A campaign on the Hunger Project.
Social changes often sprout from unlikely and seemingly unpromising soils. A handful of rice, for example, can be all that’s needed to change someone’s life.
In Bangladesh, for example, a women’s collective started the long road to change with just that. The women in the group set aside a handful of rice every day and at the end of the week they combined the rice and took it to the market to sell. Each week a different woman kept the proceeds.
One woman, Rhianna, spent her money on two chickens and began selling the eggs. When she raised enough money from the eggs she was able to afford a goat and continued to generate income from the milk. Eventually she became the owner of her own small farm.
The women’s group didn’t just help each other to raise capital to start businesses, they also collectively lobbied village leaders to intervene and prevent a child marriage.
This story is just one example of the work of The Hunger Project Australia, an organisation that runs workshops aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty by empowering local women in villages in Africa, India and Bangladesh.
Local volunteers lead the workshops and provide support services for women to develop leadership skills, harness collective power through the formation of women’s groups, and support them to get involved in politics.
In a culture saturated with high-fiving self-esteem slogans and ‘reach your potential’ self-help books and corporate retreats, it’s hard to comprehend just how radical it is to be told that you deserve more in life and that you are capable of achieving it.
But this is precisely the mission of The Hunger Project. For many of these women — who have been so devalued that they have always eaten last and sometimes not at all, or were forced to be child brides because the dowry was cheaper — taking part in a Hunger Project workshop is the first time anybody has told them that they matter.
The Hunger Project is funded by individual and corporate donations but also through a partnership with Australia’s Business Chicks, a network of 27 thousand women to foster leadership and collaboration between women in business.
The group's members have the opportunity to extend themselves and develop their own leadership skills by raising funds for the charity and then traveling to meet some the women and communities who have benefited from The Hunger Project.
It’s a powerful response to the oft-heard criticism that feminism is an indulgence for white, middle-class women. While critics carp about ‘confected outrage’ and the ‘first world problems’ of middle class women, Business Chicks aren’t sitting around apologising for who they are, or what they’ve achieved. Instead they’re using their privileged position help others in the most practical way.
By changing mindsets and developing leadership skills, local women have achieved amazing results for their communities, such as improving water supply, electricity and sanitation in their villages and automating agriculture and food preparation which gets girls out of the fields and into schools.
‘We women are empowered. It doesn’t mean that somebody gave us power. It means that we stand up for ourselves and claim what is rightfully ours – education, health care, freedom to travel,’ said one participant.
And The Hunger Project is winning high profile fans.
‘The Hunger Project has been able to train women who have no education to start businesses. They then go on to transform their society,’ says David Gonski, Chair of the Australian Government Future Fund.
‘This has been a real eye-opener for me. As a male I'd had a strong suspicion, but kept it to myself, that we [men] weren't the most effective workers in the world'.
The Hunger Project also empowers women by training and supporting them to enter local government. To date they have assisted 75,000 women to be elected as village leaders in India and trained 3,000 women as ‘barefoot lawyers’ in Bangladesh and Africa to inform local women of their rights.
From a big picture point of view, The Hunger Project is a reminder that empowerment isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s a false choice to say that because, say, female genital mutilation exists, we should be less concerned about unequal distribution of domestic labour or the lack of representation of women on corporate boards.
Presenting feminist struggles in such dichotomous terms is nothing more than an attempt to silence and delegitimise women who have the power and resources to enact change. And middle class women would have a whole lot more time and energy to devote to changing the world if they didn’t have to do an unfair share of the laundry and childcare.
The Hunger Project illustrates that women’s quest for equality, here and abroad, can be connected in practical and powerful ways.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com