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Gender Equality at the Center of American Aid

Gender Equality at the Center of American Aid
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Gender Equality at the Center of American Aid

Susan Markham, USAID’s senior gender coordinator, spoke to VOA Khmer's Ten Soksreinith recently about the agency’s efforts to promote gender equality around the world.

[Editor’s note: A recent report found that if women had the same chance to participate in the formal economy as men, it would add up to $28 trillion a year, or 26 percent, to the global economy by 2025. Achieving that means creating more opportunities for girls to go to schools and get education and skills, and expanding job opportunities for women across the world. The U.S. government works with governments all over the world through its aid arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), making it well placed to help developing countries improve the situation of women and girls. Susan Markham, USAID’s senior gender coordinator, spoke to VOA Khmer recently about the agency’s efforts to promote gender equality around the world.]

When we talk about gender equality, a lot of people think that it’s all about women, so I want to start our conversation today by discussing with you what gender equality means and what we are trying to achieve with gender equality?

Thank you very much for having me here today. At USAID, we believe in gender equality and women’s empowerment across all the work that we do. And as you said, it’s not just about women and girls. Gender is about men and boys, and women and girls, and all the roles that they play in society. So the work we do at USAID is to close the gaps and access to resources. So if the resources are education or land ownership or even citizenship, we want to make sure that women and girls, and men and boys all can do those things and have access to those resources. When it comes to decision making, we look at men and boys, women and girls and see what control do they have within their own family, society, and in the country to make sure that all those citizens in the country can have access to decision making. So, really, it’s two-sides of the same coin. Women and men, boys and girls, we all have to work together, and the goal is that in working toward gender equality and women’s empowerment, we can build a better society for all the members of the society.

With USAID’s gender equality and women’s empowerment policy, you and your team travel across the world to work with governments in partnership with USAID to promote gender equality. Have you observed what it takes for a country to achieve greater gender equality than others?

Yes, and I have to say although my team at USAID is small, we have gender champions all across the agencies, working in Washington and in all over our missions around the world who could care very much for this issue. And so in countries, we work with governments as well as members of civil society, individuals, political parties, all focused on this goal. We think that we need three different levels. First, we work with individuals to help build their capacity and willingness to take roles in the society. We work to change institutions. A lot of institutions around the world are not built for gender equality, so whether it’s a political institution or a banking institution or even the institution of social institutions, like marriage and issues of divorce do not, even though they might seem gender neutral, they treat men and women very differently. And so we look at the institutions. And then, at the third level, we have to look at attitudes because around the world, many men and women don’t believe that men and women are equal. And so we try to work to change attitudes about equality, about leadership, about gender-based violence and address these issues. What we found is we need the right combination of attitude change, institutional change and individual willingness to step up to take opportunities which are given to them. So, in the end, it’s about will. If there is a movement both from the top and the grassroots level, we see movements happen quite quickly.

We know that when girls and young women get education and skills they make a big contribution not to only to themselves but the country, but how can we ensure that the need for education and skills gets prioritized in development financing from the government and from donors?

Yes, it’s a very complex issue. First of all, we work a lot to make sure that parents believe that their girls should stay in school. Around the world, we’ve come to the point where it’s almost equal enrollment for boys and girls at the primary level. But when we get to the secondary level, there’s a huge drop off in the number of girls who continue to enroll in schools. So the first thing we need to do is make sure that parents want to keep their girls in schools, and they are willing to provide the resources that they need. At the same time, we’re working with governments around the world to make sure schools are appropriate for girls. So whether the school building, the bathroom facilities, the teachers, the materials, even the way girls and boys get to school at the secondary level. We’re trying to make sure that it’s about the safe environment, and that girls have a safe way to get to schools for those. So we have that. And then the third, as you mentioned, is we need sustainable support for those school systems. We need to make sure that governments are willing to pay those teachers on a regular basis. We need to make sure that the schools are up kept, so that’s really the political will of the government to support the programs that we’ve started.

In Cambodia, we still see increasing numbers of women experienced domestic violence. How do you look at this complex issue and what do you think we need to change to stop violence against women?

Unfortunately, gender-based violence is an issue in every country where we live and work. Here’s in the U.S., in Cambodia, and every country I’ve been to, it’s different. You know sometimes it’s private, sometimes it’s more street harassment or harassment in the workplace, but it exists around the world. So what we try to do is both work to respond when gender-based violence does happen, make sure that the services are there, make sure that we can help the survivors of it, both with the health system, with the legal system, make sure that people that surround them are appropriately responding to it.

But then we also look at the drivers. What is causing this violence? And so we look at those issues. Often times, we do a lot of attitude change and also even though it seems a little bit wonky, these issues of gender: What is a good man? What is a good woman? And if you define a good man as someone who controls his wife or his kids, then it’s hard to get around gender-based violence. When we start defining that the partnership between men and women, and how they build that in the family, and that being a good partner means supporting your spouse both financially, emotionally, with health issues. When we get to those issues, then we get to the crux of how do we prevent gender-based violence. How do we solve our conflicts through words and other means, rather than hitting or other things.

What is the scope of USAID’s gender equality and women’s empowerment program across the world? And how much is it supported by the U.S. Congress? And if the budget is cut, how this would affect the countries that receive support from the program?

Our goal is to not make gender a separate issue on the side. We don’t want to say we’re doing energy, we’re doing Ebola, we’re doing extreme poverty and then we’re doing gender over here. What we are working to do is to make sure that gender issues are taken into account, regardless of the work that we’re doing and so that’s just integral to the work. So we don’t try to have a separate line item, budget item for gender. We want to make it part of all those programs and make sure that all the staff across USAID understand gender issues, can do a gender analysis and build it into the program work that we are doing. Obviously, if any budget cuts happen that would affect USAID across the board, but we’re hoping that integration of gender, it wouldn’t be a specific hit on these issues.

Part of the USAID gender equality and women's empowerment is to empower young girls through technology, innovation and science. Could you explain how USAID works with governments across the world to help women to stay in schools and master technology and innovation in the next decade or so?

Well, young people today are using technology like never before and, you know, in many countries where we work, the whole idea of desktop computers just doesn’t happen. Young kids are going straight to mobile phones and using their mobile phones to access the internet and communicate with such a wide variety of people around the world. And so we’re working with government, but as well the private sector, groups like [sportswear brand] Nike and [computer processor company] Intel to find ways that we can reach young people and communicate with them in a way that they’re used to be in communicated with their friends. So sometimes we provide information about schooling, about the weather, whatever interests them, sometimes about gender-based violence and how it’s not appropriate. So we communicate that way.

We also try to train young men and women about how to use technology so that they can benefit from it. So we’ll do digital literacy program. We call it digital literacy programs so that it’s not just texting your friends, but how can you access information over the phone. Some cases, where it’s hard to go to school, we’re doing more online courses, so that people can retain their schooling if they are unable to go to a classroom. We’re also using it to help with economic growth, giving young people the skills that they have, that they can move into the workforce. Not everyone’s going to go the university and so we give vocational skills whether…it’s automotive, mechanics, sometimes it’s sewing, but often times more and more online and how they can use their online skills to move into a new economy.

Recently, the U.S. government has created Let Girls Learn initiative to help 60 million girls to go to school. I want to know how much USAID is involved in that Let Girls Learn initiative.

Right! We are very proud of Let Girls Learn and it’s really built on years of work that USAID has been doing for adolescent girls in schools. We have a huge program on quality basic education which isn’t defined by age. We need to provide that reading and writing skills for students around the world, regardless of their age. But we’ve also found that Let Girls Learn, as I have said before, even if the school is perfect, and teachers and the classrooms and the books are there, so many other things are going on in adolescent girls’ lives. So, we’re also looking at the health programs we provide. So is it a nutrition program [that’s needed]? Is it sexual and reproductive health program? Something that can help prevent gender-based violence.

Also, what are we doing to empower girls? Not just keeping them in schools, but can we provide mentoring? Can we provide a kind of peer-assisted learning? Can we provide sports programs? All of these things that not only add to her empowerment, but they’re adding to the way she looks at her life, because every year we keep the girls in schools and as you said before, it not only improves her health and her economic earning ability in the future, but what we’ve found is that it affects the health of her children and how likely her children are to stay in schools. And of course, that has ripple effects across the whole community, so we’re really looking at the whole girls’ education, health, economic empowerment and really trying to move girls through adolescence into adulthood.

To what extent do you think USAID’s gender equality and women’s empowerment program has been successful so far? And, moving forward, what are the challenges that USAID and its partners are facing right now?

Well, we at USAID have been working on gender issues for a long time. Under this administration, we passed the new gender policy and that has had a great effect across the agency. There are more staff than ever that have been trained in gender issues, even if they don’t work on it every single day, they understand gender issues. We have more programing that is not just the stand-alone program for women and girls, but it’s actually getting into the crux issue of gender. And it’s working with men and boys and women and girls together to empower women and be more sustainable over the long run. So, we’ve made a nice jump start.

The policy has reinvigorated the USAID’s attention to gender, so I think with what we’ve just been finishing up in New York with the UN General Assembly…[the] sustainable development goals looking ahead to 2030. These new goals both have a separate goal focused on gender equality, but, more importantly, gender is across all of the other goals as well. So, whether it’s regarding health care, maternal and child health, whether it’s regarding agriculture or violence and conflicts, gender is woven throughout it. So we are at a really exciting important time. We’re—not just USAID but other governments, civil societies and individuals around the world—are really focused on the importance of gender, and more importantly ready to get working on the issue.