One Thing at a Time Doesn’t Work for Women

By: Sia Nowrojee, Program Director, 3D Program for Girls and Women

Photo Credit: Sia Nowrojee, September 2017, Pune District, Maharashtra State, India

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”                     -Audre Lorde, activist and poet

Early in my career, I worked in a women’s health clinic as a counselor, supporting clients as they made and acted on their reproductive choices. It was a good way to learn how medical and psychosocial services combine to provide an overall experience of quality of care. It was an even better way to learn about the impact of gender on the decisions that women make.

Appointments often took hours, during which the women lamented the lost time they could have used to meet their many responsibilities: child care, working, attending classes, and more. They came from a variety of backgrounds – young and old, poor and wealthy, working in the home and outside the home – and they all had to make health and life decisions rooted in complex realities.

Those women have stayed with me through my career, infusing my work in gender and development with the understanding that life is complicated and multi-layered. Choices are made, sometimes with support and information, sometimes alone, with little to go on. Often you have little control over the decisions that affect you most. One decision is impacted by – and impacts – others. Most of us know this firsthand, as we juggle work schedules with those of our partners and children, and balance personal needs with professional and financial concerns.

I was reminded of this at a numeracy training I attended, organized by the waste pickers’ cooperative SWaCH, in Pune City, India. SWaCH members, mostly women, were learning to better manage their finances. The adult educator skillfully wove together math concepts with messages about dignity and agency, reinforcing that the women, who are family breadwinners, brought seasoned math skills they could build on, despite not being formally educated. For these busy women, an afternoon training session was as much a chance to get together as it was an opportunity to learn something new. The women were well served because that educator understood that numeracy was just one component of what they needed.

This reality was echoed outside Pune City, where I met with village women leaders organized by the NGO MASUM. Engaged in the political life of their community, these women respond to domestic violence, address health concerns, advocate for better bus service so their daughters can go to school, and run savings groups, among other things. On top of this, they tend to fields, maintain impeccable homes and the village temple, and are raising daughters with aspirations and sons committed to gender equality. Doing one thing at a time, individually, doesn’t make sense – safety, health, education and economic assets are all priorities, linked to their wellbeing and survival, and that of their families.

Women often organize this way because government and development programs fail to, requiring them to make impossible choices and overcome numerous barriers to access vital services and basic entitlements. Women are busy, negotiating the world around them and the decisions they face because they are women. To better serve women, and to achieve their own objectives, government and development programs need to accommodate those realities. Through our partnerships across government, civil society and the private sector, this is what the 3D Program for Girls and Women seeks to achieve.