Sarah nursed her daughter’s child on an empty breast as we sat together in a grubby hospital consulting room. Her daughter looked on with expressionless eyes, unable to comprehend quite what we were talking about. Sarah talks about her life. She struggles to provide for a family of seven: her blind husband and five children. Now she has an extra mouth to feed. Her daughter watching us had been raped repeatedly by a village man and became pregnant with a child she cannot care for: she is fourteen years old with an intellectual disability.
Across the Pacific, women like Sarah and her daughter endure the same sort of discrimination and poverty as women across the globe. In recognition of this fact, earlier this year the United Nations launched a new agency, UN Women, which embodies global commitment to give greater attention to the needs of women and girls.
Our NZ government aid programme is heading in the opposite direction. When asked about how he ensures women’s rights are paid due attention in our aid programme, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully replied that women’s rights are “not the preoccupation I bring to the projects that come to me”. Meanwhile John Hayes, the Associate spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Select Committee, responded to a question late last year about the importance of addressing violence against women in the Pacific by implying it isn’t worth investing in because “it is in their culture".
Indifferent and ignorant, these statements tell us that the men tasked with oversight and leadership of NZ’s aid to developing countries do not concern themselves with the reality that women have different needs and priorities to men. Presumably the Minister and his Associate believe their emphasis on economic development in the aid programme doesn’t require attention to women’s rights. Right?
Wrong. For argument’s sake, let’s put aside the unquestionable moral and human rights reasons for our aid programme to invest in women’s well-being and security. Let’s focus on how wrong Minister McCully and his Associate are to dismiss women’s rights in their efforts for economic development.
Under Minister McCully and the National Government, the NZ aid programme is now moving to invest heavily in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and infrastructure. All these areas involve and impact upon women in different ways to that of men. Ignoring the specific needs and skills of women will undermine the effectiveness and efficiency of our aid programme. It may also harm women, particularly women like Sarah, who are the very people an aid programme does not want to hurt.
Let’s return to Sarah. Like many women across the Pacific she juggles a myriad of activities everyday, trying to run a household, care for her children and husband, gain a cash income and produce food for her family. She will garden and fish for her family’s subsistence needs. Some days, in the small hours of the morning, she will leave her family with her sister-in-law and travel several hours to market, to sell homemade food and surplus from her garden. Once at market, she will sit, all day long, with the other women, until all her produce has been sold. Then she will make the long trip home again.
In efforts to expand incomes from agriculture or fishing, or to build infrastructure to support economic activities, the people who must be considered first by the NZ aid programme are women like Sarah. Sarah has significant skills in agricultural production yet she also needs specific assistance to increase her gain from the time and resources she invests in her garden. Investments by NZ in agriculture need to take into account Sarah’s knowledge and needs. In relation to fisheries, the NZ aid programme must ensure that any investments it makes do not undermine the ability of women like Sarah to feed their families. Women working in the informal sector, such as local markets, need infrastructure that supports their particular transportation needs and working conditions.
These are all issues that will be neglected in the NZ government aid programme because the Minister and his Associate do not believe that women’s concerns are important enough for them to think about in efforts to expand Pacific economic growth. In response to this criticism, they will argue otherwise. Don’t be fooled by their spin. None of these arguments are relevant when we have a Minister who puts his “own ruler over the projects that are coming before” him yet does not preoccupy himself with women’s rights.
This leaves the NZ government aid programme out of step globally and at risk of doing harm to women like Sarah and her daughter – the very people whose lives our aid programme should be working hard to improve.
Jo Spratt of NZ Aid and Development Dialogues (NZADDs)