Giving women the opportunities to thrive

This week as part of International Women’s Day we were asked to challenge gender inequality in our day-to-day lives, to call out discrimination and to demand real change. We were asked to challenge gender biases not just in others, but also in ourselves, because we all play a part in creating and sustaining the cultural norms that influence or limit women’s equality.

As a female CEO of an international development NGO, I see the challenges women face both here and across the world. In our office, I’m proud to say that both men and women rush off to pick up their kids from school, and women are in the rooms where decisions are made at every level of the organisation. Just as we do in our projects internationally, we try to create an environment where expectations aren’t set by gender but rather by interests, talents and passions. This is difficult work, but the onus is on all of us to keep having the hard conversations that allow us to re-imagine a world in which women’s equality is a reality.

Empowering women and girls is also one of the most cost-effective and sustainable ways to promote positive change in a community, whether here in Australia or overseas. When girls are supported to receive an education, they are more able to earn an income for themselves and their family. The children of educated women have better health outcomes, are more likely to go to and stay in school, and are more likely to have access to a diverse range of food. These impacts will last long after development organisations have left.

Over the course of my career I have also seen countless women rise up in their communities and claim their space, despite significant challenges. Through our projects across the world, I am regularly reminded that women have always led and for that matter, will always lead. Whether by founding a local savings group or by setting up small business to support their families, women have always challenged social norms. No matter how great the obstacles and challenges in their way, women will find a way.

Many of the women in our programs are making enormous strides in their communities. In our annual Lenten fundraising appeal, Project Compassion, two women in particular stand out: Oliva from Tanzania and Halima from Myanmar, for their drive not just to challenge gender bias, but to work with other women to improve their lives. Both women are leaders.

Oliva is a natural entrepreneur, building a small kiosk in her community in Tanzania from the ground up, despite never having had the opportunity to go to school. The opportunity to attend literacy and numeracy classes provided her the skills to really make her business a success. But she did not stop there. A leader in her community, Oliva set up a classroom at home to teach her neighbours and she now aims to become a pastor and run for leadership in the next local election.

Another example of a woman who chose to challenge gender inequality is Halima, widowed at just 21, who fled escalating violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2017 and arrived at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp with nothing. With the support of Caritas Bangladesh, Halima received a shelter and cooking equipment so that she could feed her family. She then participated in hygiene and sanitation training and took on the role of community trainer herself, organising the cleaning of washrooms, wells and toilets. Halima’s training became all the more invaluable as the COVID-19 pandemic struck — when safe hygiene and preventative measures suddenly became lifesaving and her knowledge helped those around her to keep safe.

I can think of no better inspiration for this year’s International Women’s Day than Halima or Oliva who challenge gender inequality in their communities. In the toughest of circumstances, these women find a way. They find a way to support themselves. They find a way to support their families. They find a way to support their communities. They live with courage and conviction every day.

Women empowering and supporting other women to thrive, both in our own communities and in communities overseas, is what drives me daily in my work. The way we treat other women here in Australia is the foundation for how we can support women internationally to achieve gender equality. We have a responsibility, not just to the women around us, but to women everywhere to provide support and compassion, so that all women can reach their full potential. We need to live every day with courage and conviction like Oliva and Jamila.

This article was first published in Eureka Street. 

Kirsty Robertson is the CEO of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church in Australia.