their bravery and initiative and awestruck by their grace. And I know our world is better off with them actively in it.
But attitudes shift gradually sometimes… and for all the reasons engaging women in the marketplace is good for (insert developing country’s name here), it’s also good for us too. In the US, in Canada, and at MEDA.
And so, when at our 2015 convention in Richmond Virginia, the announcement was made for the celebrated “20 under 35” –i.e. the young business folk nominated by MEDA supporters and chosen by MEDA staff, only 2 of the 20 were women, I was dismayed. Of course there are equal numbers of women participating in the businesses polled for this initiative – so why were so few chosen as exemplary and worth lauding? I have to think that it just never occurred to those asked. Cognitive dissonance, it’s called. Deeply rooted cultural blocks take time to dislodge and though it’s uncomfortable to turn the spotlight inward, it’s important for growth.
We’re already gearing up for the next MEDA convention in October 2016 and the theme is Business as a Calling – Women Changing the World. You can be sure that the team here at MEDA will do all that we can to showcase the lessons of our work elsewhere to influence the way in which we really see women in business around the world…and right here at home.
(1) UNESCO. (2012). “Factsheet: Education in Pakistan.”