Feminism. That one word alone can probably evoke more emotion and conversation from the public than just about any other. But whether it inspires in you a sense of hope and dreams of equality, or leaves you rolling your eyes and clenching your fists because of its inherent emphasis on the female gender, there really is no denying the fundamental truth that first led to the concept of feminism: that women around the world have historically faced disadvantages that have led to inequalities that persist today. Don’t believe me? Let’s check the facts.
In the realm of development, it’s said that poverty has a woman’s face because women and girls make up 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, according to the United Nations. There are a number of factors that contribute to this imbalance, including the lower status and power that women possess both in the labor market and social structure. As a result, women and girls globally face unequal access to education, heightened levels of violence, and fewer opportunities for economic growth– each of which feed upon one another, creating a vicious cycle that has yet to be entirely broken.
Over the past several decades, these issues have gained increasing attention in the public arena and, as such, there has been growing pressure put on the international community to respond. This pressure eventually turned to excitement when it was proven that the empowerment of women through increases in literacy, economic productivity, and security from violence had tremendously positive effects on the wellbeing of their families and, consequently, their communities as wholes. This sealed the deal: women’s empowerment became the latest and greatest trend in international development. The only problem, though, was that the way agencies and NGO’s went about this often disempowered men.
You see, there was such a push around the world to get girls into schools, give women land and skills training, and change wives’ attitudes towards the way that they were treated by their husbands that boys and men started to slip through the cracks. While none of these initiatives were bad in and of themselves, the unintentional result in many communities of focusing so heavily on women’s needs was that it fostered an adversarial relationship between men and women, the latter of whom saw their power being usurped by outside organizations.
This is not to say that international community should not focus on the empowerment of women– of course they should! It’s just that in the same way that you can’t fight fire with fire, you can fight for the empowerment of one gender at the cost of disempowering the other. So where does this leave us? With a need to build development models that do not further divide men and women, but bring them together to jointly create a better future for their communities. With a need to build development models that do not force equality on the community, but work with male leaders until they see the benefits women’s empowerment and willingly fight for it themselves. With a need to build development models that recognize that just as women are invaluable to the development process, men are equally invaluable.
If this model that I’m describing sounds somewhat familiar, it’s probably because it sounds a lot like CLI’s model. Ever since I first heard about CLI and began looking into the work that they do, I’ve deeply admired and respected that they neither focus only on training girls and women in the Congo to be leaders, nor take a passive approach to gender inequalities. Instead, they ensure that half of each cohort is female, that there are both male and female facilitators at each Leadership Institute site, and that all of its young leaders receive lessons about female leadership. As a result, CLI is able to not only directly empower women by actively involving them in the development of their own communities, but also indirectly empower them by fostering a culture of mutual respect and cooperation between men and women. In doing so, CLI is raising up a generation of diverse young leaders who are determined to transform the Congo together.